Archdeacon: A new coach, new rules and ‘a little nervousness’ at Wilberforce

Derek Williams of Wilberforce coaching during a game last season. Williams serves as the athletic director as well as the women's basketball coach. CONTRIBUTED

For Wilberforce University athletics director Derek Williams and his small private HBCU, the past couple of weeks have been all about finding the best way to compete on two fronts:

  • Against basketball rivals who have won far more than their share of games against the Bulldogs men’s teams in recent years.
  • And especially against COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected Black communities.

Williams believes the school now has the answer to the first part of the challenge. It’s in the final stages of hiring Mark Mitchell as the new men’s basketball coach.

Mitchell – who was a former Ohio State women’s assistant coach and the much-celebrated coach of the Cincinnati Taft boys team that won over 80 percent of its games and a state title in his 11 years there – is the father of Kelsey Mitchell, the legendary Ohio State women’s basketball standout and now a young star with the Indiana Fever in the WNBA.

Wilberforce planned to announce Mitchell’s hiring late Tuesday or Wednesday.

He replaces Kevin Waters, whose contract was not renewed after three years and an overall 26-48 record.

Williams, who along with his AD duties also coaches the successful Wilberforce women’s basketball team, said the school received 28 applications for the men’s job and that school officials “fell in love” with Mitchell and the things he had to offer.

Certainly, the most prominent lines on his resume held some sway:

He coached four years under Kevin McGuff at one of the most prominent women’s college programs in the nation.

And with the Buckeyes, his daughter became the first four-time All American in OSU women’s hoops history, a three-time Big Ten Player of the Year, holder of 30 OSU, Big Ten and NCAA records, the second most prolific scorer in NCAA history with 3,402 points and the second player overall chosen in the 2018 WNBA draft.

But those weren’t the things that made him the best fit for Wilberforce, Williams said.

“One thing that helped him was that the university wanted someone who had the ability to teach health and physical education classes and Mark was the one candidate who had his master’s degree and had had over 30-years experience being a teacher.”

Mitchell taught mostly in the Cincinnati public schools, but also at Lakota West, Winton Woods and, Williams said, at Ohio State.

What struck a real chord with Williams – who’s also from Cincinnati, coached against Mitchell in prep games and later said Mitchell directed some of the college-capable players from the AAU team he coached to him – was the job he did at Taft.

Strong resume'

In 2003 Mitchell inherited a program that had had 10 straight losing seasons. He promptly guided the Senators to a 22-3 record.

Over 11 seasons, his teams went 221-50, won eight Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference titles, four district crowns and, in 2011, the Division III state title after going 25-1

Mitchell was named the CMAC Coach of the Year eight times.

His success at Taft – as his daughter was excelling at Princeton, where she was named Ohio Ms. Basketball – propelled both into the Buckeyes program, which went 109-33 over the next four seasons.

The past two years, Mitchell returned to high school boys’ basketball as an assistant Western Hills and then back at Taft. Both places he lasted a season.

After a mutual parting at Western Hill, he said publicly he realized college coaching was where he belonged.

While it’s a legitimate to question how easily it will be for Mitchell to go from OSU -- the biggest school and program in the state, the one that is best funded and has had great success – to possibly the smallest and one of the least-financed schools in Ohio competing in college athletics. Williams thinks Mitchell will be a good fit:

“I think he’ll really be able to relate to our students because of his time spent at Taft,” Williams said. “Taft is part of Cincinnati Public Schools, but it’s also a smaller high school that had to go through some of the same things we do at Wilberforce.

“For years Taft’s graduation rate was really low and getting kids participation in sports was very low. Yet, he won consistently in that environment.

“By him being at an inner city school and having to deal with adversity and the ongoing aspect of not having a lot of things there, that shows he understands how to make do. He knows how to deal with a small amount of resources.

“And in the process he built positive relationships with his players. That was a big here: those relationships he built with Taft students who resemble the clientele we get at Wilberforce.”

Challenging semester ahead

Wilberforce is scheduled to have 600 students this coming semester, Williams said.

According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) students traditionally come from low income homes, are first generation college students and often face challenges in their academic preparedness for college.

Against that backdrop Wilberforce – the first college in the nation owned and operated by African Americans – has molded an impressive array of college grads since it opened in 1856.

But financial challenges for the school have been persistent – especially in recent years – and while that sometimes presents real difficulties for the athletic programs, it’s nothing compared to the daunting task the school faces as students return to campus in the midst of a pandemic that especially has targeted people of color.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Protection, African Americans are five times as likely as whites to end up hospitalized with COVID 19.

HBCUs like Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University recently announced all their fall classes will be conducted online.

The four primary Black athletic conferences – including the SIAC of which Central State, just across the street from Wilberforce, is a member – all have cancelled sports for the fall semester.

While Williams said cross country was cancelled at Wilberforce for the fall, basketball is still scheduled to begin play in late October.

He said students are scheduled to report to campus Aug. 17 and that the fall curriculum will be a hybrid offering, with some classes conducted face to face and some done online.

Wilberforce women’s basketball coach and athletics director Derek Williams (left) and assistant coach Lionel Garrett, the former Dayton Fairview High and Southern University star. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF

“Any student coming to campus must first have had a COVID-19 test that shows they were negative,” he said. “The university will have tests available on campus and we have a nurse who can administer them. All our students will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“Athletically, the NAIA has come down with some guidelines. We have to test before the first competition and every day we have to do daily temperature checks and send the information to the NAIA through an online portal.

“We’re also talking about testing our student athletes once a month. I know just once a month is not a great option, but in terms of the financial piece, that’s where we are at.”

Williams admitted he ‘definitely has a little nervousness” about coaching in the COVID-19 era, but said: “I believe we have to learn to live with it and move forward. And I see some hope. If you look at the 1918 (Spanish flu) pandemic, they made it through it and we can, too.

“Right now basketball games in the bubble are going on (in the WNBA and in one day the NBA, too) so that gives us hope, as well.”

In the meantime, with the search for a new coach done, NAIA guidelines set to take effect and 600 students on the way, Williams said he had one more pressing task:

“I need to purchase a thermometer.”

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