Diversity In The Dugout Is Still A Rarity In College Baseball
During Kerrick Jackson’s five years as an assistant coach at Missouri, he noticed something strange every time he was asked what he did for a living. Jackson at the time was the only black assistant baseball coach in the Southeastern Conference and once people learned he was a coach, they invariably assumed that he worked for either the football or basketball team.
“Whenever I’m on a plane going someplace and people ask me what I do, and I say, ‘I coach,’ the assumption was football or basketball, hands down,” Jackson said. “It was never, ‘Oh, you coach baseball?’ ”
Jackson’s experience is not unique among the small fraternity of black college baseball coaches. Ball State assistant coach Blake Beemer said it also happens to him all the time.
“Baseball’s the last sport they guess I’ve coached,” he said. “I’ve gotten soccer before baseball.”
Minority coaches such as Jackson and Beemer are rarities in college baseball. The NCAA reported only 17 minority head coaches in Division I in 2017, according to the Racial and Gender Report Card produced by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. That data does not include coaches at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).
The data is also stark in the assistant ranks. In 2017, the NCAA reported 53 minority assistant coaches (a figure that includes some director of operations positions) employed in Division I away from HBCUs, according to the TIDES report.
In all, more than 92 percent of head coaches and assistant coaches outside the HBCU ranks in Division I are white. And the minority coaches that are in D-I tend to be employed by schools outside the Power Five conferences. There are currently four minority head coaches among the 61 Power Five schools and only one — Northwestern’s Spencer Allen — is black.
Baseball fans who watch the major leagues see a very diverse game. In 2017, 42.5 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters were minorities, according to the TIDES Major League Baseball report. Black players accounted for just 7.7 percent of those players, while 31.9 percent were Latino and 1.9 percent were Asian. (The 2018 numbers released by MLB show a slight increase in black players to 8.4 percent, but that data included players who were not active on Opening Day.)
College baseball does not reflect MLB’s level of on-field diversity. According to the TIDES report, 80.8 percent of the players in 2017 were white. And even by that standard, minorities are underrepresented in coaching.
Black participation in baseball peaked during the 1980s and has fallen over the last 30 years. That generally leads to a smaller pool of potential coaches, but TIDES director Richard Lapchick said there is also a chicken-and-egg situation for black players and coaches.
“A factor is baseball has become less popular in the African-American community and participation levels have dropped precipitously since the 1980s,” he said. “A lot of interest in coaching positions comes out of that but also interest in playing comes out of coaching. If there were more African-American managers or coaches, then more may play baseball.”
The 2018 World Series featured two minority managers, Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, for the first time in its 115-year history. MLB has struggled to increase diversity among its top on-field and front office positions, but this year’s World Series was a significant step forward. In contrast, the last time a school with a minority head coach reached the College World Series was in 2012, when Andy Lopez led Arizona to the national title.
Now, a conversation is slowly beginning about how to improve college baseball’s diversity, both on the field and in the dugout. The American Baseball Coaches Association this year formed a diversity committee with Jackson as its chairman that will meet for the first time in January.
Allen, who is a member of the committee, is optimistic about some recent developments and what the ABCA might be able to accomplish.
“Let’s talk about what are some of the good things, let’s get some action items going versus looking at these things at 30,000 feet,” he said. “Let’s get some boots on the ground and start doing some things, and that’s me included.”
When Mervyl Melendez's playing career at Bethune-Cookman was coming to an end, then-head coach Brian Rhees hatched a plan that would change the course of Melendez's life. Melendez hadn’t thought about coaching, but Rhees thought he would be good at the job. And with Rhees preparing to leave Bethune, a job on staff was opening.
Melendez trusted Rhees and became an assistant coach as a 22-year-old. Richard Skeel, the head coach, was also Bethune’s coordinator of compliance, a full-time job that occupied much of his day-to-day. That left Melendez with far more responsibilities than a typical rookie assistant coach. Skeel handled the pitching and Melendez took care of nearly everything else, from office work to practice plans to recruiting—even composing the lineup.
