|Minority coaches lacking in Division I college sports
by Nora Edinger
MORGANTOWN -- When the Mountaineers took to the field for their season opener Saturday, many of the players in full battle gear were black.
Most of those wearing headphones and West Virginia University shirts, however, were white. So were those who staffed athletic offices preparing for the event and other sports seasons.
That scenario is common throughout Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, in which the percentage of minority athletes vastly outnumbers minority athletic staff.
For example, 115 of WVU's 292 scholarship-receiving athletes from all sports were minorities as of 1998, the most recent year for which statistics were available. In contrast to that 39 percent, there are six full-time, minority staff in the 105-member athletic department, or less than 6 percent, this year.
Nationally, NCAA figures indicate minorities make up about 77 of 606 (19 percent) head coaches among men's and women's Division I basketball teams. For football, another sport in which black athletes are abundant, there are about 22 minority head coaches among 223 positions (10 percent).
Ed Pastilong is white. Garrett Ford Sr. is black. They have each been on both sides of the game.
When the two played football together in the early 1960s, Ford was among the first seven black team members at West Virginia University.
Nearly 40 years later, Pastilong is WVU's athletic director. One of four assistant athletic directors, Ford is again a minority -- this time among NCAA Division I staff.
Another black NCAA employee brought up the rarity of people like Ford and raised controversy earlier this year when he wrote an essay claiming racism is behind such statistics.
Sean Sheppard, former strength and conditioning coach for Ohio State University in Columbus, wrote for a national publication that he was disappointed in the low number of black NCAA coaches. He has since left athletics and moved to the West Coast.
"The message that athletic departments around the country are sending out to the black community is this:" wrote Sheppard, "We have little to no problem awarding athletic scholarships to African-American football and basketball players because of the money they will ultimately bring into the school. We do have a distinct problem with allowing money to exit the school by employing African-Americans. In other words, 'You can make us money, but we can't spend any on you.'"
Ford said while he doesn't negate all of Sheppard's comments, his own career and those of several minority peers have not been stymied by racism.
"I came to WVU at a time when all of America was very confused," Ford said of his early days as a football player. "It's a totally different time in America now. In the mid '60s, the civil rights law just had passed."
Ironically, Ford suspects coming to Morgantown may have been a tougher transition for him than for a campus community unfamiliar with black athletes. A native of Washington, D.C., he had had little contact with white people prior to attending a private high school in which only about five of 250 boys were black.
While there were a few incidents, such as a Confederate flag-flying episode when playing in Richmond, Va., that stand out in his mind, Ford said WVU and the football team welcomed him.
That is why, after playing for the NFL's Denver Broncos and working in banking, Ford was pleased to return, even if he was once again making university history.
"When I got a chance as a coach, my wife and I packed up the car," Ford said of becoming an assistant football coach in 1970. He was WVU's first black coach in any sport.
Still among few minority athletics employees, Ford now deals with teams that include not only a large number of minorities but international students.
"If you're going to live in this country and work, you're going to have to learn how to get along with everyone," Ford said of athletes and staff learning how to work with an increasingly diverse team. "You learn it by living it."
However, at least one WVU player said he would like to learn more about minority career possibilities by seeing minorities in specific positions.
"Coaching is dominated by white males," said senior WVU defensive back Rick Sherrod of Charleston.
"It is kind of a relief to have a black member of the athletic staff, someone you can just talk to," Sherrod said, adding that he has not found a lack of black staffing a problem in his training and development as an athlete.
It's primarily a role model thing, he said.
Finding black athlete role models has not been a stretch for Sherrod. At WVU alone, black players have been chosen as a football team captain nearly every year since 1969.
But Sherrod said he has not encountered a black or other minority coach or assistant coach except in Pop Warner and college, where two of WVU's assistant 11 football coaches are black.
This is troublesome to Sherrod, who hopes to coach high school and then college football if he does not make the ultra-exclusive National Football League draft. He has particularly found inspiration in Tony Dews, a black high school coach who is now a graduate assistant with the WVU team.
"He's slowly working his way up, too," Sherrod said.
Racism or lack of interest?
Minority members of WVU's athletic staff said racism may be less a cause of low minority employment numbers than are employment conditions that have turned off prospective employees from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and both genders.
"I'm married to my job," said Carolyn Mair, WVU assistant women's basketball coach.
Mair, whose tenor tones and Midwestern accent suggest a tall, white woman, said she surprises many recruits when they meet her. She is 5-foot-2 and a Korean native, adopted at birth by an Ohio family.
"The pool is so very small," Mair said of the number of minority applicants she has encountered when serving on hiring teams for various private colleges prior to joining WVU's staff one year ago.
"There are, particularly, a small pool of women who want to coach. Most of the applicants are men," Mair said.
Time is the issue among the women, she added, many of whom are reluctant to work that many hours during their family-raising years.
Shelly Poe, who became the NCAA's first female sports information director at a football school when WVU hired her in the late 1980s, believes money is also a big factor.
"Our athletes are majoring in business, marketing, computers, law enforcement," Poe said. "They want to make a good wage and they don't see a great return from coaching."
Comments from two senior standouts lend support to Mair and Poe's theory.
Antwan Lake, a black senior defensive tackle from Maryland, said he wants to work with youth, but not necessarily in coaching, especially not at the Division I college level.
"It's too much stress. It's a lot riding on you," Lake said of the pressure to win. He has played for WVU during seasons in which head coach Don Nehlen has been publicly vilified for losing seasons.
"It's not so dramatic in high school or coaching a Pop Warner team. It's just too much like a business atmosphere at the college level," Lake said.
For Tanner Russell, a white senior offensive tackle from Princeton, coaching is inhibitive to having a family.
"I've seen how much goes into it," Russell said. "It's hard enough as a player. The coaches are here before us and after us. If I don't make it to the pros, after football I plan on getting a job and raising a family."
Lester Rowe, WVU assistant men's basketball coach, agreed time is a major issue for anyone considering a career at the top level of collegiate athletics.
"I couldn't begin to put a number on the hours I put in," said Rowe, who is black, a former WVU and professional international league basketball player and the father of two.
"But, I'm not one of those people looking at my watch at 4 o'clock ... I enjoy it," Rowe said.
Regardless of the cause of low minority numbers, Ford worries the NCAA may be coerced into its own form of affirmative action by detractors.
"I think they're doing it for cosmetic reasons," Ford said of schools who are already touting their minority athletic staff, especially coaches.
"I think schools want to protect themselves," Ford continued. "What does that mean to say, 'I've got five, six, seven black coaches on my staff?'"
Ford, Rowe and Mair all said they have not experienced racism that has been detrimental to their careers and do not want to see blacks or other minorities hired on the basis of race in the future.
"If they want it, let them go get it," Ford said of minorities seeking such jobs.
Pastilong said such racially based hiring is unlikely to happen on a wide scale given the nature of Division I sports.
"This is a big responsibility, coaching 18-year-old kids and working on such a competitive level while they're getting a college education," Pastilong said of the pressure-packed environment in which top-level employees must thrive.
A former coach who is now involved in most athletic department hires, Pastilong said Mair's hire is an example of how appropriate staff recruiting works. She fit the profile of experience, commitment and sincerity he was looking for. Race was immaterial.
"We want good coaches because we want our student athletes to succeed in college," Pastilong said.
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.