When a national sportswriter calls to talk about minority hiring in college basketball, folks of all races seem to get nervous.
As I sought feedback following last week's release of the "2012 Racial and Gender Report Card: College Sport" by Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport -- the report excludes historically black colleges and universities -- which states that the current pool of Division I African-American head coaches (18.6 percent through the 2011-12 season) is at its lowest mark since the 1995-96 season, people weren't sure what, if anything, they should say.
Multiple administrators passed on the opportunity. The NCAA wanted to see my questions, and then it wanted a pre-interview phone conversation before it ultimately emailed its responses.
The coaches who talked on the record always ended our chats with the same concern: "I didn't say anything that will make me look bad, right?"
I don't blame them. It's an incendiary issue, because we're uncomfortable with race as dialogue.
It's still a subject that makes athletic directors -- 89 percent of whom are white at the Division I level, per the report -- squirm. Minority coaches speak cautiously, because they don't want to be labeled as rebels or militants.
That hesitancy is a significant component in a perennial problem that's often managed but rarely attacked. An inherent defensiveness makes the subject difficult to publicly dissect. So year after year, the issue remains.
The numbers aren't too surprising, but they're worth addressing, especially when the coaching pool belies the fact that 57.2 percent of Division I men's basketball players are African-American.
"After it appeared that we had made some progress when it came to hiring men's basketball coaches of color, it's apparent from this report that progress has slowed or stopped all together, and that's incredibly disappointing," said Notre Dame women's associate head coach Carol Owens, president of the Black Coaches Association. "Not so long ago, it was the trendy thing to hire coaches of color, but I believe that those in the decision-making apparatus have turned their backs on those they were so eager to hire just a few years earlier."
Perhaps it's that simple, but I believe the dilemma is more complicated than that.
Iowa assistant Andrew Francis is an African-American who wants to lead his own Division I program one day. But like his peers, he's not seeking an easy path, just an opportunity.
He had one when Siena interviewed him for a position that was ultimately filled by Jimmy Patsos earlier this year. As he prepared for the interview, Francis had concerns about his lack of head-coaching experience, not his race.
"I think that's one of the biggest hurdles," he said. "That was the one thing that kept pressing in my mind. It wasn't that I'm a black guy interviewing for this job."
But acquiring that first job is a constant challenge for many black assistants. Perception could be part of the problem. Francis, and multiple others, referenced the idea that too many black assistants are viewed as solid recruiters but not necessarily men who can run programs.
"For a long time, if you look at a lot of successful African-American assistants, they were known for being what? Recruiters," said Francis, who praised Iowa's Fran McCaffery for his mentorship and guidance. "But you have to know a lot more than recruiting to run a program."
VCU's Shaka Smart added, "When that [recruiter] label occurs, now you get to the hiring process with the athletic director, and if he's influenced or impacted at all by that label, he's going to be less likely to hire that assistant coach, even though the truth is much different from the label."
No athletic director, university president or trustee will admit that "labels" affect hiring. And there's probably no way to prove it.
But the data suggests that black assistants have hit a ceiling in college basketball. The only way to change the current climate is to create avenues for worthy black candidates to prove their value to athletic directors and other administrators.
That demands relationships -- relationships that have been difficult for some minority coaches to forge.
"I think the biggest frustration was just trying to get a foot in the door, whether it's an interview or just getting involved and getting into the mix," said Charlotte coach Alan Major.
That mix is usually concocted by powerful men (and a few women) who are mostly white. They all want to win, and their job is to find a person who can do that.
In major college football and basketball, the job security of an athletic director is tied to the success of their most recent hires in those sports. So they all want qualified candidates. That's the chief objective.
But according to the numbers, they often choose what's familiar, too. And black isn't always familiar.
That's the barrier that Major and others referenced. Cultural divides factor into hiring, because administrators often rely on personal connections for recommendations. Sometimes those confidants fit similar profiles and thrive in similar social/professional circles, which may limit the chances of a minority candidate emerging in the hiring process.
It's called the homologous production theory, says Mark Daigneault. He's an assistant to Florida coach Billy Donovan (not an assistant coach) who has studied treatment discrimination in men's college basketball coaching through the sports management program at the University of Florida.