Three years later, Melendez was promoted to head coach. He now knows that was Rhees’ plan all along. It paid off handsomely for Bethune-Cookman, which Melendez led to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in 12 seasons, and for Melendez, who is now the head coach at Florida International.
But without Rhees’ vision, Melendez would have never started coaching. His specific path is unique—25-year-old head coaches are far from the norm—but many minority coaches arrive in the profession in a similar way. Few say they thought much about coaching before it was clear their playing careers were ending, at which point someone suggests they would make good coaches.
“That’s our goal—to play professional,” Melendez said. “That’s in our blood, that’s in our genes. It’s, ‘I want to play ball. I want to play ball.’ We don’t ever grow up with the idea that we want to be coaches. A lot of us don’t come from dads or family members who have been coaching in college. It’s just difficult. It’s not where you set out to be.”
In addition to a scarcity of minority coaches in college baseball, there typically aren’t many in youth and high school baseball either. Eastern Kentucky coach Edwin Thompson didn’t have a black baseball coach until he got to Howard, an HBCU. Melendez, a Puerto Rico native, said he didn’t have a minority coach after moving to America. Jackson had many black football coaches, but only during his freshman and sophomore years of high school did he have a black baseball coach. Those experiences are typical around baseball. With so few role models to look up to, fewer minority players think about coaching as an option.
Beemer is one of the rare black coaches who knew by the age of 12 that he wanted to coach. The only time he had a black baseball coach was at George Foster’s camps that he attended while he was growing up, but Beemer came from a family of coaches—his father coached college baseball for a few years and is now a travel-ball coach and his grandfather was a high school football coach.
Having those examples in his family made coaching seem like a realistic option for Beemer.
“It definitely makes a difference for guys,” Beemer said. “White guys always know that’s an option. Black guys, it’s more like it falls into being an option, (but) it’s not something you realize right away. There are more black guys in pro baseball than college baseball. Black players from my experience will hang around pro ball as long as possible before thinking about coaching college. For whatever reason, in the older generations, there haven’t been a ton. You gravitate toward where you see people like yourself.”
There are five minority managers in MLB — four Hispanic and Roberts, whose father was black and whose mother is Japanese. According to the TIDES MLB report, the coaching ranks are much more diverse. Of the nearly 1,000 coaches at all levels of affiliated ball in 2017, 47 percent were minorities, including 8.9 percent black and 35.9 percent Hispanic.
Historically, the college coaching ranks have been even less diverse then they are today. Lopez, who won two national championships during his career and coached at programs such as Arizona and Florida, is the most accomplished minority coach ever. Tony Gwynn famously coached San Diego State, his alma mater, after his Hall of Fame playing career.
But Northwestern's Allen is believed to be just the third black coach ever at a Power Five school. Neither the Atlantic Coast Conference nor the Southeastern Conference, two of the leaders in college baseball, have ever had a black head coach. The opportunities for Hispanic head coaches have not been much more prevalent.
There are many reasons for the lack of diversity in the coaching ranks, but it clearly starts with the lack of diversity among players. Minority players are more likely to go to pro ball than college for a variety of reasons, many of which start with socioeconomics.
Minority families, on average, have lower household incomes and are less likely to come from a college-educated tradition. That makes them more likely to sign with pro ball out of high school, even for relatively small bonuses, rather than accepting a partial scholarship to play baseball. Once a player bypasses college baseball, even if he later returns to get his degree, he is unlikely to coach at the level.
Further, because baseball has just 11.7 scholarships per team to spread around, minorities are often more drawn toward basketball and football, which offer full scholarships.
Kent State assistant coach Derek Simmons said he and other black coaches try to guide the young minority players they recruit through the difficult and often confusing process of college recruiting and the draft.
“We’re trying to educate minority kids about the process and what it’s like with baseball,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to understand that maybe signing for a certain number out of high school may not be the best route for you. Every kid is going to be totally different, but we still want to help these kids out. What we try to do is help these kids with life after the game.”
Just looking at the relatively small number of minority players in Division I unnecessarily limits the talent pool from which to pull minority coaches. While there are almost no minority coaches who didn’t play D-I baseball, the same is not true of white coaches. Most of them played in D-I, but there are some—including some of the most high-profile coaches in the country – who never played Division I or professionally.
