PRINCETON, N.J. - Sydney Johnson spent the past 3 years on John Thompson III's bench. More important, he spent the past 3 years in John Thompson Jr.'s presence.
A student of African history himself, Johnson knows well
the road the elder Thompson walked. He is remembered now as confrontational and controversial but he also happened to be
a college hardwood pioneer, the first African-American basketball coach to win a national championship, a man who stared racism in the eye and didn't blink.
Thanks in part to Thompson Jr., when Johnson yesterday was introduced as Princeton's new head basketball coach, the only time the word "diversity" came up was when Johnson talked about his varied basketball
Thanks in part to Thompson Jr., with Johnson's hiring yesterday, six of the Ancient Eight's head basketball coaches are
"Clearly all of us want to follow in his footsteps and the standards he's set," Johnson said. "But at the end of the day, he did all he could do so all of us young black coaches don't have to deal with all of that. We can be met on our own merits, on an individual basis of what we bring to the table. You look at him, George Raveling, John Chaney, I watched those men and what they did and their sacrifices make it easier for me. I don't have to deal with all the
challenges, none of which I would run from, but it's not
the necessary job requirement
it was 20 years ago."
No, it's not. When John
Thompson III followed his
father's footsteps into the Final Four earlier this month, his
race was never even an issue.
Basketball, in fact, long has been ahead of its football
Neanderthal brethren when it comes to racial diversity. Bill Russell served as a player-coach for the Celtics in the 1960s.
But for some reason this Ivy League thing seems different. Maybe it's because the Ivy League stereotype of the popped collar on the alligator shirt of
the privileged prep school kid not only still exists but is perpetuated.
Or maybe it's because as the
institutions that are supposed to house our best and brightest, where four of the eight university presidents are women, this is what we want to see.
"We had a number of African-American players on my high school team," said Princeton
athletic director Gary Walters, who played under legendary coach Pete Carril at Reading High. "When I came to Princeton, it was clearly a different
environment. Dave Lawyer was the only black player on our team and when he was here, I was involved in helping him get
a bid to the Ivy Club [a social club]. So Dave was the first
African-American to get a bid and I took great pride in that.
"I feel the same responsibility to absolutely being progressive and proactive when it relates to the representation on our staff."
The thing is the Ivy League, like the rest of college sports, frankly remains at a strange crossroads when it comes to
racial diversity. Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association said he had hoped that this year's Super Bowl, where Lovie Smith led the Bears and Tony Dungy the Colts, would have been a wake-up call for everybody but he also is smart enough to recognize that as much as he might not like it, progress rarely gets cited for speeding.
Today there are cases to celebrate and causes to cringe.
The notion that Johnson's
race clearly wasn't even an issue yesterday is reason to shout out loud.
"He wasn't hired because
Harvard hired Tommy Amaker, or because I'm at Columbia and my brother is at Yale," said Joe Jones, the former Villanova assistant who is currently the head man at Columbia. "He was hired because he is the right man for that job, period."
But the fact that the eight Ivy League schools offer 226 other varsity sports and only seven
are headed up by African-Americans is reason to cringe.
Penn's lone African-American coach is Gwen Harris, of the women's track and field and cross country teams.
Penn State introduced
Coquese Washington as its
women's basketball coach
yesterday, officially closing the book on what at best can be
described as a tumultuous 27-year Rene Portland run.
But Washington is the only
African-American coach for the state university's 29 varsity sports and the first to be hired since Jerry Dunn resigned as men's hoops coach 4 years ago.
The Atlantic Coast Conference counts six African-American
basketball coaches among its
The Southeastern Conference has 12 men's basketball coaches. Georgia's Dennis Felton is the lone African-American. The Big East has three African-Americans among its 16 schools.
Columbia, on the one hand, should be lauded for hiring Norries Wilson, making him the first African-American coach in Ivy League football history.
But then there is the fact that Wilson is one of just five black coaches in all of I-AA football.
And perhaps most damning
of all, Division I-A football has fewer African-American coaches than Elizabeth Taylor had husbands.
There are a grand total of six (impress your friends with this embarrassing piece of trivia by naming them - Buffalo's
Turner Gill, Kansas State's
Ron Prince, UCLA's Karl Dorrell, Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, Washington's Tyrone Willingham and Miami's Randy Shannon) out of 119 jobs.
So while yesterday marked a banner day for Johnson, for
Princeton and for the Ivy League, the banner remains hung a little crooked.
"I personally don't subscribe to the idea that progress has to move slowly," Keith said. "It's been time enough that we shouldn't even be talking about this. But every hire, we think
is great. It matters. Whether
you're talking about a basketball coach in the ACC or a basketball coach in the Ivy League, whenever a person of color gets an
opportunity, it matters. It
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