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Black Women Coaches Hope to Inspire the Next Generation

When Rene Portland ended her 27-year tenure as the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Pennsylvania State University, the collegiate athletic community waited with anticipation to see who would succeed her. The answer came on April 23: Coquese Washington, an assistant and associate head coach at the University of Notre Dame for the past eight years. With the selection of Washington, the profile of Black women in Division I athletics took another step forward.  

Washington has never shied away from being a leader. A graduate of both Notre Dame undergraduate and law school, she was executive vice president of the WNBA Players’ Association during her six seasons in the league (1998-2003) and was instrumental in the current collective bargaining agreement that introduced free agency to women’s professional basketball.

“When people like myself, Tia Jackson, Carol Owens and other people get these kinds of jobs, it’s important,” says Washington, who was recruited by Penn State for the coaching job. “We have so many young ladies that are players in the game. It’s important when they’re going through the daily rigors of training to think they have an opportunity to make this a career. It’s important that we’re role models and important that we do good jobs so that the African-American girls can see and envision themselves being in the same position down the line.”

Beverly Kearney, who has been the head coach of the University of Texas’ women’s track and field team since 1992, says she chose to work at Texas because of the exposure it provided her. “You always realize that what you do as a minority coach Ñ especially as an African-American female Ñ is greater than your win-loss record,” she says. “We impact how administrators around the country see women and African-Americans.

“You have a responsibility that goes beyond the playing field,” she continues. “You have a responsibility to teach and to inspire young people in terms of intellectual wisdom and not just academic wisdom. You teach life skills and how to be successful as an African-American in our society and as a woman in our society.”

Tina Sloan Green, professor emeritus at Temple University’s College of Education, was the first Black head coach in the history of women’s intercollegiate lacrosse.

She co-founded the Black Women in Sport Foundation and has authored articles and books about the role of Black women in sport. In April, the foundation presented a two-day conference, “Taking Minority Women Coaches to the Next Level.”

“Having more role models makes it more believable to the younger players,” Sloan Green says. “It’s also good for the non-African-American players, because they realize African-Americans don’t only play the sport, but they can coach the sport as well. Sometimes I think it’s even more valuable to them, because they won’t be narrow in their perspectives.”

Felisha Legette-Jack spent 13 years working as an assistant basketball coach before being named head coach at Hofstra University in 2002. Four years later, she moved to one of the Meccas of college basketball, being named head coach for Indiana University’s women’s basketball team. She thanks IU president Adam Herbert and athletic director Rick Greenspan for having faith in her abilities.

“They felt I was the best for the position here at Indiana. My obligation to this university and to those gentlemen who gave me a chance is to prove them right,” says Legette-Jack, who has also twice served on USA Basketball gold medal-winning staffs.

“The only way we’re going to find out how good we really are is to be given an opportunity,” she says. “We’ve been great recruiters. We’ve been great assistants. We’ve been great reasons why programs become fantastic. It’s time we find out how good we can be as head coaches.”

Legette-Jack says she always saw herself as a head coach, and throughout her career she made sacrifices to put herself in positions to achieve her goals. But even with her preparation, she says she was scared when her dream came to fruition, and she credits her mentors with guiding her. In return, she is intent on offering that same guidance to future generations.

–Lois Elfman 


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