Slow as progress is, frustrating as it can be when it’s stopped in its tracks or detoured, it’s important to point out situations that prove progress is being made.
Jamelle Elliott’s hiring as the new head coach at Cincinnati makes sense for really obvious reasons. She’s been involved with UConn women’s basketball since the fall of 1992 when she came from Washington, D.C., to play for Geno Auriemma. After a year getting her graduate degree at the school, she joined the Huskies’ basketball staff.
So Elliott has played for or helped coach all six UConn title teams, three of which went undefeated. Players she’s mentored while working for Auriemma have gone on to win WNBA titles and Olympic gold medals.
If you select assistant coaches to become head coaches based on pedigree, Cincinnati’s athletic department went straight for the top shelf. Couldn’t be clearer why the Bearcats believe Elliott is a very good choice to be in charge of the program.
But here is also where the “progress” part comes in. We are not that far removed from the days when people like Jamelle Elliott were not getting these opportunities. That is to say, when African-American women were so underrepresented in the coaching pipeline that it was shameful.
In 1999, Carolyn Peck became the first African-American coach to win a Division I women’s hoops national championship. She’s still the only one. At that time, I had been covering the sport for 15 years, and I wrote then that I could think of only a few African-American players who had mentioned that their future plans might include coaching.
Little wonder … there weren’t many examples for them to follow. There were really only two truly prominent African-American Division I women’s hoops coaches for a long, long time: C. Vivian Stringer and Marian Washington.
I covered games involving Washington’s Kansas program both when I was in college at Mizzou in the mid-1980s and then when I came to the Kansas City Star in the mid-1990s.
She and I had conversations about a lot of things up until the time Washington retired for health reasons in the 2004 season. Among the topics we would discuss was how to get more African-American women into coaching. I know Washington felt dismayed about the lack of progress in that regard right up until her retirement.
The thing that always pained her the most was how much she felt young black women were affected by this notion that coaching “wasn’t for them.” One of the most insidious elements of racism and sexism is how people in some ways start to believe – in spite of themselves _ the awful, destructive myths about their own supposed “inferiority.”
If so much in a society has indicated to you that others consider you not as smart, not as capable and not as deserving just because of your race or gender (or both), it can be very difficult to always see that for what it really is: complete garbage.
It’s highly toxic stuff that can get into your head no matter how personally strong you are. Having role models and a support system of peers can be vital in helping you combat that. But who filled those roles for pioneers like Washington and Stringer?
Washington’s face and voice would reveal her grief and frustration at times during our conversations, and those moments affected me greatly. Some people criticized her because they thought she complained too much or was too “thin-skinned.” But I always thought that if you put yourself in her shoes and tried to realistically acknowledge all the things she’d faced, you’d understand where she was coming from.
She knew that young black women were being shut out of the coaching profession in large part because there were not enough mentors helping them get in the aforementioned pipeline.
That’s definitely changing. The process has been helped in part by coaching staffs getting larger. When I first started covering the sport, I recall most schools having no more than two assistants and maybe a grad assistant. Now D-I schools have larger staffs, and that opened some doors that previously weren’t there.
And, slowly, society is making progress. Cynics can say black coaches were brought on some staffs because of their success recruiting black athletes, not because someone was encouraging them to build toward becoming head coaches. But the bottom line is that whatever the reasons, they are getting more opportunities.
In the 10 years since I wrote that column about Purdue and Peck, there have been several more black women take over as head coaches. The Pac-10 currently has four: LaVonda Wagner at Oregon State, Tia Jackson at Washington, Nikki Caldwell at UCLA and Niya Butts at Arizona. The Big Ten has Felisha Legette-Jack (Indiana), Coquese Washington (Penn State) and Jolette Law (Illinois). Sylvia Crawley is at Boston College in the ACC. Traditional mid-major power Louisiana Tech has former star player Teresa Weatherspoon at the helm.
Caldwell and Butts are both from the Tennessee tree as former players for Pat Summitt, and Caldwell also coached in Knoxville, too, of course. Elliott is from the UConn tree as player and coach, while her good friend and former co-worker Tonya Cardoza played at Virginia and then coached at UConn.
Cardoza left the Huskies after the 2008 season to take over for her former Cavs teammate Dawn Staley at Temple. Staley went to South Carolina where she hopes to challenge the status quo and turn that program into something it’s never been: a consistent competitor in women’s basketball.
(I’m not going to list here every African-American woman who’s running a Division I program now. Just the fact that that is a list says a great deal.)
Tuesday, Elliott was officially announced as Cincinnati’s head coach and spoke to the local media at a press conference and then the out-of-town media on a teleconference.
The UConn beat writers, who do such an excellent job chronicling the Huskies for publications across that state, were on the conference call asking Elliott about the decision to “leave the nest,” about what advice Auriemma and Cardoza and other have offered, about how tough it was to say goodbye to the players and people in Storrs, Conn.
Elliott joked about how Auriemma had called her Tuesday morning to ask if she “felt like a head coach.” And she’d said if sleepless nights were what it felt like, then she definitely felt like one.
Elliott is prepared to run a program, and has been thinking about making the jump the last couple of years. But it’s still a big life decision for her professionally and personally _ one that’s bound to come with butterflies and some tossing and turning.
The thing is, though, Elliott has been groomed for this transition. She’s had Auriemma and Chris Dailey to work with and learn from, and she’s existed in an environment where women’s basketball is important.
Neither Elliott nor the other African-American women coaching in Division I now should ever feel they’re carrying any “weight” besides that of any coach: helping kids grow, graduate and win.
However, they do realize they are role models who can help younger women follow their path.
“I think it’s great, and hopefully that number will continue to improve,” Elliott said. “But more than anything, I just hope that eventually, one day, it’s not an issue. I think we’re moving in that direction.”