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Meet Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack, a role model for players and aspiring coaches

As one of the few women of color in the head coaching ranks, Felisha Legette-Jack understands the value diversity brings to the student-athlete experience.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Albany Regional-Buffalo vs South Carolina Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The University at Buffalo’s storybook season came to a close with a Sweet 16 loss to South Carolina. After upsetting No. 6 South Florida and No. 3 Florida State in the first two rounds, the 11th-seeded Bulls couldn’t keep it going against the defending national champs.

So ends one of the great stories of the tournament thus far. Buffalo was the first MAC team to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament since 1996, the Bulls were on the bubble after losing to Central Michigan in the conference tournament final. Going in as an underdog from the start, UB earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament victories and should be able to capitalize on this Sweet 16 appearance with continued strength in an improving conference—that Central Michigan team made the Sweet 16 as well.

While there’s so much to unpack about this Buffalo team—their senior class included a pair of identical twins, an excellent point guard in Stephanie Reid, and contained two of the top three and three of the team’s top five scorers—one of the great aspects of this team is the breakthrough success of head coach Felisha Legette-Jack.

Now in her sixth season as the Bulls’ head coach, Legette-Jack played her college ball at Syracuse, where she finished her career as the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She started coaching at a nearby high school right after graduating with a double major in 1989. After two years there, she made her way to the Division I bench, serving as an assistant at Boston College, Syracuse, and Michigan State before getting a head coaching opportunity at Hofstra in 2002.

She was able to turn Hofstra into a 19-win team and during that time also was an assistant coach on Team USA’s 2005 U19 FIBA Americas Championship team. In 2006, she was hired to take over at Indiana but was fired after six years. Her first three years went pretty well but things went south in the next three.

As one of the few women head coaches of color in women’s basketball, Legette-Jack considers herself lucky to have received a second chance at Buffalo.

“I have some really amazing colleagues that look like me. I have so many friends that had an opportunity and then they lose their opportunity and never come back up at all. It took an African-American woman to notice me when I lost my job at Indiana, had she not noticed me, (Buffalo Athletic Director) Danny White would have never known about me.”

Starting at 33:50 in the video below, Legette-Jack goes on to deliver a tremendous response to a question about the importance of minority representation in the coaching and other leadership ranks.

“I hope my colleagues don’t get frustrated and never come back,” she said, later referring to Jolette Law, an assistant at South Carolina who was previously the head coach at Illinois, and Jamelle Elliot, who was fired by Cincinnati after winning 19 games this season.

“I’m saddened by it, I understand the problem. I know that the majority of women basketball players look like me,” Legette-Jack continued. “I think that these young women, if we really care about them as people, that they’ll have role models that look like them… they get the opportunity to go into this world, and they’re not gonna find anyone that looks like them and they’re gonna have to figure out how to navigate at a different level.”

There is a lot of research on the efficacy of education when minority students have teachers who look like them. In fact, a recent study found that for black men, having just one black teacher between grades 3-5 will improve their probability of completing high school by 39 percent. It’s easy to see how this dynamic can play out for student-athletes, who are in formative years and under heavy duress, with tightly-programmed schedules and way too many people to answer to. For the majority of student-athletes in basketball, most of those people don’t look like them.

According to the 2017 College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card, women hold just under 40 percent of women’s sports head coaching jobs in all of Division 1, and 86 percent of Division 1 athletic directors are white.

“When you pull the curtain aside to see who is waiting in the wings, you discover that associate athletics directors are also more than 85 percent white and if you go down even one more level, assistant athletics directors are also more than 85 percent white,” Delise O’Meally, executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, told ESPN.

”This means that in the coming decade, despite rapidly changing national demographics, the leadership of college sport will likely continue to be more than 85 percent white -- unless these levels are diversified now, and more creative approaches are employed to ensure that college sport more appropriately reflects today’s society.”

To Legette-Jack’s earlier point, the same report found that while 45 percent of Division 1 players are black women, just 10.9 percent of coaches are. This needs to change, and not just for the sake of equality in college sports.

“The fight isn’t easy,” Legette-Jack said, emotionally but with conviction, “It’s necessary.”

It’s necessary because it’s not just about basketball players succeeding, but because every single one of those players needs to be prepared for their future after sports. Having greater minority representation in coaching and administration would greatly help the cause.

“The fight is for the next young lady who needs a person that looks like her to rise above and be coached up and create a foundation so she can become the COO, the CFO of something very big. It’s important that they stay in the race and keep fighting. We see them, you’re out there, keep fighting, go forward. Thank you for that question.”