In the business he has chosen, which is college basketball coaching, LeVelle Moton could find few better models for career growth than John Calipari. In his late 20s, Calipari took over one of the most forlorn programs in NCAA history and elevated UMass to Final Four status inside a decade. He went on to coach in the NBA and to reach Final Fours at Memphis and Kentucky and, ultimately, to being inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
When Calipari told Moton, “Velle, make North Carolina Central your ‘next job’,” Moton didn’t understand what he meant at first. Gradually, he came to understand it as taking the job he had and working to elevate everything involved: pay, contract term, fundraising, facilities, status.
Moton calls it, “The best advice of my life.”
Which is not to say if there’s a true next job out there, somewhere at or near the Power 5 level, where the contracts are measured in millions and the path to March Madness is not nearly so narrow, Moton would not, at the least, be curious.
Would there be interest in him, though? Moton’s resume is among the most impressive among coaches who got started in the 21st century. He became head coach in 2009, when North Carolina Central was so new to Division I that it didn’t have a conference to call home. Within five years, he’d elevated the Eagles to their first March Madness appearance. They’ve finished in the top three in their conference regular season seven times in the past nine years, won it four times and reached the NCAA Tournament four times and the NIT once.
The conference in which the Eagles compete, though, is the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, an amalgamation of HBCUs commonly referred to by those who follow the game closely as the Me-ack but commonly disregarded by those empowered to hire college basketball coaches at the game’s higher levels.
Simply put, the “coaching ladder” that candidates often follow to get the most lucrative jobs — from success in “one-bid leagues” to opportunities at major-conference programs — doesn’t extend to the conferences composed of HBCUs: the MEAC and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC).
“They’ll use any kind of excuse whatsoever to prevent you from going from an HBCU to a Power 5. I think it’s a racial undertone to it, if you want me to be completely honest,” Moton told Sporting News. “I think it’s systemic.”
Since 2000, you will find only six examples of coaches working in the MEAC or SWAC who accepted jobs in (slightly) higher-ranked leagues. Two happened to be Caucasian: Steve Merfeld, who went from Hampton to Evansville in 2002, and Ryan Ridder, who left Bethune-Cookman in April for UT Martin.
One was Mike Davis, an African American who began his head coaching career at Indiana after Bob Knight’s sudden dismissal in 2000. Davis coached the Hoosiers to the NCAA championship game before resigning from IU four years later. After a stop at UAB, he took the Texas Southern job in 2012 and led the Tigers to four SWAC Tournament titles in five years before landing the job at Detroit Mercy.
Another was Sean Woods, a Kentucky Wildcats hero from their 1992 Elite Eight team who began as a head coach at SWAC member Mississippi Valley State before returning “home” to the Bluegrass State for the job at Morehead State. James Green had coached eight years at Southern Mississippi, against such heavyweights as Bob Huggins, Denny Crum and Calipari, then got the Mississippi Valley State job a year after he was let go by the Golden Eagles. He led MVSU to two regular-season titles and an NCAA trip in three years and was able then to land the job at Jacksonville State in the Ohio Valley Conference.
For a Black coach without that sort of built-in name recognition, the only relevant example to suggest that there’s a road to coaching in a higher-rated league is that of Anthony Evans, who coached Norfolk State from 2007 to 2013 and then became head coach at Florida International in Conference USA.
To find others with experiences similar to Evans, one must travel all the way back to Jeff Capel II getting the Old Dominion job in 1994 after one season and an NCAA Tournament appearance at North Carolina A&T, or Temple president Peter Liacouras hiring John Chaney away from Division II Cheney State in 1982. That decision led to Temple reaching four Elite Eights and Chaney’s induction to the Naismith Hall, but it appears to have set no precedent.
“I think as a competitor, I’m always willing to climb the ladder,” Norfolk State head coach Robert Jones told SN. “I can’t say I’m always looking, but I’m always willing to do something. But as far as being sought out — there hasn’t been a lot of sought out.”
