August 1 marks the two-year anniversary of the West Coast Conference’s implementation of the Russell Rule. Russell as in “Bill Russell”? Yes, it’s a rule named for the 11-time NBA champion, who led the San Francisco Dons to back-to-back NCAA titles in the 1950s.
The conference enacted the rule as a commitment to diverse and inclusive hiring practices. It requires each member institution to interview candidates from underrepresented groups for head coach, assistant coach and senior administrator openings.
The term underrepresented refers to a minority in the particular sport or position across the nation. Therefore, if the majority of coaches in a specific sport are male, interviewing a female candidate qualifies. The two main areas the WCC looks at are gender and race.
“Our presidents really wanted to do something that had meaningful and lasting change,” WCC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said. “The idea of the hiring commitment had been kind of kicking around in the back of my brain for a bit and really seemed to make sense for us as a league and to our presidents.”
Nevarez met with leadership from the conference’s member institutions back in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 to establish a commitment to underrepresented communities.
Thanks for sharing @SeanFarnham. So appreciative of the leadership in the WCC and @RealBillRussell for their efforts in adopting the Russell Rule. We Create Champions for Change. pic.twitter.com/B0ob1wAUEu— Gloria Nevarez (@GloNevarez) January 8, 2021
“It’s been a huge step forward for our conference,” Loyola Marymount Athletic Director Craig Pintens said. “It gives us a tremendous competitive advantage over other conferences that don’t have anything like this in place. For us, it was something that we were committed to prior to the implementation of the Russell Rule. It just has provided great opportunities, and the data has showed that after the first year. ... It’s just such a tremendous step forward for everyone.”
Over the first year of the Russell Rule, there were 84 searches, and 81 of them met the criteria laid out in the Russell Rule.
From those 84 searches, 135 finalists were from underrepresented groups. More than half of the hires (44) belonged to underrepresented groups.
“One year of data is not something that you want to prematurely celebrate, but it certainly is a good indicator of investment and buy-in,” Nevarez said. “Hopefully, the adoption of the commitment as well as our first-year results signals to the market that this isn’t tokenism in interviews. … It makes developing diverse candidate pools easier, more attainable when folks know we’re serious about it.”
There were 15 head coaches hired — nine of them were from underrepresented groups. Half of the 56 assistant coaches hired fall into this category. Seven of the 13 senior athletic staffers hired were also from underrepresented communities as well.
For Pintens, the assistant coach hirings have signaled the biggest potential for growth in the future.
“Where it’s made the biggest impact is with our head coaches when they hire assistant coaches because there has to be a pipeline of underrepresented candidates, and that pipeline begins by being an assistant coach,” he said. “Our coaches obviously have embraced it. It’s made a tremendous impact.
“If you’re doing it the right way, eventually, underrepresented candidates are going to be your assistant coaches, and then when they’re promoted, nobody is going to blink.”
However, Pintens noted there is a lack of diverse candidate pools in some sports. As a result, it can be difficult to find underrepresented candidates who would be qualified for the available openings.
On top of finding these candidates, the next step is to hire them as opposed to simply interviewing them to meet the Russell Rule requirement.
“We talked about the next phase being retention and promotion,” Nevarez said. “Once you get candidates in the applicant pool, that’s one hurdle. Getting them into your campus and community and keeping them, that’s another. And then making sure they’re being evaluated and tracked and promoted with the general population, that’s another.”
Underrepresented racial communities account for 42.2% of the U.S. population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. The 2020 Census also reported the largest amount of multiracial combinations.
As the U.S. becomes more diverse, so does the college athletics landscape.
“The one thing I’m interested in is how do we expand that to international coaches because the influx of international student-athletes, particularly in some sports,” Pintens said. “How are we ensuring that those student-athletes have somebody that they can relate to because of their international status? How do we find a way to have a woman coaching men’s teams? Those are the next things that we need to examine even further. … Those are more global issues that we need to address in college athletics.”
The data for the second year of the Russell Rule is slated to be released later this year.
BYU, which is jumping from the WCC to the Big 12 next summer, will be taking the principles of the Russell Rule with it to its new conference.