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Blanchette: Rest easy, GU fans, well-intentioned ‘Russell Rule’ won’t take away Tommy

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 3, 2020

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

When he calls together his senior staff, Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth sees one reality that’s impossible to escape.

“We’re all,” he said, “very white.”

And it isn’t going to change before the next meeting.

That’s not news, of course, and it doesn’t stop with Roth’s inner circle nor does it stop at the edge of Gonzaga’s campus. With the exception of player participation in football and basketball – which is to say, the dollar sports driving the entire endeavor – college athletics is an overwhelmingly Anglo enterprise. And that’s not going to change before the next game, either.

On Monday, Gonzaga and other members of the West Coast Conference, with stewardship from commissioner Gloria Nevarez, launched an initiative that might pick up the pace of progress from static to possibly, oh, glacial – at least in leadership positions in their corner of the world.

It’s being called the “Russell Rule” – which is a significant blessing, with a hint of a curse.

The curse is its alliterative kinship with the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” another heart-in-the-right-place strategy to increase the number of Black and minority head coaches that’s been pretty much a bust.

The blessing comes from the rule’s eponym.

Not only is Bill Russell the WCC’s most feted athletic alum, but he’s also been one of sport’s legendary social agitators, a pioneer – and nobody’s pawn.

So when he says, “We need to be intentional if we’re going to make real change for people of color in leadership positions in college athletics” and declares himself “proud to assist … by endorsing this most important initiative,” well, it has some gravitas.

Now all that’s left is that business about real change.

This first step requires every WCC school to include a person of a “traditionally under-represented community” among the finalists for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach and full-time assistant coach position.

Way ahead of you, Zag fans.

This doesn’t blow up the arranged line of succession in the men’s basketball that will move Tommy Lloyd over a seat whenever head coach Mark Few decides he wants to fish full time.

“That’s specifically carved out in the rule, that it won’t pre-empt a promotion that’s contractually obligated,” Roth said. “We’ve got a signed agreement with Tommy. We also can’t use that as an out every time we hire a new person – that we’re just going to promote the guy from within.”

Not that promotion can’t be useful in what the WCC wants to accomplish, if the pond is properly stocked.

“We’re focused on leadership positions,” said Nevarez, the first Latina to be a Division I conference commissioner, “but creating that pipeline of people that get an opportunity in a department and a chance to grow to even be on the radar is really important.”

GU’s department, with any number of near 20-year employees, can be an example of that sort of cultivation.

“The make or break for so many jobs is experience, and how do you get experience?” said Roth. “Well, somebody gives us a break. My break was Jay Hillock giving me a job as a basketball grad guy for $200 a month almost 30 years ago. We have to be conscious about how we create those breaks.”

So, for example, when former basketball standout Gary Bell Jr. was finished with his pro career overseas last year, he was invited to join the coaching staff in the same role Roth once had.

“Let’s find a way to give them experience so that down the road either we or somebody else can hire them,” Roth said.

That’s similar in spirit to the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative started by Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who’s enlisted 50 colleagues – Few among them – to expand opportunities for fledgling minority coaches.

To at least keep tabs on whether schools are following through on the Russell Rule, the league has partnered with another sports activism heavyweight, Dr. Richard Lapchick, whose The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport will produce an annual report card on the WCC’s efforts, as it does with professional leagues.

The NCAA report card in this area is pretty damned dismal. In 2018-19, whites held head coaching positions on 85 percent of Division I men’s teams, 83 percent of women’s teams. Just 23 percent of head coaches in men’s basketball were Black – compared to 53 percent of the players. In women’s basketball, the coaching number was just 8.3 – and in women’s sports overall, only 40 percent of Division I teams were coached by women.

In the WCC, there are three female athletic directors among the 10 schools – and 40 percent of the head coaches in men’s basketball are Black.

Nevarez is heartened by those numbers – to a point.

“But you know how the migratory patterns of coaches are – that demographic can change in a heartbeat,” she said.

Which is why you need a policy – in black and white – to start moving the needle on change overdue in coming.

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