'Buy-In Across the Board': Inside the West Coast Conference in Year 1 Under the Russell Rule
Why this matters
The Bill Russell Rule, implemented by West Coast Conference leadership in 2020, requires one candidate from a "historically underrepresented background" to make it the final round for each athletic department and conference office hire. After a year, the WCC is proud of its progress and hopes to show the value of diversity and public accountability.
Before Gloria Nevarez joined the University of Oklahoma athletic department, diversity was sometimes an afterthought to her. Having started her administrative career in the melting pot of the Bay Area, she never had to give much thought to the makeup of the departments she worked in. That changed at Oklahoma, where the work of the university’s Athletics Diversity Council became Nevarez’s first real experience with a university deliberately investing in diversity.
Starting in 2003, the ADC Assistantship Program selected two diverse candidates annually from the university’s athletics administration master’s program for a two-year fellowship in the athletic department. Alumni of the program include Courtney Randall, now an associate athletic director at the University of California at Davis, and Emily Loftin, now an assistant golf coach at the University of North Carolina, among many others. The program was managed by Stephanie Rempe, who became athletic director at the University of Nevada in 2022. Rempe’s intentionality in finding great candidates from underrepresented backgrounds opened Nevarez’s eyes to what it took to truly diversify an organization, and in turn, an industry.
“In the California Bay Area, especially on campuses, there was some organic diversity,” says Nevarez. “I didn’t feel as compelled to drive diversity. There were a ton of people in that space doing really great work. It didn’t have to be me.
“At Oklahoma, I saw how important it was, especially in a scenario that geographically might not have had as much diversity, to be intentional, to build a program, to support a program, to lean into it, to provide opportunity.”
Today, as the commissioner of the West Coast Conference, Nevarez has carried these ideas forward. In 2020, the conference instituted the Bill Russell Rule, named after the recently deceased Hall of Fame basketball star and University of San Francisco graduate, which requires the athletic department at each member institution and the conference office to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, and full-time assistant coach position. Data from the first year of enforcement showed that 81 of 84 searches fulfilled these requirements, and more than half of the jobs were filled by candidates from historically underrepresented backgrounds, which Nevarez says is “more than just checking a box, that is buy-in across the board.”
At a time when National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert has called diversity and inclusion “essential” to the mission of college sports, the Russell Rule is a pioneering first step toward building an equitable pipeline in college sports leadership, which historically has been dominated by White men. Despite its early success, however, the rule may prove difficult to replicate elsewhere – or to build on.
Momentum for the Russell Rule was spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Presidents at the WCC’s member universities agreed to prioritize antiracism over the normal administrative agenda at their regularly scheduled meetings that summer. Yet while all 10 schools wanted to legislate diversity, equity, and inclusion into the athletics hiring process, Nevarez quickly found that it would be hard to build consensus on what, exactly, that meant for each school.
The WCC is made up of 10 private, faith-based universities located in areas that range from the relatively liberal and diverse Bay Area and Pacific Northwest to the relatively conservative and less diverse state of Utah. From the standpoint of the Russell Rule, diversity could include anything from gender or race to religion or sexuality. The policy is intentionally broad, and any rationale is reviewed by the conference’s President’s Council each year.
“Negotiating 10 different perspectives into a central policy was probably the most arduous part of it,” says Nevarez. “Trying to answer everyone’s individual questions or concerns while still having a policy that stood up and brought accountability.”
Through these talks, the conference established three parts of the rule:
- The core hiring commitment, which mandates that one candidate from the finalist pool must come from a historically underrepresented group.
- The logging of internal data during the interview process, including the backgrounds of all candidates and who made it to the finalist group.
- The publication of hiring data to create accountability, which is released in the form of an annual report published in conjunction with The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida.
Establishing those pillars was only part one of what became a nearly 18-month process before the conference’s first report came out in the spring of 2022. One immediate discussion centered on defining what it meant for a candidate to come from a historically underrepresented background. How is it different between race and gender? Should it vary by sport or school?
As member schools began logging interviews and hirings for their open roles, that confusion became even more pronounced. The data didn’t always add up, with candidates occasionally logged twice if they were, for example, both a woman and a person of Color.
To help solve these problems, the WCC hired consultant Sandy Hatfield-Clubb, president of the PICTOR Group, a college sports consulting firm, and a longtime athletic director and administrator. Hatfield-Clubb’s role was both logistical and philosophical. She helped the WCC scrub its data, clean up its data-collection tools, and check back with schools on the makeup of their candidate pools and how far each of them made it in the hiring process. But she also developed the outline for what it would mean to count an interview as satisfactory under the Russell Rule.