There are also many obstacles to get into coaching which affect the entire college coaching pool, but often the effects are magnified on minorities.
College coaching has become increasingly competitive as more money has been invested in the game. With the highest paid coaches now earning in excess of $1 million a year, college baseball can now compete for and retain some of the best. But the path to those jobs hasn’t improved at the same rate.
The entry level position in coaching is the volunteer job, which by NCAA rule is funded by the revenue of on-campus camps. Volunteer coaches are prohibited from recruiting off campus, preventing them from developing perhaps the most sought-after skill for an assistant coach. Premier schools can make enough camp money to retain or recruit high-level volunteer assistants—Power Five schools rarely have entry-level coaches in these jobs and some have former head coaches as volunteers—but most schools are unable to do so.
College coaching can be very profitable, but it takes a long time to reach those jobs. And because minorities are less likely to come from even upper-middle class families, taking a lower-paying job for a few years to chase a dream may either be impossible or at least frowned upon.
“If I didn’t have financial support from my mom, I don’t know if I’d be in coaching,” Allen said. “I had to gut it out for three years before I had my feet on the ground. That’s not an option for some people.”
“In the black community, once you become college educated it’s seen as now you go make money,” Beemer said. “The perception growing up in a black family is if you get a college degree and say, ‘I’m not going to make money for a few years, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.’ My understanding from white families is they look at that as following your dream.”
Despite the poor pay in entry-level positions, there is still hefty demand for them. Today, volunteering as a graduate assistant is often no longer enough to get hired at many schools. St. Mary’s coach Eric Valenzuela said in the last 15 years the market has gotten more competitive.
“Even assistant and volunteer jobs are hard to get,” he said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with Hispanic or white or anything, it’s just limited opportunities. They’re just more valuable now.”
It is difficult for any prospective coach to get a break, but as in many jobs, relationships are critical. And it is often easier to quickly relate to someone who comes from a similar background, which makes the lack of diversity a tough cycle to break.
While that familiarity is a factor for people looking to break into coaching, it permeates the game. In 2017, just 17 D-I schools that sponsor baseball had a minority athletic director, according to the TIDES report. If people are more likely to hire someone they can quickly and easily relate to, having so few minority athletic directors makes it harder to make the final leap to head coach.
College baseball should have a built-in pool of minority coaches thanks to the 20 HBCUs that sponsor baseball. But black participation rates in baseball have fallen below 50 percent in both the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the two Division I HBCU conferences. Jackson said it was easier to recruit black players to Missouri than it is to Southern, which has perhaps the strongest baseball history of any HBCU and produced Rickie Weeks, a 2003 first-rounder and Golden Spikes Award winner who spent 14 season in the majors.
“The number of kids who are out there that say they want to be at a predominantly white institution, for me is frustrating because that lets me know that the perception isn’t well thought of at the HBCU level,” Jackson said. “So that’s a problem for me specifically being a coach here and knowing that if I’m stepping to you with a different hat on, you’re intrigued, and now because I have this hat on, you’re not.”
That perception can also affect HBCU coaches looking to advance in their careers. Despite Melendez’s outstanding record at Bethune-Cookman for more than a decade, he garnered little interest in the job market. So he decided he had to make a move to show he could win somewhere else. Anywhere else. Alabama State, another HBCU, hired him after the 2011 season, and he turned around a moribund program and in 2016 led the Hornets to their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. That summer, Florida International hired him. Prior to that, only one other school—in the mid-major Southland Conference—brought him in for an interview.
Melendez doesn’t attribute his long climb up the career ladder to his race. But he knows his résumé looks different than many other coaches.
“I’m not the norm,” Melendez said. “I’m not the cookie cutter. I’m not what a lot of the (athletic directors) feel comfortable with because they’re going to have to answer to the alumni who are forking out the big money. So when you have to answer, ‘Why are we hiring Mervyl Melendez? Where has Mervyl Melendez been? He has not coached in the ACC, SEC or in the Big 12, Big Ten or Pac-12. He has not coached at those places. Why are we bringing him in when we can get an assistant coach from the ACC or SEC who is so-called seasoned?’
