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Dawn Staley, Joni Taylor embody the importance of opportunity at SEC championship game

In Sunday’s SEC championship game, the South Carolina Gamecocks’ Dawn Staley and the Georgia Lady Bulldogs’ Joni Taylor faced off from the sidelines, marking the first time two Black women head coaches met in the tournament final for the conference. When it comes to head coaching opportunities for Black women, when will other conferences catch up to the SEC?

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-South Carolina vs Georgia
Dawn Staley speaks at the 2021 SEC Tournament after leading her South Carolina Gamecocks to a sixth tournament title.
Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

In 1995, Bernadette Locke-Mattox became the first Black woman to serve as head coach in the SEC, hired at Kentucky. Ten years later, in 2005, Pokey Chatman became the first Black woman head coach to take her team to a regular season SEC championship, leading LSU to the crown. Ten years later, in 2015, Dawn Staley became the first Black woman to win the SEC tournament championship, steering South Carolina to their first title.

This past Sunday, in 2021, Staley and Joni Taylor became the first Black women head coaches to meet in a SEC tournament final, with Staley’s Gamecocks surviving a hard-fought contest over Taylor’s Georgia Lady Bulldogs.

As Staley said after the game, that she and Taylor were facing off from opposite sidelines is “not a race thing, it’s an opportunity thing.”

Opportunity begets achievement. Achievement adjusts attitudes. Adjusted attitudes then begin to erode the barriers of bias, contributing to increased opportunities and greater equity. In the SEC, Staley kickstarted this virtuous cycle.

The Dawning of new opportunities

Since South Carolina hired Staley in 2008, six other SEC schools also have hired Black women to lead their women’s hoops programs. Four have been hired since 2015, when Staley and the Gamecocks won their first SEC tournament title.

History of Black women head coaches in the SEC

Auburn: Terri Williams-Flournoy (2012-2021)

Florida: Carolyn Peck (2002-2007)

Georgia: Joni Taylor (2015-present)

Kentucky: Bernadette Locke-Mattox (1995-2003), Kyra Elzy (2020-present)

LSU: Pokey Chatman (2004-2007), Nikki Fargas (2011-present)

Mississippi State: Nicki McCray (2020-present)

Mississippi: Yolett McPhee-McCuin (2018-present)

South Carolina: Dawn Staley (2008-present)

Texas A&M*: Peggie Gillom (1998-2003)

That Staley’s Gamecocks won their sixth tournament title in the past seven seasons — a run of conference dominance that exceeds that accomplished by the peak era of Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols — should further encourage institutions in the SEC, and beyond, to see Black women as capable, qualified coaches of basketball and leaders of women.

The successes achieved by other Black women head coaches in the SEC during 2021 provide additional proof. Taylor took a Georgia team predicted to finish 9th in the preseason coaches’ poll to the verge of the SEC tournament championship after a 10-5 regular season conference record. She deservedly won SEC Coach of the Year for her efforts.

At Kentucky, new head coach Kyra Elzy kept the talented Wildcats on course, even as she and her squad entered the season with uncertainty after the unexpected retirement of former head coach Matthew Mitchell. In her third season in Oxford, Yolett McPhee-McCuin began to execute a turnaround at Ole Miss, getting her pesky Rebels on the bubble of the NCAA tournament after going winless in the SEC last season.

However, when it comes to elevating and empowering Black women as head coaches, the SEC stands in stark contrast to other conferences.

Opportunity and equity in other conferences

In Sunday’s ACC final, the contending teams were coached by two white men, with Wes Moore and NC State defeating Jeff Waltz and Louisville to claim back-to-back tournament titles. The Pac-12 saw two white women meet, as Tara VanDerveer and Stanford dominated Cori Close and UCLA to capture an 18th Pac-12 tourney crown for the Cardinal. Monday night’s Big East championship game featured a white man and white woman as head coaches, with UConn’s Geno Auriemma winning a 19th conference championship over Marquette’s Megan Duffy. Unless C. Vivian Stringer’s Rutgers squad advances to the Big Ten title game, the Big Ten and Big 12 conference tournaments will be contested by teams led by white and/or male coaches.

Even beyond each conference’s top teams, opportunity for Black women is wanting in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. Only five Black women currently are head coaches at power conference schools outside the SEC.

Current Black women head coaches in other major conferences

ACC: Kara Lawson (Duke), Niele Ivey (Notre Dame), Tina Thompson (Virginia)

Big East: None

Big Ten: C. Vivian Stringer (Rutgers)

Big 12: None

Pac-12: Charmin Smith (California)

For the future of women’s college basketball, look South

The state of women’s college basketball head coaching beyond the SEC underscores the historic nature of Staley and Taylor meeting on Sunday. It also emphasizes the progress and, in turn, the history, that still needs to be made.

The SEC should be seen as the future of women’s college basketball.

That the conference is expected to lead the nation with seven NCAA tournament berths, in addition to two bubble teams, further underlines that equity does not conflict with achievement. Instead, it encourages it.

*Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012.