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High Coaching Turnover Highlights Racial Inequalities

Turnover has always been a part of major-college basketball, but the pressure to win—and win now—has only intensified in recent years. That pressure has led to increasing fallout among coaches, I found as I researched this week’s cover story.

Over the past five years, more than 230 head-coaching positions in Division I men’s basketball have turned over, affecting nearly two-thirds of big-time programs. Eighteen institutions actually changed coaches twice in the past five years, while two universities—Florida International and Texas Tech—have gone through three head coaches in that time.

Rus Bradburd, who spent 14 years as a Division I assistant men’s basketball coach before becoming an author and professor, says many people are complicit in that churn, including coaches who constantly reach for the next-biggest stage. But he lays much of the blame on college presidents.

“People making the decisions are caught up in this quick-fix idea,” says Mr. Bradburd, now an assistant professor of English at New Mexico State University. As a result, he says, few head coaches get a chance to finish what they started.

Division I assistants are an often-overlooked casualty in this increasingly unstable system. My piece looks at one of those coaches, Elwyn McRoy, a former Big 12 assistant who has had 12 coaching jobs over his 16-year career. He spent this season coaching at a small Division II college in Alabama, where he lived out of an RV.

His goal was by the end of this season to make it back to Division I, where he hoped to earn enough money to help support his family. If he didn’t land by the Final Four, he said in February, his coaching days were numbered.

Like a lot of black coaches, Mr. McRoy has made his mark as a recruiter. Unfortunately, that’s the only path available for many African-American coaches, who hold less than 40 percent of the roughly 1,000 jobs for major-college assistants, according to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. (Meanwhile, 60 percent of Division I men’s basketball players are African-American, while an even higher percentage of starters in many power programs are black.)

Mr. Bradburd says the recruiter label is a stigma for many black assistants.

“Their job is to deliver the players, and the white guy is the X-and-O guy,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s racism exactly, but it’s a stereotype. The black coach does the recruiting, and the white coach breaks down film and explains things.”

Stereotypes are not the only obstacle that Mr. McRoy has had to overcome. His inability to stay in one place has probably hurt his chances of gaining a deep understanding of any particular style of basketball, says Mr. Bradburd, who worked alongside Don Haskins and Lou Henson, two legendary coaches, before retiring at age 40, in 2000.

“In some ways, working for a bunch of different coaches confuses you, because you’re not grounded in any one system,” he says.

Mr. Bradburd, who coached at the University of Texas at El Paso and New Mexico State University, is glad he got out of basketball. “There are a lot of guys holding onto the pipe dream that something good is going to come of this,” he says. “I don’t know too many happy old coaches.”

But he hasn’t left the game entirely. His latest book, Make It, Take It (Cinco Puntos Press), follows a fictional assistant men’s basketball coach and his drive to lead a top program. The story delves into the complicated relationships between players and coaches, and examines the differences between blacks and whites and how they are treated.

I won’t spoil the ending of Mr. Bradburd’s book—or my story about Mr. McRoy. But I will say this: One of them ends well for the main character, and one of them doesn’t.

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