People tend to surround themselves with folks of similar races and backgrounds, he said. The potential ramifications of that theory in collegiate sports, per Daigneault, are uniform athletic departments and coaching staffs.
"If white administrators are more likely to network with and surround themselves with people like them, and the majority of them are white and male, then that's going to show up somewhere in the hiring process," he said.
Scott Stricklin said he wasn't looking for a minority coach when he hired Rick Ray to run Mississippi State's men's basketball program last year.
Stricklin, the university's athletic director, has helped the SEC become the nation's most diverse conference in major Division I men's basketball (seven of the league's head coaches are African-American, one is Hispanic). But before he made the choice, Stricklin turned to people he trusted. That's the norm, he said.
"It's like any job search. You call people you trust and respect to get their input," Stricklin said. "Whether I'm hiring a ticket manager or I'm hiring a head football coach, I'm going to call people I trust in that area and say, 'Hey, give me some names.' So if there's any accusation of a good ol' boy system, I guess that leads to it, but I don't know how else you get a read on people unless you ask other people who've viewed them in a setting where they weren't trying to get your job. You're going to rely on people you trust to get a recommendation."
That's a smart move for Stricklin and his colleagues throughout the country. In college sports, however, the preferred method may constrict the hiring pool, even for the administrators who desire more diversity in their respective departments.
It's not that simple, though. Stricklin said it's rare to see minorities in athletic departments who have long-term goals of becoming athletic directors.
Every person I interviewed for this column concurred.
They also agreed that addressing the lack of diversity within the Division I administrative ranks is just as important as the problem in coaching.
But Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said it might be challenging for athletic departments to attract desirable minority candidates because they might have more fruitful options elsewhere.
"For a while, [corporate America] was only hiring Ivy League-educated and top-10 business school black folks, and if you're just looking for those folks to be athletic directors, you're not going to find them, because they can make more money being lawyers and doctors and investment bankers," he said. "So you have to either groom your own or you have to take a flyer on somebody whose résumé might not be exactly what would make you the most comfortable."
The greatest obstacle within this entire quandary appears to be the absence of a fortified and proven bridge between qualified black men's basketball coaching candidates and predominately white administrators.
Sure, programs like the Villa 7 certainly help. But more sweeping adjustments might be warranted to truly disrupt the status quo.
That's why Dr. Richard Lapchick, author of the annual report card, recommends the Eddie Robinson Rule, college athletics' version of the NFL's Rooney Rule.
Lapchick, who has analyzed diversity issues in sports for nearly 50 years, said the rule would require schools to interview minorities for vacancies, which would spur progress.
"Anywhere that's been put in place, it has made things better because it just opens the hiring process," he said. "You're gonna get bogus interviews for sure, but more than likely the case is going to be even if you had no intentions of hiring that person, if they come in and they're impressive, which happens consistently in the NFL, people in the organization ... they'll remember that person."
It's a promising idea, but who would regulate the rule? The NCAA is not built like the NFL. Unless its membership agreed to it, the NCAA alone could not enforce such a requirement.
"The NCAA is a membership organization, so our colleges and universities would have to endorse such an initiative to take effect, and I don't know from a legal perspective if the NCAA could mandate that policy for all schools to follow since campus policies are determined by each college and university," said Bernard Franklin, NCAA executive vice president and chief inclusion officer, via email. "The NCAA is structured and governed differently than a league. Also, we need to understand that having a diverse pool of candidates for interviewing is imperative, but interviewing is not hiring. The issue doesn't always rest solely with interviewing, but with actual hiring."
I don't have the answers. There are clearly many layers to the issues.
But the dialogue surrounding them has been too discreet and too quiet for too long. Instead of whispering, we should scream if diversity within men's basketball and college sports is genuinely significant to us.
Fear, however, is a silencer. A broad and open discussion about this sensitive topic could facilitate change.
"One of the simplest solutions you can have is just having a dialogue or awareness about the issue," Daigneault said.
But every time folks are asked to come to the table to discuss race and its role in hiring at this level, few grab chairs.
And that's our biggest problem.