“I honestly think, and I want to believe, under regular circumstances that they would, but it’s a little different scenario. I think that with due time things will start changing for a lot of us.”
Valenzuela has no time for excuses. His father, a first-generation Mexican immigrant, and a boxing coach, raised him to never make excuses, least of all due to his race or socioeconomic status. Valenzuela is ready to outwork anyone to get where he wants, as he has his whole life.
Now, the 40-year-old Valenzuela is one of the hottest up-and-comers on the West Coast. After successful stints as an assistant coach at San Diego and San Diego State, he has invigorated a program that before he arrived five years ago had just two winning seasons since 1991 and led it to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. He should be in the mix for any Pacific-12 Conference job that opens, but if he’s not, he’s not going to worry about what could be different if he fit the traditional profile for a college baseball coach.
“I’m more about not making excuses and working your butt off. If you’re in it and not thinking ahead, you’ll find a place,” Valenzuela said. “If you’re in a hurry and going to make excuses as to why you’re not getting a job, then maybe you don’t deserve to be at that level.”
Allen Greene, who played baseball at Notre Dame and for three seasons in the minor leagues, was hired as Auburn’s athletic director in January. He is the first black AD in Auburn history and just the third in SEC history.
Greene wants to have diverse coaching ranks at Auburn, not just in terms of race, but holistically. He also must balance that goal with everything else it takes to create a successful program.
“At the end of the day, you want to hire someone who’s going to help the program be successful,” Greene said. “I see that there are so few minority coaches and student-athletes who have aspirations at being coaches that pickings are slim.”
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Arizona Assistant Coach Sergio Brown has a vision of one day in Omaha, when a Hispanic head coach -- maybe him, maybe his friend Eric Valenzeula, maybe someone else -- is again leading his team in the CWS. The time comes for the in-game interview, nationally televised on ESPN, and it is conducted in Spanish.
“Think of how that would impact a kid who would go, ‘Wow, that guy is Mexican. I could be a coach,’ ” Brown said. “The way there is such diversity now in academics and such diversity now in universities—higher education is all about diversity now. The opportunity to hire Hispanics, blacks, any minority should be—I mean, think of that opportunity for kids to be able to see a minority in a key position.”
It’s been six years since a minority took his team to Omaha, a streak that could soon be broken by Stanford’s David Esquer or Baylor’s Steve Rodriguez. But to regularly see minority coaches in the dugout during the CWS and throughout the college baseball season—that will take more time.
The most common answer for how to improve diversity in the coaching ranks is to improve diversity on the field. That’s one of the problems the ABCA committee wants to address. Jackson said he thinks the answer will be found at the grassroots level, by bringing more players into the game.
MLB has been working on a few grassroots initiatives designed to increase the number of minority players in the game over the last several years. The Breakthrough Series, Urban Youth Academies and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program are some of their key initiatives. Those programs have helped produce results in the draft. From 2012 to 2017, 41 of the 204 players drafted in the first round were black (20.1 percent). Because of MLB’s interest and success in this space, three of its executives are a part of the ABCA’s diversity committee.
Many ideas have been floated to improve the number of minority players, starting with the most obvious of making baseball a headcount sport like basketball and football, where every player gets a full scholarship. That’s probably a pipe dream, but improving the maximum number of scholarships available or finding a way to lessen the financial burden in youth baseball seem more actionable.
Ohio coach Rob Smith, another member of the ABCA diversity committee, believes part of the solution is to find a way to incentivize coaches to recruit underrepresented areas. With limited budgets and time, he reasons, coaches are most likely to go where they are most familiar. If a way can be found to get coaches to go where more minority players are, they’ll naturally expand their talent pool.
Though Melendez was not specifically incentivized to do so, that strategy has proven to be highly successful for him. A native Puerto Rican who moved to Florida at age 13, Melendez has recruited on the island throughout his career. Alabama State coach Jose Vazquez, who coached under Melendez for 12 years and is also a native of Puerto Rico, has followed the same strategy since succeeding Melendez in Montgomery. This year he won the regular season SWAC title.
