Minority Leadership Initiative adds diversity to college athletics

In the spring of 2020, University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari launched a weekly Facebook Live series called “Coffee With Cal” designed to raise money for COVID-19 relief.

By early June, he had shifted focus. As the Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Calipari started using the platform to talk about the nation’s social unrest.

“We have to do better,” he said at the time. “We have to demand better. What I will say is this, I want to be a part of the answer in any way I can. And it may be a small part, but I can’t stand on the sidelines while my players, my staff, their sons and daughters, our fans and so many others live with fear and injustices.”

That promise led Calipari to hold a roundtable discussion with Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker. That in turn led to the creation of the McLendon Foundation Minority Leadership Initiative (MLI), which is administered by the Westlake-based National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA).

The coach-driven program creates employment opportunities for minority candidates, specifically within college athletic departments.

“John Calipari says, ‘Hey, we need to move the needle; we need to get kids in the pipeline — and I’ve got a million dollars to back it up,'” NACDA CEO Bob Vecchione said.

But opening his wallet was just the first step.

Opening other coaches’ wallets was the next.

“Coach Cal, he’s like a pied piper,” Vecchione said. “We got (Gonzaga coach) Mark Few, we got (West Virginia coach) Bob Huggins, we got (Michigan State coach) Tommy Izzo — we got all these big-a coaches from around the country on this call, and they’re all donating money for internships at their respective institutions.”

There are now more than 70 students in the MLI pipeline, which begins its third year this fall. The 2022-23 class kicks off with the MLI leadership weekend, an in-person event that brings together current and future participants for a professional development experience in early September at the University of Kansas.

More than $3.5 million has been raised for the program so far.

“Nobody knows about this and it’s something people should know about, because it’s a phenomenally good thing,” Vecchione said. “Bad news sells. It’s hard to get good news out there, and this is a good-news story.”

Here are four things to know about the program:

1. It operates under the umbrella of the McLendon Foundation.

The foundation is named after former Cleveland State coach John McLendon, who is widely recognized as the first Black basketball coach at a mainly white university when he was hired by the Vikings in 1967. McLendon also became the first Black professional head coach of any sport when he was hired to coach the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League in 1959.

Since 1999, the foundation has granted more than 130 postgraduate scholarships to students who intend to pursue an advanced degree in athletic administration.

The MLI program complements the scholarship program, placing undergraduate or graduate students into internships in college athletic departments.

2. It’s designed to level the playing field.

The scholarship program was created in 1999 by former NACDA executive director Mike Cleary, a St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University graduate. Athletic administrators kept telling Cleary the reason there wasn’t enough diversity in their leadership ranks was because there weren’t enough qualified candidates.

“He was like, ‘I’ll fix this,'” said Adrien Harraway, a former McLendon scholarship recipient and current NACDA VP who oversees the MLI program. “He wanted to provide a (scholarship) for (minority) students to go to grad school, because that would really propel your career and help you get into positions.

“And it did move the needle, but it’s crazy that we were still talking about the same thing in 2020.”

The problem, Harraway said, is that the makeup of collegiate rosters — specifically in revenue-generating sports — doesn’t align with the leadership you see in those sports.

“I don’t want to say it’s a good ol’ boys network or just some nepotism that goes along with it, but … who you relate to is who you hire,” Harraway said. “(Often) you haven’t engaged with others who have had different experiences than you.

“The goal is just to create that equal playing field, both on the field and in leadership roles. It’s definitely getting better, and this initiative is something that’s going to help.”

3. It involves three organizations.

The McLendon Foundation posts the MLI opening in April. The opening are chosen by athletic directors, coaches and conference officials and include a variety of positions, from marketing to sports information to student development to facility operations. NACDA turns to Cincinnati-based ProLink Staffing to narrow the candidate pool.

“We knew it was going to scale bigger than me just being able to go through all the resumes,” Harraway said.

ProLink, which donates its time, sends the final candidates to the university or organization, which makes the final decision. While those individuals work for the institution, the MLI program provides the stipend and the tax information.

“The most important thing we provide is the education piece,” Harraway said. “It’s a holistic program. I didn’t want a transactional feel, where it’s, ‘Here’s your job; you do what you do.’ I wanted a community feel, a family feel.”

The third organization is Cincinnati-based G3 Marketing, “which nurtures the relationships with coaches and sponsors,” Vecchione said.

4. NACDA wants to grow the program.

The MLI’s first class included 29 individuals, the second year had 42 and the third year projects to have 40-45. Many interns have since landed full-time jobs in athletics.

Even better, the interns aren’t just undergraduates in their early 20s. One of the interns got a development job at Columbia University after spending several years playing basketball overseas. Another was a female coach who wanted a career change.

“When you can do things in your career that changes people’s lives, that’s a whole different kettle of fish,” Vecchione said. “It’s really a phenomenal success story and we’re going to continue to grow this thing come hell or high water.”

Harraway would like to see some of these positions endowed, but that (obviously) requires more funding. Coaches have continued to donate to the program — albeit not quite at 2020 levels — but athletic departments are seeing its value and impact, too, which has led to a more diverse donation base.

Vecchione also expects McLendon graduates to eventually give back to the program.

“Looking in the crystal ball — five, eight, 10 years from now — we want this to be McLendon Fellows,” Vecchione. “There’s going to be a whole cadre of people who have come up through the McLendon Foundation into athletics departments, into corporate America. And when they do come through that channel and they reach a level, they want to be there and give back.

“We want it to be an honor to be called a McLendon Fellow.”

Joe Scalzo: [email protected](216) 771-5256, @JoeScalzo01

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