February 26, 2021 

How Black assistant coaches are thriving in the Big 12

Talking with members of the Black Assistant Coaches Alliance

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The start of the Black Assistant Coaches Alliance (BACA)

This summer, after police in Minnesota killed George Floyd, Iowa State men’s basketball assistant Daniyal Robinson and TCU women’s basketball assistant Leah Foster knew they had to use their platforms to speak up — not just for their student-athletes but for their communities. Together, they spearheaded an alliance.

The Big 12 Black Assistant Coaches Alliance (BACA) is less than a year old, but has already made a difference for the men’s and women’s assistants in the conference. Foster said the group provides a safe space for the Black assistants to bounce ideas and stories off one another, as well as an opportunity to embrace activism in the Big 12.

Over the summer, they began meeting over Zoom every Sunday. They still keep in regular touch, though the video calls have dwindled given the ever-changing nature of the basketball season. In October, they were publicly backed by the Big 12.

Foster said the conversations have allowed them to bring real change and education to their communities. In Forth Worth, this meant raising awareness on police brutality after police murdered Atatiana Jefferson.

“That was something our team really wanted to bring awareness to,” Foster said. “League-wide, it was important for us to celebrate MLK Day. That was another idea that we talked about on our BACA call. It’s a space for coaches to talk about their experiences. And I think that that it’s, it’s been great. It’s been great and we plan to of course continue to empower our student-athletes to use their voices.”

Ashley Davis, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State, said the support of the conference was essential.

“Just getting that support from our conference, instead of it just being something that a group of Black coaches is getting together and doing, we’re really thankful for that,” she said. 

Rather than focusing on the X’s and O’s of the game, the group shares advice on how they can improve the lives of their student-athletes, ranging from balancing a checkbook to educating about racial injustice and how to amplify their voices.

“We’ve inspired each other,” Davis said. “We’ve educated each other.”

The Next chatted with four of the Black women who are assistant coaches in the conference to learn more about their stories and hear about their advice for young Black coaches. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Sytia Messer. Photo via Baylor Athletics.

Sytia Messer, Baylor

Messer is in her eighth season on the Lady Bears staff, where she currently works as the recruiting coordinator and as a positional coach for the guards. Only a handful of assistants have a resume as distinguished as hers. As the guards coach, she’s seen seven players get drafted into the WNBA. DiDi Richards, DiJonai Carrington, and possibly Moon Ursin could follow after this year. She’s also helped haul in names like Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox on the recruiting side. Baylor has made the Elite Eight in five of the six seasons she has coached (not including the pandemic-canceled 2020 tournament). And of course, in 2019, she became National Champion.

Messer’s cheery personality and workaholic attitude make her a perfect fit on Baylor’s staff, and her oversight of the ones and twos this season have helped put the Lady Bears in a position to compete for another National Championship. In May, ESPN wrote that she would be a likely successor to the Baylor head coaching position once Kim Mulkey decides to step away.

What does success mean to you?
Oh definitely seeing our players and our young ladies succeed on and off the court, that’s success to me. When they graduate and become great citizens, become good people. As long as we’re able to instill strong values and a hard work ethic in our players, that is a success to me.

And of course, winning a national championship — we won a national championship in 2019, and that was always a big goal of mine. As a player [at Arkansas] I had an opportunity in 1998 to play on the Final Four team but to coach a National Championship team, that’s been really great and amazing experience.

What’s a life lesson you’ve picked up in your career around the game?
Don’t take moments for granted. I mean here I was, I was 19 or 20, playing in the Final Four as a player. That experience came and went just like *that*. It was such a long gap before I was able to be back on that stage. It’s very hard work for people that consistently have a program at a high level. It means everything to do it year in and year out, which I know now because it took so long to get back.

What have you sacrificed to achieve your current level of success?
I think I’ve sacrificed a lot of, you know, personal time. I do a lot of traveling. I’ve been able to be at home since the pandemic obviously, but I’ve sacrificed a lot of personal time with family and friends just so that I can have that upper edge of coaching our players to another level or recruiting players just a little harder.

In my mind, any time the other coach may be sleeping or doing something else, I’m on the phone and I’m working and doing Zoom calls and those kinds of things. And so I understand that level. I’m 43 years old, and I know it kind of comes with the territory for the level of success that I personally want.

