The NCAA has been hosting the women’s basketball tournament since 1982, yet this is the first time we will see two African-American head coaches in the Final Four. This is truly a historic moment you won’t want to miss.
No. 1 South Carolina, led by legendary head coach Dawn Staley, will take on No. 1 Stanford at 6 p.m. ET. No. 3 seed Arizona, led by up-and-coming coach Adia Barnes, will square up against No. 1 UConn at 9 p.m. ET.
Gender aside, having two African-American head coaches take the floor during the women’s Final Four is unheard of. But the fact that they are both females is a huge win for women in sports because Staley and Barnes are just two of 13 Black female head coaches in Power Five conferences this season. Four of which were hired last year, and seven of the 13 coach in the same conference, the SEC.
Dawn Staley talked about why representation at this level is so important ahead of Friday’s Final Four games:
“There are so many Black coaches out there that don’t get opportunity because, when ADs don’t see it, they don’t see it, and they’re going to see it on the biggest stage of a Friday night that two Black women are representing two programs in the Final Four, something that has never been done before. Our history here in women’s basketball is so filled with so many Black bodies that for this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue, but we’re proud.”
Staley is correct, NCAA women’s basketball is diverse, but the diversity does not sit at the top. According to NCAA diversity research data, between 2012 and 2020, there was only a three percent increase in Black head coaches in women’s basketball, going from 21 percent to 24 percent. There was a seven percent increase in the assistant coaching positions, from 39 percent to 46 percent.
While these increases did result in a decrease in the majority of white coaches, at both the head coach and assistant coaching positions, those changes feel minor given that it has taken just under 10 years to make such considerably small shifts.
Representation matters. … Not just give them the job. Bring them in. Interview them. If you don’t hire them, let them know why. Let them know why so we can continue to work on and just perfecting our craft and our profession because there are a lot of people out there that aren’t getting the opportunities that they should, because this is exactly what can happen when you give a Black woman an opportunity.”
The data also showed that in 2020, Black female head coaches made up 17 percent of all head coaches in the women’s game. That is a three percent increase from 2012. The numbers support Staley’s claim that opportunities have not been awarded at a rate that promotes true strides towards diversity or embracing a belief in Black women’s abilities in head coaching roles.
With this Final Four matchups taking the national stage on Friday, and the talents of two female African-American coaches on full display, hopefully, this game can serve as the launching pad for more diversity in women’s college basketball. It could lead to more Black female coaches finally getting opportunities to take on head coaching gigs at Division I institutions. But that remains to be seen.
Dawn Staley’s road to coaching at South Carolina
Staley has had a remarkable career on the court as both a player and a coach. As a player at the University of Virginia, she led her team to three Final Fours and one national championship game. She finished her career there with 2,135 points and held both the NCAA record for steals (454) and was the ACC’s all-time leader in assists (729), both of which have been broken since then. Her jersey, No. 24, is retired in Charlottesville.
After her collegiate career, she went on to play overseas and eventually started in the ALB and then the WNBA. Staley was the ninth overall draft pick by the Charlotte Sting to the WNBA in 1999. She went on to play for the Houston Comets later in her career and also had a long career with USA Basketball, helping the Americans win three gold medals in women’s basketball in 1996, 2000, and 2004.
Staley’s coaching career had already begun before she retired. In 2001, Temple athletic director Dave O’Brien convinced her to become head coach of the women’s basketball team while she was still playing in the WNBA. Staley continued coaching and playing for years until she retired from the sport in 2006. In May of 2008, she announced she would leave Temple and take a position at South Carolina.
The rest is history. While it did take a while to see South Carolina consistently in the later rounds of the tournament, under Staley’s leadership, the program has made it to all three of their program Final Fours and won a national championship in 2017.
Adia Barnes’ road back to Arizona
Adia Barnes’ story has brought her full circle back to her alma mater. Barnes was a member of the Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team from 1994-1998. During her time there, she helped the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in her junior season. Despite being undersized for her post position, 5’11 Barnes racked up individual records, including career points and rebounds. He became the first women’s player from Arizona to ever be drafted into the professional leagues.
Barnes was drafted in 1998 by the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs and went on to play through 2004 in the league. From there, she took her talents to leagues overseas, where she continued to play until 2010.
In 2011 she joined the University of Washington women’s basketball coaching staff under head coach Kevin McGuff. She spent six years in the program, helping the Huskies to three tournament appearances and including one Final Four appearance in 2016 before taking the job at her alma mater Arizona.
It wasn’t the easiest transition. The Wildcats finished below .500 in her first season and won just six games in her second. Yet, she continued to build. From taking her team to their first NCAA appearance when she played in college to taking them to their first Final Four as a coach, her coaching career has come full circle.
Perspective from other current and former black female coaches in women’s basketball
The excitement from other women who have staked their claim in the women’s basketball history books has been more than visible. Former player, coach, and now analyst Carolyn Peck shared her excitement for this moment as she detailed her time as a coach and how the path to this moment has been paved.
Peck had a robust coaching career, coaching at Tennessee, Kentucky, Purdue, Florida, and Vanderbilt. In 1999, Peck became the first Black female head coach to win a national championship with the Purdue Boilermakers. She is just one of many African American coaches who have worked her way through coaching and have been waiting for this moment.
The legend and head coach for the Rutgers women’s basketball team, C. Vivian Stringer, also expressed her excitement in a letter to both Staley and Barnes. She mentioned that she had dreamt of this day. Stringer was one of the first Black female coaches to make a ripple in the sea of college coaching, having coached in the first NCAA tournament in 1982, and lead her team to the Final Four.
Joni Taylor, current women’s head coach at Georgia, is in full support of this milestone. Taylor and Staley made history on March 7th, becoming the first Black head coaches to face off in a women’s Power Five tournament championship. Said Taylor:
“You can’t dream what you can’t see. So (the SEC title game) was a chance for people to dream something that they haven’t seen before.”
History in the SEC Tournament— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 7, 2021
Today's meeting between Dawn Staley's @GamecockWBB and Joni Taylor's @UGA_WBB is the first women's conference tournament final between two Black head coaches in Power Five history! pic.twitter.com/P9sww0B17A
That dream is taking on new wings this Friday. Hopefully, it will continue to build on the foundation that can create diversity in head coaching positions at the Division I level for not solely African-American coaches but specifically Black female coaches.
This Final Four is about more than just the game; it’s about a larger conversation of diversity, opportunity, and equality, and you won’t want to miss it.