Remember the movie Glory Road, about the all-Black Texas Western University starting five that beat an all-white University of Kentucky team to win college basketball’s national championship in 1966?
The racial landscape of college basketball changed forever in 1966, even though a white coach, Don Haskins, led Texas Western (now the University of Texas—El Paso) to the title. Today, all-Black starting lineups are the norm at major colleges.
In 1984, college basketball changed even more dramatically when John Thompson of Georgetown became the first African-American coach to win the NCAA tournament known as March Madness.
Images of Thompson cutting down the nets—the ritual for the coach of college basketball’s best team—in a sport that excluded African-Americans from coaching at major schools for generations remain firmly etched in many people’s minds.
It’s still difficult for African-Americans to get the biggest jobs in college coaching, because of resistance from alumni, boosters and cowardly school presidents. College basketball has crowned a champion every year since 1939. Just three of those teams had Black head coaches: Thompson, Nolan Richardson (Arkansas, 1994) and Tubby Smith (Kentucky, 1998).
It’s worth noting that Richardson and Smith were never fully appreciated at their respective schools. Richardson filed a wrongful termination suit against Arkansas. He now coaches the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA. Smith, never popular with Kentucky alumni and boosters, took over at the University of Minnesota. Only Thompson was allowed to retire with dignity.
Will a Black coach cut down the nets this year at March Madness? The odds are long because in 2011 there are just eight Black coaches in the six major conferences from which national championship teams traditionally come: Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 10, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern.
Here are the four African-American coaches who have a shot at the title: Mike Anderson of Missouri, Lorenzo Romar of Washington, Leonard Hamilton of Florida State and John Thompson III of Georgetown. Anderson learned his sophisticated defensive tactics while working as an assistant to Richardson. Teams that aren’t used to Missouri’s defensive pressure can come unglued. Romar, a former NBA guard, has enough depth and versatility at Washington to be a threat. Hamilton’s team owns a victory over No. 1–ranked Duke this season.
Georgetown suffered a blow when point guard Chris Wright broke his hand last week. Wright is expected to be back for March Madness. If his hand is fully healed, Georgetown has the ability to beat anybody. But that’s a big if. Thompson III led Georgetown to the Final Four in 2008, so he knows what it takes. Should he take Georgetown all the way in 2011, he’ll make history as part of the first father-and-son duo to cut down the nets.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
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