By Jordyn Perry
The Vanderbilt coaching tenure of former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse has been nothing short of controversial. However, I would argue that in this case, the controversy surrounding Jerry Stackhouse’s time at Vanderbilt has also been a microcosm of everything that it means to be a Black head coach in men’s college basketball. In the past three years, Stackhouse has an overall record of 34-39, with a win percentage of 41%. Although his record has consistently improved in each season, many have openly called for his removal citing this poor record. In response to these calls, I have one point to assert: if you are advocating for the firing of Jerry Stackhouse, maybe you should ask yourself, “Am I racist…?” At the very least, you should ask yourself if your irritation with Jerry Stackhouse and his tenure stems from concern about his coaching abilities due to a genuine understanding of basketball , or if it’s the result of the racial bias that has underlined men’s college basketball since its inception.
Of the 353 Division I men’s basketball programs in the country, only 103 of them, or 29.2%, have Black head coaches. Furthermore, this number decreases significantly as the demographics and competition level of the college are considered. When omitting all Division I HBCUs from the analysis, the statistic drops to 24.1%. When further narrowed to the top seven leagues in the country (Power 5, Big East, and the American Athletic Conference), that number falls further to 22.9%. Finally, when considering only schools within the Power 5 conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12), the percentage of Black head coaches plummets to just 13.8%. There are only 65 teams in the Power 5, meaning that it only has 9 total Black head coaches as of 2020. Although this number has improved this season, it is still not even close to representative of the percentage of Black players in men’s college basketball.
Additionally, when considering where in the Power Five these Black coaches land, and the circumstances surrounding their hiring, the patterns demonstrated previously become even more disheartening. In men’s college basketball, Black coaches are rarely given an opportunity, and when they are, they are placed in the worst situation possible. On the surface, it’s simple: most schools make coaching changes when the school has had one or more down years. However, excluding Florida State, University of Michigan, and UNC, prior to the hire of the current coach, all the teams currently led by Black coaches either had a history of residing in the basement of their conference, or were coming off an unprecedentedly terrible coaching tenure. Black head coaches in men's college basketball often are given the least desirable coaching positions available, and the context surrounding Stackhouse’s hire is no different. In fact, it might be the worst.
The year prior to Stackhouse’s employment, Vanderbilt men’s basketball was by far the worst team in the SEC and arguably the worst team in all the Power 5. The Commodores lost a record 18 straight SEC games, going without a conference win for the entire season. Stackhouse took over a program in turmoil, in addition to Vanderbilt’s unique recruiting challenges due to its academic rigor and subpar athletic history.
Not only are Black coaches often only hired into terrible situations, but additionally, they are expected to perform miracles and turn around these historically bad programs overnight. When they do not accomplish miracles, they are fired. The average minority head coaching stint is over one calendar year (up to 1.5 seasons) shorter than their white counterparts, and it’s not because of incompetence. It’s because Black coaches are often not allowed room to grow, are not allowed time to rebuild, and most of all, are not allowed grace.
When they do not perform these miracles not only is their job security immediately questioned, but they are also ridiculed by fans and media. Ranging from ignorant takes from national media personnel to the characterization of Black coaches as incompetent and careless, the manner in which Black head coaches are talked about is often slanderous in a way that few white coaches experience. A national reporter even went so far as to say that Jerry Stackhouse is “…a former NBA guy who from all accounts doesn’t value recruiting, doesn’t work that hard and is extremely thin-skinned.” The issue here is that I can count on one hand the amount of white head coaches that a national media personality would disrespect like this, but there is literally only one Black head coach I can think of that probably who would not be disrespected by national media in this way given the right circumstances: Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, as he has coached since 1986. It takes Black coaches 30+ years of success to receive the proper respect and recognition.
All of this brings me back to my point: if you are yelling for the firing of Jerry Stackhouse, you likely need to check your implicit racism. In the past three years, Stackhouse has taken over a team that entered his first season on an 18-game losing streak, was forced to start a raw freshman point guard, endured the onset of COVID-19, had their lottery-pick shooting guard suffer a season-ending injury, had their starting power-forward and SEC leader in rebounds sidelined with a knee surgery, and most recently, battled through the injury of their 7-footer, and starting two guard. Stackhouse’s tenure has been marked by more turbulence than any head coach in recent memory, and somehow still he manages to have an almost .500 record. For that, it’s idiotic to even consider firing him.
Taking a Vanderbilt team who went winless in conference play to an NCAA tournament team in three years would be a miracle, and I for one do not expect miracles. Many of the Black head coaches in men’s college basketball are dealt an impossible hand, in which the avoidance of failure is almost surprising. Jerry Stackhouse is no different, and for that he deserves patience.
I’m not asking for fans or the media to refrain from criticizing Stackhouse or other Black head coaches, so long as the criticism is of substance. However, I am asking fans, media, and athletic administrations to give Black head coaches at all levels of college basketball the same grace that you give mediocre white coaches like Stackhouse’s predecessor. Anyone who truly understands basketball should be vehemently opposed to the idea of firing Jerry Stackhouse, and if you are not, maybe it’s time to question within yourself if your concern is valid, or if you are adhering to the very same racial biases that are the reason for the lack of Black head coaches in men’s college basketball. If I had to guess, I’d say that the answer to that question is likely the latter.