Melendez and Vazquez have a natural connection to Puerto Rico and others may not be as successful in recruiting there. But if colleges can find a way to tap into the developing talent at MLB’s Urban Youth Academies and RBI programs, they may find similar success.
“We’re starting to see more opportunities, like the Urban Youth Academy,” Allen said. “I think that can have a major impact. The problem is we’re talking about 10-15 years down the road to have an influx of minority players playing college baseball.”
It will take an even longer time to convert those minority players into a more diverse coaching pool. Solving the underlying problem is the only way to get true long-term gains, but there are some things that can be done in the short term. Eastern Kentucky coach Edwin Thompson would like to see baseball adopt a mentorship program like the one that exists in the American Football Coaches Association and the first-year mentorship program the ABCA already provides. Young coaches looking to break into the field would be paired with experienced coaches to help them through challenges in their career.
Thompson is also starting to provide a more active mentorship at Eastern Kentucky. He looks for minor leaguers who are finishing their playing careers and either don’t know what they want to do next or want to get into coaching. He brings them in for a year as a student assistant—like many schools do with their former players—and introduces them to the business. Thompson believes the program could be expanded and MLB teams could partner with schools to direct their former minor leaguers into the system.
“I’ve got a bunch of former minor leaguers who want to come to school and figure out how to be a coach,” he said. “If it doesn’t work out, maybe they go back in their community and be a high school coach or a travel coach. Just increase the numbers in coaching.”
One of the most innovative suggestions came from Allen. He would like to take a more active approach and start recruiting graduating minority players to enter coaching, the same way Wall Street firms or tech companies recruit the top graduates from finance or engineering programs.
“Let’s actively look at and go after who are the African-Americans graduating from Division I baseball and compile a list,” he said. “Just like Goldman Sachs goes after recruits, why are we not talking to them and mentoring them?”
Allen also mentioned the possibility of creating a fund that could help entry-level coaches who need financial help to make it through the lean years of being a volunteer assistant.
One thing every coach was careful to say they didn’t want is an opportunity they didn’t earn. They don’t want affirmative action, and no one suggested a rule that would require interviewing a minority candidate, a version of which exists in both MLB and the NFL and which Lapchick has advocated for in college sports.
How viable any of these ideas are and whether NCAA rules would need to be adjusted to accommodate them remains to be seen. One thing is certain: producing change will not be easy and there are no shortcuts to better diversity in college baseball, either on the field or in the dugout.
“Acknowledging that the culture wants to be more inclusive is a start,” Greene said. “Implementation is really challenging. In my opinion, there are a lot of people who have good intentions, but it takes a lot of work to develop young talent.
“It’s a lot like planting a tree. It takes a while for something to blossom. You have to make sure you nurture it.”
Just having this conversation is invigorating for minority coaches around the country, and the ABCA is eager to be part of the solution. Jeremy Sheetinger, the college division liaison, earlier this year hosted a discussion on the ABCA’s podcast with Allen, Jackson and Melendez that has served as the seed for the diversity committee.
Typically, Sheetinger’s podcast discussions offer advice for coaches, such as how to build team culture or how to best instruct infielders. This was different, and the response was significant. Over the last eight months, he and executive director Craig Keilitz have helped turn that into a committee to bring everyone together and try to find some solutions. Jackson’s long-term vision is for the committee to break into a series of smaller groups where they can address minority issues at every level of the game.
But right now, everyone involved just wants to identify how they can best help.
“We know it’s out there,” Sheetinger said. “We can’t continue to know it’s there and not act. Connecting with other people who feel this charge and this spirit of finding a way to change this and address it from a group perspective, if we can move in that direction, here’s to hoping that 5-10 years from now it isn’t as prevalent of an issue.”
Melendez knows he and other minority coaches must hold up their end of the bargain and win games and graduate their players. He is hopeful that they can continue to do that and get more people in the game talking about diversity in the coaching ranks. If they can do those things, he believes athletic directors and college presidents will become more aware of the issue, which will lead to further change.
“Forget about what they are. Let’s just give opportunities when opportunities are warranted,” Melendez said. “It’s happened in college football. We’re going to see it in college baseball because ABCA is stepping up and saying we’ve got to do something.”