College athletics lack of diversity in coaching impacts student decisions

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In the 1960s, Michigan State University was at the forefront of racial integration in college sports. The university’s football team often is hailed for then-head coach Duffy Daugherty’s efforts to recruit Black players.

Six decades later, only one of the 18 varsity head coaches at MSU — football head coach Mel Tucker, who was hired in 2020 — is a person of color.

The lack of diversity in coaching positions isn’t unique to Michigan State. Only 20% of head coaches at Division I schools are non-white, according to the NCAA Race and Gender Demographics Database, compared to 44% of student-athletes at those same colleges who are racial minorities.

For some individual sports, the disparities are even larger. Almost 70% of student-athletes who play basketball and football are minorities, but over 75% of head coaches are white.

Coaching diversity isn’t just an equity issue, it also can be a competitive issue for college athletics, said Allen Trieu, a Midwest recruiting analyst at 247Sports. Prospective student-athletes prioritize diversity when deciding which colleges to attend.

“Kids say that,” Trieu said. “Kids have come out and said it.”

Trieu said student-athletes want a coach who can relate to their life experiences.

“I would think that it helps to have a coach who’s been in their shoes,” Trieu said.

Michigan State officials say they are working to address racial disparities. In November, the athletic department hired Dr. Ashley Baker to the newly created position of chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. She’s been charged with developing and implementing programs focused on staff and student-athletic diversity, inclusion and community outreach, athletic department spokesman Matt Larson said.

“Michigan State Athletics is committed to ensuring that it meets the physical, mental and emotional needs of all of its student athletes,” Larson said in an email.

The athletic department also works closely with the diversity and leadership committee, a student-athlete run group focused on fostering community for student-athletes.

“MSU Athletics includes DLC initiatives in meetings with the Athletic Director and works with the group to amplify and support the student-athlete voice and perspective,” Larson said.

Larson said Michigan State considers a diverse pool of candidates when making hires. Hiring processes and candidate pools are reviewed by the university’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, he said.

Coach Thomas Wilcher’s students at Cass Technical High School in Detroit are recruited by the top football programs in the country, and five have gone on to play in the NFL. Wilcher said if colleges want to attract more prominent high school recruits, making more diverse hiring decisions is a good place to start.

“When you have a diverse staff, it also gives you the appeal that, hey, anybody can make it here,” Wilcher said.

Coaches have to be able to connect with and figure out what motivates their players, he said.

“What is that player’s angle? What does it take to make him go from A to B not just walking, but running? What makes them want to be great?” Wilcher said. “Having someone of color can give you the inside scoop on that.”

Wilcher said coaches who share the same racial identity as their athletes can relate to them in ways other teammates or other coaches may not be able to.

“It gives you an opportunity to say that, ‘Hey, he probably understands where I come from,’ or, ‘He probably understands some of the things that have happened to me or my surrounding,’” Wilcher said.

He said it’s not enough for colleges to fill empty coaching positions with people of color. Teams also need to make coaches feel included once they get there. 

Wilcher said when student-athletes see their coach, someone who is in a position of power, being mistreated, it makes student-athletes think, “How are they going to treat me when I have no authority?”

247Sports recruiting analyst Allen Trieu and Cass Technical High School football coach Thomas Wilcher discuss diversity in coaching.

Kristelle Yewah played on the women’s soccer team throughout her four years at MSU, and was one of four team captains in her final season. She graduated in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a public health minor. Yewah is now in her second year of dental school at the University of Minnesota.

Yewah, who is African American, said that during her sophomore year of college, her strength coach, athletic trainer and academic adviser were also Black.

“People don’t really understand how much of a difference it makes,” Yewah said.

Yewah describes it as “one of the best years of my life.” She said the experience provided her with mentors who helped her feel comfortable and find her own identity.

Yewah said when student-athletes deal with microaggressions or incidents of racism on their team, they worry that their coaches may not believe them or are often told that the other person “didn’t mean it in that way.”

“There’s just like different battles that come with being a person of color that only a person of color can understand,” Yewah said.

She believes that having at least one person of color, even on the supporting staff, could make it easier for student-athletes to open up about their struggles. 

“Sometimes you just internalize everything and you take it on yourself instead of being able to verbalize it with your coaches who are supposed to be like your guardian,” Yewah said.

Trieu, the recruiting analyst said the solution to the lack of diversity in coaching positions could begin at the high school level.

“I think the more that when these athletes are interviewed, the more that they say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for great academics. I’m looking for a good location and a winning culture, but I’m also looking for diversity within the coaching staff,’” Trieu said, “I think the more that student-athletes are willing to say that, I think the more schools will pay attention to that need.”