Role of race in recruiting

College coaches agree that they strive for balance and diversity on their rosters. ESPN.com Illustration

When the club coach of a BCS conference transfer called on the white, male head coach, he wanted to know why the mid-major school's women's basketball roster had only one black player. The mid-major coach explained that his list of recruits was the same as major schools with more diverse rosters. But he coached at a predominantly white school in a smallish, predominantly white city.

His is a difficult sell, the mid-major coach concedes. Though it becomes self-fulfilling, he understands the reluctance of a non-white player to commit to a mainly white school -- and vice versa.

"How would the one white player feel at Grambling?" he asked, theoretically.

When ESPN HoopGurlz conducted confidential discussions with more than 20 college coaches about recruiting issues, we wanted to know what part, if any, race played in the process. The strong, knee-jerk reaction was: none. However, after some probing, it turns out race is very much on the mind of coaches, just not as a baseline qualification.

"I don't consider race by itself, but as part of this diverse family we are trying to create," one head coach said. "One of the best parts of college basketball is developing friendships and learning about people who are different than you. Learning about people from different races, different parts of the country, different values, different socioeconomics, and different backgrounds is one of the greatest parts of the educational process. But race is only one of those important areas. It does not stand alone. But I am passionate about creating diversity and the richness of learning to value people that come from really different places."

The nearly universal sentiment was that a player would never be offered, or not offered, a scholarship because of race. However, diversity is treasured and attempted by college programs -- just not at any cost. Talent level, plus other considerations such as character and skill level, remains the overriding factor in recruiting.

"I would never take a player of color just because we need a player of color," one head coach said.

Another said, "It is always in the back of my mind because I am a white male at a predominately white school, but never factors into how and whom I recruit."

One head coach said, given a choice of two players with the same character, athleticism and skill level, she would choose in favor of racial balance, according to the current makeup of her roster.

Race can be a factor, several coaches pointed out, in negative recruiting. However, as one asserted, "The race card seems to get played more when the team [employing it] isn't successful."

Racial makeup of a coaching staff or roster of a rival school is the way the race card usually gets played in recruiting. One prominent program in the East frequently is targeted this way with non-black recruits, for example.

"We recruit according to playing style," said the recruiting coordinator at that school. "A lot of people think we focus on African Americans, but I saw Samantha Logic [the No. 10 recruit in 2011 from Racine, Wis.] in the spring and couldn't stop raving about her. Our staff is always looking for players who fit our style and she did. We wish we could be more diverse -- it just doesn't always happen that way."

But even that coordinator said players can be typecast according to racial stereotypes, saying that, among recruiters, "everyone knows if you're looking for shooters, you go to the Midwest."

Recruiting can follow racial lines, some coaches said, because it is built on relationships and it is natural for some to feel more comfortable when there are commonalities such as race or, as one put it, "a shared urban perspective."

As one assistant coach said, "Recruiting is all about relationships. I do not think race plays a factor once you build that relationship; however, the relationship has to be built."

Racial makeup of a campus most often was cited as the main determinant of race as a factor in recruiting. One black head coach said it was difficult to recruit players of color to her school because the student body is only 3 percent minority. She said she may even hesitate to go after players of color too strongly because "I wouldn't want them to feel ostracized."

Many coaches offered similar sentiments, citing the need for recruits to feel "comfortable" in a given setting.

"It's hard to be the first black kid or the first white kid or the first Asian kid in a program," one coach pointed out.

Most of the coaches who participated in this discussion stressed that most racial issues could be addressed by consistently striving for diversity.

"I don't recruit race," one experienced head coach said. "I like balance. Even when talking about international players. School itself can provide so much diversity itself that I feel like no matter what, my kids will find balance. Rather than race, it's all about personality and fit for me. Making my team feel as comfortable as possible. It's all about balance."

Interviewers for ESPN HoopGurlz included Lisa Bodine, Chris Hansen, Kara Howe, Mark Lewis, Glenn Nelson and Kelvin Powell.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.