Black Coaches on the Rise in ACC

The national college basketball championships are coming to a close, and while teams are reviewing successes, the Atlantic Coast Conference can be proud of its own progress. More than half of the conference's head coaches are black.

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In one of college basketball's toughest conferences, this has been another banner year for black coaches, even though they won't be pacing the sidelines at the big game tomorrow night. More than half the teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference - seven out of the 12 - are led by black coaches. Compare that with just 15 percent for Division I overall.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn spent some time with some of the ACC's leaders.

(Soundbite of dribbling)

WADE GOODWYN: Forty-three-year-old Frank Haith is one of the brightest of the rising young black head coaching stars in the ACC.

Mr. FRANK HAITH (Head Coach, University of Miami): ...right here. You got to keep - no, not right there. You got to keep going, keep going. Bam. When you get to the side, everything, you're going to be able to throw it right into him right there.

GOODWYN: Haith is in his fourth year at the University of Miami, and it was a very nice year, if he does say so himself. He beat Duke by one point in Miami, went 24-11, was invited to the NCAA tournament and advanced to the second round before getting beat by Texas by three points.

Mr. HAITH: I think this team, you know, we started out the year very well, then we finished very strong. And, you know, we did some things this year that were milestones - beating Duke. But we've also had some other great wins. You know, we won at North Carolina a couple of years ago, we won at Florida and it's very gratifying to see what we've been able to accomplish here over a four-year period.

You got to dribble hand off because that's when he's going to be open because he got the defense on his back.

GOODWYN: Haith came of age in North Carolina in the '70s and '80s watching ACC titans North Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina State and Duke wage monumental battles. Now that he's joined white coaching legends like Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, Frank Haith says he's living the dream.

Mr. HAITH: It's remarkable. I think that it speaks volumes about how far we've come. I mean, I can remember growing up in North Carolina and wanting to be a head coach eventually and wanting to coach in Atlantic Coast Conference, and then to have the opportunity to coach in this league along with six other coaches is pretty remarkable and it speaks volumes for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

GOODWYN: Six other black coaches, that is. If you think this is no big deal in this day and age, think again. The ACC represents a triumph of black head coaching success.

Mr. OLIVER PURNELL (Head Coach, Clemson University Basketball): I remember getting into this game in 1975 and, you know, there was, you know, two or three African-American head coaches, and John Thompson and George Raveling and those guys.

GOODWYN: Oliver Purnell is the head basketball coach at Clemson University.

Mr. PURNELL: I oftentimes wonder, you know, what I was thinking about in terms of, you know, setting a goal to be a major college coach. And the fact that this is happening in the premier basketball league in the country is giving hope to an awful lot of young basketball players that when their career is over that they can seek a coaching career at the highest level of college basketball.

GOODWYN: That would be those 5'10" black point guards who run the team like clockwork but are never going to make it in the NBA.

Mr. PURNELL: You know, point guards are always the smartest. Come on.

Unidentified Man #1: Taken underneath by Perry, gets it back out to Sykes(ph). Now to Potter, open three off the iron and Sykes follows with a catch and jam.

Unidentified Man #2: Boy, he timed that perfectly.

GOODWYN: Like the University of Miami, up until recently Clemson had a reputation as a football school. But Purnell's Clemson team finished third in the ACC behind Carolina and Duke this year. Clemson's fantastic season was capped by an amazing comeback against a very good Maryland team, where Clemson was down 59-39 midway through the second half.

(Soundbite of sports broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: We're at eight seconds to go in the game. He looks to go low. Ogilvy puts up a three...

Unidentified Man #4: Got it.

Unidentified Man #3: He made a three-pointer. An incredible comeback.

GOODWYN: Until recently assistant black coaches most often played the role of closer. In other words, recruiting specialists who knew how to close the deal with high school kids. Oliver Purnell says that means you're on the road a lot, not in the gym learning the Xs and Os about how to run a practice, your team, your assistants, the university administration and, last but certainly not least, the media.

Mr. PURNELL: Obviously, if that's all you do and that's the way you're viewed you won't ever have an opportunity to actually, you know, be the chief operating officer of your program.

GOODWYN: So why has the Atlantic Coast Conference become a showplace of black coaching talent? The Southeastern Conference, for example, has just one black head basketball coach. Ask ACC Commissioner John Swafford, who's watched this happen under his nose.

Mr. JOHN SWAFFORD (Commissioner, Atlantic Coast Conference): I think we're reaching a point where more and more we have quality African-Americans that have shown that they're absolutely fully capable of leading college basketball programs in a very successful way.

GOODWYN: While no black college basketball coach from the ACC has played for the national championship yet, with seven head coaches it's probably just a matter of time. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While no black college basketball coach from the ACC has yet WON a national championship, Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech led his team to the finals in 2004.]

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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Correction April 7, 2008

The audio for this story contains an error: We should have said that while no black college basketball coach from the ACC has yet WON a national championship, Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech led his team to the finals in 2004.

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