Trends in transferring, playing experience and race among DI men's basketball coaches

What can we learn about current head coaches? They, too, transferred with regularity as college players, and they're now more diverse thanks to 2021, but hiring practices still have a ways to go.

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Current DI head coaches transferred at a rate not too dissimilar from the alleged ‘transfer epidemic’

NCAA Research data released in July 2020 found that 29.8 percent of Division I men’s basketball players during the 2018-19 season were transfer students, which was the highest percentage in the sport since the data was first collected in 2004. The NCAA found that “about 40 percent” of all men’s basketball players who enroll at a DI school directly out of high school leave that school by the end of their sophomore year.

An analysis conducted by Out of Bounds found that among the current DI head coaches who played basketball collegiately – anywhere from the junior college or community college ranks up to the DI level – 27.8 percent transferred at least once while in college.

All of the current DI head coaches attended college prior to the creation of the transfer portal in October 2018 and many played collegiately prior to the modern social media age, which is sometimes cited in connection to the increasing number of players who transfer. In an effort to analyze the playing and coaching backgrounds of current DI men’s basketball head coaches, Out of Bounds analyzed every current DI head coach, including acting and interim head coaches, using school-published biographies and press releases, Sports Reference and related media coverage.

According to Verbal Commits, 1,689 DI men’s basketball players (and counting) have entered the transfer portal this year, which has led to phrases such as “transfer epidemic” being said in earnest, then often sarcastically, in quotes, in response by defenders of player movement.

Even prior to the start of an actual pandemic, the unironic use of “transfer epidemic” felt extreme. A study published this year in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics found that “in terms of performance and opportunity changes, transfer players averaged significantly more games, minutes, usage rates, and win shares in the seasons following a transfer.” Baylor won the 2021 NCAA Tournament with transfers making up three of its top four scorers, and four of its top six. In the national championship game, Baylor beat a Gonzaga team that had transfers as its fifth and seventh-leading scorers on the season.

When Texas Tech finished as the national runner-up in the previous NCAA tournament in 2019, three of its top five scorers were transfers. In 2018, Villanova’s leading scorer in the national semifinals was a transfer, Eric Paschall, who was the team’s fourth-leading scorer during its national title run.

There’s a chance your Modern-Day National Title Contender™ is built around, or complemented with, a transfer or three, and among the current DI head coaches who played college ball, almost three out of 10 transferred during their college careers – and some transferred multiple times.

Almost a quarter of white head coaches didn’t play college basketball, while almost every other head coach did

Roughly 54 percent of current DI head coaches played basketball at the DI level, including roughly 22 percent who played professionally in the U.S or internationally. However, there are notable differences in the typical playing experiences of DI head coaches when they’re examined collectively based upon their racial/ethnic backgrounds. The NCAA Demographics Database lists race/ethnicity categories, including white, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, American Indian/Alaska native, native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and two or more races. The data in the NCAA Demographics Database was self-reported by the NCAA’s member schools.

According to the NCAA Demographics Database, 56 percent of DI men’s basketball players during the 2019-20 season are Black, yet only 28 percent of head coaches that season are Black, as the percent of Black head coaches was exactly half the percent of players that are Black. In the Power Five conferences, the percent of head coaches during the 2020 season who are Black was half of the Division I-wide figure: just 14 percent.

Just six DI head coaches during the 2020 season reported their racial/ethnic background as one other than white or Black.

At the assistant coach level, 48 percent of DI assistant coaches during the 2020 season are Black, 46 percent are white and six percent are of another racial/ethnic background, according to the NCAA Demographics Database, showing a decrease in representation from the player level (56 percent) to the assistant coaching pool (48 percent) to the head-coaching level (28 percent).

On average, Black head coaches are more likely to have played at a higher level than their white counterparts.

Just 3.7 percent of current DI head coaches who are white played in the NBA and 17 percent of white head coaches played professionally, including those who played in the NBA, compared to 14.7 percent and 33.6 percent, respectively, of head coaches of other racial/ethnic backgrounds. For the purposes of this analysis, coaches had to appear in at least one regular-season NBA game in order for their playing career to include NBA experience.

Less than half of white head coaches played DI college basketball (45.2 percent), while more than 70 percent of head coaches of another racial/ethnic background played at the DI level. While almost every DI head coach who’s Black, Latino, Native American, or American Asian or Pacific Islander played collegiately at some level (96.6 percent), including 98.2 percent of Black head coaches, nearly a quarter of white head coaches didn’t play college basketball (78.8 percent played in college).

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Playing in the NBA doesn’t guarantee one will be successful as a head coach. Just look at five-time NBA All-Star Chris Mullin, who compiled a 59-73 record in four seasons at his alma mater St. John’s, or two-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas, who went 26-65 in three seasons at FIU.

Likewise, the inverse isn’t guaranteed, either. Just because you didn’t play professional (or even college) basketball, doesn’t mean you can’t become a successful head coach. Among the coaches whose teams made the Final Four last season, three didn’t play college basketball and none played at the DI level.

There are almost as many white DI head coaches who attended, but didn’t play at, Indiana as there are total DI head coaches of another racial/ethnic background who didn’t play college basketball at any level but still worked their way to the first chair on the bench.

Given the contrast between the percent of DI players who are Black compared to the percent of Black DI head coaches, the playing careers of current Black head coaches are worth highlighting. While there’s roughly three Black head coaches who played DI basketball for every four white head coaches who played at the DI level, Black head coaches combined to score roughly 90 percent of the total points that their white counterparts combined to score in DI competition.

In their NBA careers, Black head coaches who currently coach at the DI level combined to score nearly 15 times as many points as their peers who are white – more than 140,000 points compared to less than 10,000. Even when adjusted on a per-player basis, Black head coaches who played in the NBA scored, on average, almost as many points as the nine white DI head coaches who played in the NBA scored in their careers, combined.

On average, current DI head coaches who are white have been a DI head coach at 1.83 schools (including a coach’s new school if he was hired in 2021) and white head coaches have an average of 10.5 seasons of DI head coaching experience (not including partial seasons as an interim head coach or the 2021 season for schools that didn’t compete last season). For DI head coaches who are of another racial/ethnic background, they’ve been a DI head coach at an average of 1.62 schools for an average of seven total seasons.

While one year doesn’t make a trend, racial/ethnic representation among DI head coaches improved in the latest head coaching cycle. In a list of head coaching changes compiled by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, 33 of the 59 head coaches hired during the offseason (including those who previously served as the school’s interim head coach) are Black or Asian American. That’s roughly 56 percent – the same percentage of Black players among all DI men’s basketball players in 2020.

You only have to look at the most recent Final Four field to dispel any notion of high-level playing experience being a prerequisite for high-level coaching, but when evaluating the recent history of DI men’s basketball hiring decisions on the whole, high-level playing experience appears to oftentimes be a prerequisite in the hiring of Black head coaches, who are still in the minority, holding less than a third of the 357 positions available at the DI level.

It’s worth asking why.

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“I think what’s been helpful for me is that in my career, I grew up very poorly covering the women’s basketball team at my high school for my school student newspaper. That, very early on, gave me the idea, the understanding that basketball is not a single-gender sport. I think I’ve been privileged also now to get to cover for a couple years softball and to get to cover a little bit of women’s basketball as well. It’s a reminder that, ‘Hey, just because one side of sports gets more coverage doesn’t mean that it’s the one that’s necessarily the best or the ones whose records are the most important.’”

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