What advice would you give young Black coaches who are hoping to become a coach at this level?
Every day when I lay my head down, I have to know at night that no matter what my decision was, it was the right decision for the other person involved and myself. I have to make sure that I’m at peace with it, and that I explored every decision, every option before reaching that point. It’s definitely not easy to stay in this world, but it’s a great business. It’s very rewarding, having an opportunity to influence young ladies’ lives every day. That’s a big responsibility.

The biggest thing as far as advice I would say is to believe in yourself. Believe in yourself because there’s a lot of people who would want to be in the positions that we’re in.

Another piece of advice would be to find one, maybe two people to help mentor you. That’s important, so that you can bounce situations off of them, so that they can help you in something that you’re going through.

Latoja Schaben. Photo via Iowa State Athletics.

Latoja Schaben, Iowa State

It’s rare for a coach to stick with the same program for over two decades, but that’s exactly what Schaben has done at Iowa State. And she’s thrived there. The Cyclones have made two Elite Eight appearances during her run, and she’s been responsible for developing some of Iowa State’s best post players.

Schaben is a favorite of the entire staff and roster at Iowa State, and her connection to the program and the school should not be understated. There may not be a more loyal assistant in the conference, and she has set the bar high for other coaches.

What makes the coaching chemistry so special at Iowa State?
Well, [assistant coach] Jodi Steyer coached me at Toledo, [head coach] Bill Fennelly was my head coach, and then [assistant coach] Billy Fennelly was six years old running around when I went to Toldeo, so yeah, we’ve been together for a while. [Laughs] Even coach Fennelly walked me down the aisle. We’re like a little family.

It’s an asset because I feel like in order for a team to be great, the coaches have to trust each other. We’ve been together so long that we can finish each other’s sentences. And I think the players get to trust us and each other because we’re around each other. When we put it together like a triangle, put all those pieces together we have a good team.

As a Black woman who is coaching in one of the best conferences in the country, what does representation mean to you?
When I grew up, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me. And I feel like if, as a Black coach, if you have someone that looks like you, that gives you a sense of ‘Oh, if they can do that, so can I.’ It works all the way down from the President of the United States when we had Barack Obama … to me it’s very important when you see someone in something you have passion for, it’s good to see someone that looks like you. They understand what you go through.

What does Black History Month mean to you?
With Black History Month, I think it’s important to teach children in schools about the contributions of African-Americans. In the history books they’re usually just focused on slavery or the civil rights movement, and there’s a lot more story to be told. We need to keep the conversation going.

What advice would you give young Black coaches who are hoping to become a coach at this level?
Hone your craft. Just because you’re a great basketball player doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great coach. Come in and be a sponge. Learn and ask questions as much as you can, try to get as many different experiences as you can. And just be willing to understand that when you’re an assistant coach, it’s your job to elevate your program and your head coach.

It’s not about you jumping from place to place to place. It’s all about being loyal to where you’re at, having a passion for where you’re at. I see a lot of young coaches today, it’s like ‘okay what’s my next big gig.’ Sometimes you’ve got to fight through and grind it out.

Ashley Davis. Photo via Ashley Davis.

Ashley Davis, Oklahoma State

Ashley Davis is in her sixth season on the Cowgirls staff as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. As a coach, she’s overseen some of the Cowgirls’ best seasons and players in program history. This year, Oklahoma State has far exceeded its spot in the preseason poll and is a sure lock for the NCAA tournament. While she’s quick to deflect the credit to her players and fellow coaches, Davis has had a major role in the team’s success.

While she didn’t always think she’d become a coach, she decided to make the jump after players started clinging to her lessons and hanging on her words. Davis understands her strength as an assertive, relatable figure who analyzes the game at a deep level and loves helping others grow. She’s extremely personable and outspoken. Davis is just as comfortable being the shoulder to cry on as she is stepping up as the voice of reason when needed. And she has a brilliant basketball mind.

What is the most rewarding part of the job for you?
Seeing players achieve their goals. You know, Natasha Mack came in wanting to play in the WNBA. She made that clear during her recruiting process and [laughs] it definitely looks like she’s gonna get that opportunity. Just seeing players reach their goals, graduate, or continue to play on whether it’s professionally in the WNBA or overseas.

Or if they don’t even want to play anymore, and they want to start families, that’s huge. I mean we’ve had Tiffany Bias, Rylie Swanson, Liz Donohue who have just recently had babies. That’s just as rewarding. So just kind of seeing them grow up and keep their connection with Oklahoma State, and start their life and they still support us and still come back. That’s the most rewarding part of the job for sure.

