Near the end of my junior year of high school, I was selected to play in a Class of 2003 showcase. This showcase was meant to feature the state of Illinois’ most talented baseball players in the class of 2003. The Public and Catholic Leagues, as well as suburbs were represented in this showcase. Participants were voted in by other coaches, so it was an honor to know that my play had been recognized by not only my head coach, but other head coaches as well. Plenty of college recruiters and coaches were on hand to see us take batting and fielding practice, time us in the 60-yard dash, and finally, watch us actually play baseball.
After that, I was invited to participate in a “Select Baseball Camp” at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, a camp for who U of I’s baseball program felt were the most talented players in that showcase. Again, I was ecstatic to know that someone else away from my high school had recognized my abilities.
Since our coaches at the camp didn’t know us at all, we were asked by them which position we played best. Well, I was best when at shortstop, pitching and catching. There was only one problem: Apparently, my coach felt I was “too athletic” to pitch and catch, and because our camp team had a shortstop who had an absolute Howlitzer, he put me in the outfield…a position I hadn’t played since I was 13, and that was only for the last 4 outs of a meaningless game. When I told my mom how pissed I was to play out of position, she explained to me that some recruiters–especially the White ones–would take one look at me and think I’m either too athletic or not smart enough to pitch and catch…because of my skin color. I think she was right. The Valpo, UIC, WMU and even U of Virginia coach, all upon hearing me say that I loved to pitch and catch, asked if I’d consider playing the outfield. I was confused, but more disgusted. Hell, I wasn’t even that athletic.
The NFL’s Rooney Rule was implemented to prevent such discrimination. Forcing teams to interview at least one minority candidate before making a head coaching hire, it has made it advantageous for minorities who before would’ve possibly been passed over because owners and GMs didn’t think they were smart enough to be a head coach, or fit to be the face of an NFL franchise. You see, the stereotype is that minorities are good at sports because we’re natural athletes, while our White counterparts work hard and diligently study the game. Bullshit, I will now call.
New UICU athletic director Mike Thomas had been pressured to hire a minority candidate to fill the vacant men’s basketball head coaching position. Why? Well, since the program’s inception in1906, there have been 16 head coaches, and they have all been White. Some members of Illinois’ Board of Trustees wanted to change this, which is why Thomas aggressively pursued Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart, who is Black. Smart, well, smartly turned the job down. Honestly, I don’t think the Board cares as much about a minority getting a fair shot as much as they care about having someone at the helm who could successfully recruit in the city of Chicago. Now some are incensed, not because Thomas eventually landed…wait for it…Ohio’s Something Groce, but because they feel like Thomas didn’t make a strong enough effort to hire a minority candidate.
I am a Black male, and I don’t feel it was necessary for Thomas to hire a minority candidate. Would it be nice to see more minorities leading big-time programs? Of course it would. Minorities mostly dominate Division I basketball, be they Black, Latino or even African. It would be nice to see someone of color on the sidelines in a suit, leading his troops. Hell, whenever Izzo decides to move on, I wouldn’t mind seeing a minority be the face of MSU’s program. However, Thomas’ job was to find the best candidate, and in his mind that was the former leader of a mediocre MAC school, Groce.
I couldn’t care less about the Fighting Illini. In fact, I despise them. My loyalty lies with my alma mater, Michigan State, and whenever the two schools play, I want Sparty to win by 7,431 points. But, people shouldn’t be so appalled by Thomas not hiring a minority. Thomas hired a so-so coach from the MAC, most likely because of Ohio’s recent trip to the Sweet 16. Groce isn’t even the flavor of the week, really, or even flavor of the day to many insiders and experts. This reeks of a desperation hire, at which I will continue to laugh hysterically.
Maybe Thomas could’ve interviewed more than one minority candidate. I’m not sure why top assistant Jerrance Howard wasn’t handed the gig immediately following former head coach Bruce Weber’s departure. No matter. If you’re going to storm UICU AD Mike Thomas’ house, do so because he brought in a relatively unknown to lead a somewhat prestigious men’s basketball program, and not because he didn’t hire a minority. Good luck, Mr. Groce, because you’ll surely need it where you’re headed.