Jones and Norfolk State have provided the fiercest competition for Moton’s teams in the MEAC. His .742 winning percentage in conference play is the fifth-best nationally among those who’ve coached at least 100 games. The Spartans won double-digit league games in every season he has coached, save this last one, when a pandemic-truncated schedule saw them finish 8-4 and in first place. They then won the MEAC Tournament, entered the NCAA Tournament and defeated Appalachian State of the Southern Conference in the First Four.
But Jones contends that success in the MEAC is “not taken as seriously, for whatever reason” as in other mid- and low-major leagues — even though this season alone Norfolk State defeated James Madison (which won the Colonial Athletic Association), Radford (second in the Big South) and George Mason (which finished sixth, ahead of Dayton and Richmond, in the Atlantic 10).
“For some reason,” Jones said, “the MEAC success does not get taken as seriously as Big South success.”
Since 2000, Big South power Winthrop has seen two of its coaches (Pat Kelsey to College of Charleston and Gregg Marshall to Wichita State) leave for more lucrative jobs. Radford sent Mike Jones to UNC Greensboro. In the Southland, Bob Marlin was able to move up to Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin sent Danny Kaspar to Texas State and Brad Underwood all the way to Oklahoma State.
The Southern Conference has seen three head coaches take major jumps in the past three years: Wes Miller from UNC Greensboro to Cincinnati, Steve Forbes from East Tennessee State to Wake Forest and Mike Young from Wofford to Virginia Tech.
I first wrote about this sort of obvious disparity in a column for Sporting News more than two decades ago, and clearly little has changed. It came up again when I was a guest on a recent “The Field of 68” podcast panel that included several Division I assistant coaches and two members of the search firm TurnKey. I asked about whether there is a resistance from those doing the hiring to candidates from HBCUs, and the response from managing director Chad Chatlos became controversial on Twitter because his answer included the line, “There’s got to be a little hustle, a little self promotion, a little marketing done — and the guys in the HBCUs, they aren’t using an agent, they’re not out there putting their name out there.” That clip was pulled out and posted on Twitter, and Chatlos drew substantial criticism.
“I didn’t like how we sounded in the snippet,” Chatlos told SN. “Now, if you listened to the whole podcast, because we were being repetitive on some of the things that had been asked earlier, we didn’t cover again like we should have in that one specific question. Anybody that listened to the whole podcast called me and said, ‘Hey man, loved the podcast.’ Anybody that saw just the snippet was like, ‘Ah, you probably could have answered that better.’ I get that.
“I answered the question and said I don’t see bias, to be honest with you, but after kind of educating myself — all that stuff that came was actually good for me. It allowed me to step back and say: Hey, how are you thinking about this? How are you looking at this? Maybe you need to get more educated on it.
“So I called LeVelle. I talked to some other coaches. One of the big learning points for me was just the way the HBCU coaches kind of look at what they’re doing, how they’re viewed externally and internally, the lack of resources at a lot of their programs, what they’re asked to do with very little resources.
“I always knew there was quality coaching in the HBCUs. I never had a doubt about that. But I think there’s just a little bit of an educational point for me to see there’s a big push for diversity coaches to get opportunities and coaches of color to get opportunities, but the segment that’s been not focused on enough — by athletic directors, search firms, agents, the media, anybody that’s been put in the position to raise the awareness or understanding of how good some of these coaches are — we just have to do a better job to understand what kind of job these HBCU coaches are doing.”
The hurdle the coaches in the MEAC and SWAC face may be most cogently summarized in this factoid: Tennessee State, an historically black university founded in Nashville in 1912, has competed in the Ohio Valley since 1986, with such programs as Murray State and Austin Peay. Tennessee State has seen two Black coaches in the past decade leave for jobs in higher-ranked conferences: John Cooper to the Miami RedHawks in 2012 and Dana Ford to Missouri State in 2018.
There may be no better representation of the attitude toward the two HBCU leagues than this.
“I wouldn’t call that unusual, because it is consistent,” a veteran Power 5 athletic director told Sporting News. “Coaches at traditional HBCUs are between a rock and a hard place.
“First of all, it’s great to become a head coach because it’s an opportunity to build a program that’s successful within those conferences. But what some teams have to do with their schedules in those conferences puts them in a difficult spot before they even play a league game.