What sets your coaching style apart?
I’m kind of that Auntie that will definitely get on you when it needs to happen. I can tell it to you straight, but if you need a wrap-around I’m always there too. And I’ll tell you the truth, I know a lot of young players elsewhere don’t quite get that, but I think here at Oklahoma State I’ve kind of developed the role of ‘if you don’t want to hear the truth, then don’t ask Coach Davis. Because she’s going to tell you the truth.’ Take Taylen Collins, for example. She was really shy coming in, but it’s just so nice to see her be able to break out of her shell and get along with everyone while growing and learning as a player.

As a Black woman who is coaching in one of the best conferences in the country, what does representation mean to you?
There are people out there who look like me and aspire to become a coach at this level, but they don’t think that that they can do it. If they see someone like me, they know they deserve the opportunity to do it.

You never know who’s watching you. You never know who’s really aspiring to be you, or if someone wants to follow in your footsteps or follow your path to get there. But people can see me, see where I’m at, and then eventually accomplish the things that I’ve accomplished. I have a responsibility to people I may or may not even know.

What advice would you give young Black coaches who are hoping to become a coach at this level?
Your voice deserves to be heard. No matter where you are — you could be at the top of the totem pole on your staff or the bottom — but just know that your voice matters. You never need to be afraid to voice whatever it is that you believe in. So if you believe in something and you feel passionate about it, and you feel strongly about it, there’s someone out there who can use that advice.

Don’t ever feel silenced, don’t ever feel like no one is listening to you. Respectfully voice your opinion as much as you can, because your voice does matter.

Leah Foster. Photo via TCU Athletics.

Leah Foster, TCU

Foster is in her third season as the player development coordinator at TCU and she’s already thriving. To her delight, she grew up in a coaching environment. Her uncle, Bill Foster, coached at Northwestern University and the University of Arizona. There were Thanksgiving breaks where she was around Steve Kerr and Shawn Elliot.

Now at TCU, she’s a vital part of her player’s development process. The coaching staff at TCU is tight-knit with “horizontal leadership,” as she calls it, and is continuing to look toward the future after a second-place finish last season. Foster has a bright personality and an equally bright mind for the game, and is quickly establishing herself as one of the most important voices in the conference.

What is your favorite memory from coaching? Is there one thing that you can hang your hat on and say ‘this is why I’m doing it, I’m really happy this happened?’
I feel like there are so many stories. One of our former athletes Jayde Woods, one of her aspirations was to be accepted into law school, and now she’s there. Another one of our student-athletes, Amy Okonkwo, it was always her dream to play professionally and she’s up to be a part of the Nigerian National team for the Olympics (whenever that happens). Another student-athlete that I coached at Tulsa, you know, she just had her first child. Whether it’s law school or family or possibly being an Olympian. All those things kind of add up a lot over time.

What is the biggest sacrifice that you’ve had to make to reach your current level of success?
I wouldn’t use the word sacrifice! For me, it’s a choice. I’m not letting things go in order to be here — I’m choosing to be here because it’s what I love to do, I love the people I get to work with. I work for someone in coach Raegan Pebley that I respect and genuinely love, and that makes it not feel like work. It makes it a place that I enjoy coming to every day, and fortunately, the other part of that is we have really great young women on our staff who make it a lot of fun. For me, it’s definitely more of a choice.

As a Black woman who is coaching in one of the best conferences in the country, what does representation mean to you?

I think representation is everything. I really do. I mean I know I’ve mentioned Coach Pebley a lot, but I give her so much credit. We have three Black women on our staff and our Director of Basketball Operations is a person of color. And I feel like she hired women of color when it wasn’t a trend, you know when it wasn’t the “thing” to do. I think it’s so important for student-athletes to see people in leadership positions that look like them.

As a player I did not have a woman of color on my staff, and I’m not going to say that would have made all the difference in the world, but I do think that it matters for sure.

What advice would you give young Black coaches who are hoping to become a coach at this level?

For one, make sure this is what you’re passionate about. If you’re passionate about it, it makes all the difference. It doesn’t feel like work.

And then surround yourself with people that are willing to invest in you and who are willing to empower you. You want people that are going to believe in your vision, who are going to believe in you and push you to reach the levels of success that you can. So I think as you’re getting into coaching, it’s so important to surround yourself with people that are going to make a positive impact on your life and really pour into you.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream and Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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