TORONTO — Charles Kissi has guided Brock’s men’s basketball team to an undefeated season so far, and his team holds down the No. 2 spot in this week’s Canadian university rankings.
But Kissi still gets mistaken for anybody but the Badgers’ head coach.
Chris Cheng assembled a Nippising squad from scratch when he was hired as the program’s inaugural head coach in 2013, and boasts a substantial background with both Canada and Ontario Basketball’s youth programs. Yet the Filipino coach consistently gets confused for the team manager or therapist.
"I’m Asian, and not very tall," Cheng said. "So they’ll come up and say ‘Where’s the head coach?’ ‘I am the head coach."’
Basketball is among the most ethnically diverse in Canadian university sport, yet the sideline hasn’t reflected it. Still, more than half a century after the game made its U Sports debut, the coaching landscape is finally changing. And this season’s nine minority men’s head coaches are quietly applauding.
"In the end, the game doesn’t have any colour, you just play because you love the sport," said McMaster’s new head coach Patrick Tatham. "But literally, I kid you not, at one point — no ifs, ands or maybes — literally all I knew was Roy Rana (Ryerson) and the coach at Brandon University (Gil Cheung)."
Kissi’s hiring in 2013 made it three. Six more minority head coaches have been hired in the past two years — including four this season — bringing the total to nine of U Sports’ 47 men’s head coaches. The others are Justin Seresse (Laurier), Darrel Glenn (UPEI), Nate Phillipe (York), and Mario Joseph (UQAM).
"That’s pretty cool, that’s super high," said Tatham, who didn’t believe the number was as high as nine — he requested the list be read aloud on a recent phone interview.
"The game is played on such a diverse level now, and there’s no reason for our coaches not to reflect that," said Kissi, who’s writing a paper on the subject as part of his Master of Education program.
Still, Kissi and his colleagues say there’s a long way to go.
"Oh man, I get the ‘Oh, you’re the head coach?’ like every week," Kissi said, laughing at the skepticism. "I get it all the time, that’s the norm.
"I’m never going to say people come from a place of malice, but we carry our biases with us everywhere, all the time. We have to be aware of them, regardless of who we are. But yeah, I get that kind of stuff all the time. All the time."
Rana says he was an "out-of-the-box" hiring by Ryerson, when the school named him head coach in 2009. The Toronto native guided Canada’s under-19 team to its history World Cup win last summer, and recently made history as the first visible minority and Indo-Canadian to be named head coach of Canada’s senior squad. Rana will head up the Canadian team in its first two World Cup qualifying games next week.
The changing face of Canadian coaching was a long time coming.
"When you’re in the business of coaching, you’re in the business of trying to make young people’s dreams come true, help them aspire to achieve. And it’s important that they can see this potential to achieve in all areas in sport, not just as a player, that there are opportunities for them in coaching, that there are opportunities for them in sport administration," said Rana, whose Rams were runners-up to powerhouse Carleton in last season’s national final. "And I think for a long time, many in our basketball community have not felt that way. They haven’t felt like that’s a realistic option.
"So I think what we’re seeing, this trend of increased diversity in our coaching ranks, is a great thing."
Tatham, who earned national coach of the year in 2016 (he was Ryerson’s head coach while Rana took a year’s sabbatical), played college basketball at Cleveland State University. He didn’t think twice about the diversity of coaches in the NCAA. But the percentage of minority coaches in NCAA basketball is on the decline, falling to about 21 per cent in Division 1 from a high of 25.2 per cent in 2005-06.
That’s despite the fact almost 70 per cent of Division 1 players are non-white. U Sports doesn’t keep statistics on ethnicity in athletes.
Coaching icon Steve Konchalski, who’s had a first-hand view of the cultural landscape in his 43 seasons at the helm of St. Francis Xavier, applauds the improvement in U Sports.
"But at the same time, in the States it looked headed in the right direction, then started going the other way," the Canadian Basketball Hall of Famer said. "So I still think it’s something that needs to be addressed."
The bump in U Sports, Konchalski said, was more organic than due to any organized effort, and in his role as a mentor coach and adviser to Canada’s national team, he’d like to take help develop a more formalized pathway to guide minority coaches.
The NCAA has the National Association of Coaching Equity and Development, and coaches have pressed for the adoption of the "Rooney Rule," an NFL policy that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.
"It’s kind of the standard… that at least there’s some concerted effort, some recognition of the fact that you have a sport where minorities comprise a major percentage of the athletes, then there should be a somewhat similar proportion of coaches," Konchalski said.
Cheng, who’s been coaching since he was 16, credits the birth of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for helping grow the diversity of the game.
"(Basketball) brings different types of cultures together, it brings a sense of community — that’s the sport of basketball," Cheng said. "It’s very rare that Filipinos play basketball at the next level, so I hope I am (a role model) with my culture.
"But I have no control over that. It’s just doing the best I can at what I love doing. Obviously there are a lot of doubters and naysayers because of my ethnic background, people don’t’ take me seriously. But all I’ve got to worry about is the people that I coach. As long as I get their respect, that’s all that matters to me."