“There are some opportunities that I hope the situation will be changing. There was a strong push toward diversity in the hiring process this spring, and that could help make a difference.”
Moton told SN that he has turned down probably six or seven jobs that would be considered mid-major. He can do this because he has been able to command, at NC Central, a 10-year contract at a salary level commensurate with what those other positions would have paid.
Moton is coaching the school where he played and earned his degree — he finished with 1,713 career points, third in N.C. Central history — just minutes from where he grew up in Raleigh and starred at Enloe High.
“It makes it difficult to leave when you see the revolving door out there,” Moton said.
That doesn’t mean it would be impossible. There have been two searches for in-state ACC positions in the past four years for which he did not believe he was strongly considered. There were 15 major-conference jobs open this past spring, and nearly half were filled by minority candidates, but none by Moton or another HBCU coach.
“I think a lot of times that narrative is put out by some of the decision-makers to use as a built-in excuse on why they shouldn’t offer a job: Oh, he’s devoted to Central because that’s his alma mater,” Moton said. “I’m watching Brad Stevens with the Celtics, any job that comes open — they’re not saying he’s married to the Celtics. They didn’t say he was married to Butler. They just say he’s one of the top candidates, they’re going to go after him hard.
“There was one athletic director, the final two for his job were myself and an assistant coach at a mid-major at the time. And he ended up selecting the coach at the mid-major, the assistant coach who had never called a timeout. Meanwhile, I’ve done what I’ve done and accomplished what I accomplished. I took that personally. That was an insult to me.”
That coach ended up leaving after a year, and the AD called and offered Moton the position. He declined, believing that a second-hand choice would gain less ardent support from the administration.
Moton and Jones are represented by significant agents in the college basketball world. Moton told SN that he is a client of Jordan Bazant, who has also represented UCLA’s Mick Cronin, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery and Steve Pikiell of Rutgers, among many others. Jones recently hired Evan Daniels of CAA, who became an agent after nearly two decades covering and analyzing college basketball and recruiting.
“We’ve got to change the notion that you can’t move up from an HBCU,” Daniels told SN. “These guys are deserving of an opportunity.”
It’s important that those hiring coaches understand the full picture when making their decisions, the ingredients comprising a candidate’s record and achievements.
In its most recent full season, 2019-20, Texas Southern opened the season with six consecutive road games and 11 of its first 13 away from home before SWAC play commenced. The Tigers were 3-10 when they played their first league game. Prairie View A&M finished first in the SWAC regular season with a 14-4 record that year, but was 4-9 when the league season opened because it had played nine of those on the road.
Byron Smith has a 92-75 overall record as Prairie View’s head coach, but how accurately does that affect the achievements and ability of a coach who has won three consecutive regular-season titles and is 79-28 against SWAC opponents?
“Some of the (overall) MEAC records, on a yearly basis, let’s just call it what it is: They’re bad,” Jones said. “Because they have to play like $900,000 worth of guarantees. Of course their record is going to be bad.
“But Hampton, in their second after moving to the Big South, got to the championship game. They had been one of the better MEAC teams. A lot of these leagues are so comparable, you’ve got to just toss it up, heads or tails, about which is better. But for some reason people don’t see that when they look at the MEAC.”
Norfolk State and N.C. Central are not required by their administrations to play as overwhelming a number of “guarantee” games to help with the athletic department budget. Jones said in a normal season his target is $300,000 in guarantees; he could do that in three, four or five games, depending on what sort of matchups can be arranged. But that’s still as many as five likely losses before the ball gets bounced.
“It makes what we do even more remarkable, because we’re starting in a hole. In theory, you’re starting 0-5; you’ve got to fight yourself out of that,” Moton said. “How many coaches are fighting themselves out of that? None. These Power 5 coaches are starting the season 13-1; they play 12 straight home games and they bought nine of them. Then they’re celebrating 20 win seasons. I’m like shoot, that’s easy. I wish I had that.
“What I’ve done, I felt like I’ve won the Indianapolis 500 with a Honda Accord. And then they tell me: Do it again.”