Integration came late to a lot of Southern colleges, and in particular the huge ones. That change was even slower when it came to the coaching profession. But over the last month, two major colleges have made major coaching hires that signal, at least for now, a new day in terms of hiring practices. Both the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee have hired Black men for roles that previously were mainly or only held by white ones.
Memphis named Kerrick Jackson as their new baseball coach, the first Black man to coach that sport in school history. His predecessor Daron Schoenrock retired after 17 seasons at their head coach. Memphis athletic director Laird Veatch says he recognized immediately that Jackson was the right choice. “I knew the first time we met with him in person, I knew it sure felt really good,” Veatch told USA Today. “It was kind of one of those, ‘Oooh, that’s (going to be) really hard to beat.’ You’re looking back and trying to find excuses for why it wouldn’t work, and you just can’t find ‘em.”
Jackson’s major task will be getting the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament. Baseball hasn’t exactly been flourishing at the school They haven’t reached the NCAA’s since 2007. It’s also instructive to view Jackson’s background. He has experience at every level of the collegiate game with assistant coaching stints in junior college, Division II and Division I. He has been a head coach at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he inherited a program riddled with NCAA sanctions and resuscitated it in short order. The Jaguars won nine games in his first season, then rattled off 34 victories en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019.
“I want our team to be recognized and identified by how we go about our business,” Jackson told The Memphis Commercial Appeal. “When people see us out in the community, on campus or wherever, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s a University of Memphis baseball player,’ because of how he carries himself. He’s respectful. Helpful. Not self-centered. Enjoying life. He’s got energy. When you come and play us, it’s gonna be a dogfight,” he said. “You may walk out with the win, but you had to do everything in your power to get that win. Because we’re not going to give you anything.” Jackson becomes the third Black baseball coach at a non-HBCU institution, an indicator of the rarity of a Black man in that role. He also has plans to increase the game’s visibility among minority groups both inside and outside of Memphis.
Tennessee also wanted someone to restore some luster to a once proud track and field program that’s been below average in recent years. Their newest hire is Duane Ross, who was selected NCAA Coach of the Year in 2021. He got a five-year deal for $450,000, big money for a track and field coach. He’s also going to work with athletics director Danny White to hire a track staff and distance coach for the cross country program.
Ross is UT’s only Black head coach and only the fourth in school history. The last Black head coach at UT was J.J. Clark, who led the track program until 2015, when he wasn’t retained. UT has had two Black head coaches in men’s basketball: Wade Houston (1989-94) and Cuonzo Martin (2011-14).
More interestingly, Tennessee went to the HBCU world for their new track coach. He comes from North Carolina A&T. “When researching the best track and field coaches in the world today, it doesn’t take long to find the name Duane Ross,” White said in a school release. “He’s built a profile that allows him to be incredibly selective in choosing his next move. Thankfully for us, the University of Tennessee has a track and field program with an extraordinary history of national championship teams, individuals and dozens of Olympians.”
Ross, 49, has been an elite athlete and coach. In the 1990s, he was a seven-time All-American hurdler and won the national title in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1995 NCAA Outdoor Championships at Tennessee’s Tom Black Track.
Ross competed alongside Tennessee track legend Justin Gatlin for Team USA in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. And he was inducted into the Clemson Athletic Hall of Fame. “I have had the honor of being an Olympic teammate and training partner with Duane,” Gatlin said. “Whatever he touches will be successful.” Ross was the director of track and field at Division III Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for five seasons. Then he took the helm at North Carolina A&T in 2012, building the program into a national power.
Both these men will ultimately succeed or fail on the basis of how well their teams perform. But their selection heralds, at least for now, a new day in college athletics and increased opportunity for Black coaches.