“What is the threshold for diversity for any diverse representation? That’s a great question that still needs to be answered [across sport],” Hatfield-Clubb says. “Where we landed was 50%. So if the NCAA demographic for a particular sport was 50% or more women already, then a woman didn’t count as a diverse candidate.”
What that means is if, for example, across the NCAA, a majority of coaches are White, any non-White coach would count as diverse under the Russell Rule. This primarily applies to race, since there are few if any NCAA sports in which women are the majority. And in the case that women were the majority, the WCC chose not to count it as a diverse hire if a man was hired to a role that was made up of more than half women. The public accountability of drawing these lines and sticking to them was not lost on conference leaders; nor was the fact that they were setting a precedent across college sports.
“From a diversity perspective, that’s a question…once you put a policy into place, that’s not rhetorical any longer,” Hatfield-Clubb says.
Related: Black Women ADs’ Long Journey to the Top
When it came to the question of how to punish universities that failed to meet the criteria of the rule for a given position, conference leaders agreed that it would be unwise to introduce a new and aggressive system of fines and suspensions. The conference maintains “broad authority” for punishments related to athletics, Nevarez said, but she doesn’t see herself using it in all but the most consistent, extreme cases of breaking the rule.
Instead, punishment under the Russell Rule fits into the same tiers as other penalties would. “The scale ranges, depending on the circumstance, to anything from a private warning to a public reprimand, all the way up to fining, suspension, that type of thing,” Nevarez says. “It’s in accordance with our normal handbook of how we handle policy violations. One size really doesn’t fit all.” Only three hires failed to meet the criteria of the rule in its first year, and Nevarez declined to discuss the specifics of how those schools were punished.
This approach aligns with the spirit of what it means to diversify something as big as college sport, says Jill Pilgrim, a sports attorney at Pilgrim & Associates Arbitration, Law & Mediation LLC and a longtime general counsel across the sports industry. Building up a culture that invests in people of all kinds and intentionally developing a pipeline of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds, she says, is more valuable than over-punishing those who fail to meet a rule.
Other rules, like the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, come with a threat of fines or lost draft picks for violations, though only one team has even been punished by the league. In Major League Baseball, under the Selig Rule, the commissioner has the power to fine teams up to $2 million for failing to interview minority candidates but has rarely if ever done so (transparency is lacking with regard to penalties). Like the Russell Rule, these mandates tend to rely on public shame as the main form of pressure on teams.
“To me, it would be the absolutely wrong approach to feel like you have to take a battering ram and shove it down people's throats,” Pilgrim says.
Conducting a Search
In early 2021, Loyola Marymount University chose not to renew the contract of Charity Elliott, its women’s basketball coach of nine seasons. Athletic director Craig Pintens reached out to Herb Courtney II, the CEO at Renaissance Search and Consulting, to help conduct a search to replace Elliott. They soon met to discuss the priorities LMU had for its next coach.
Pintens wanted someone who would provide a good experience for the diverse group of student-athletes on the women’s basketball team, who had experience recruiting in Los Angeles, and who had led winning teams at the highest levels of college sport. Knowing Renaissance prioritizes “fair representation” in its consulting work, Pintens believed that Courtney would have the network to find a diverse batch of candidates for the role. In the end, Pintens hired former University of Southern California associate head coach Aarika Hughes, a Black woman.
“Whether it’s the Rooney Rule or the Russell Rule, it’s sometimes, at least in the past, just to check a box, but really not, you know, providing the right people for the opportunity,” Courtney says. “Sometimes when it’s a minority candidate, (it’s) ‘we just need one,’ or ‘we’re just going to interview one,’ but I think with this process that that definitely wasn't the case.”
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For Renaissance, the process under the Russell Rule was fairly similar to other searches. In past work with Pintens and LMU, diversity had been prioritized as well. Regular documentation such as recording Zoom calls, taking detailed notes, and logging all interviews and conversations is natural, too.
But this year, when Renaissance was again tabbed to assist with the search for a new head rowing coach for the men’s and women’s teams at Saint Mary’s College, the search required a bit more creativity. NCAA demographic data from 2021 show just 9% of assistant coaches and just 5% of head coaches are non-White, making it harder to identify a deep pool of diverse candidates. For six weeks, Courtney worked with leadership organizations and regional groups in college athletics to find interested coaches from diverse backgrounds. He even sought out the Black Rowers Association to get connected with candidates at the youth level.
Compared to the LMU search that took just under two weeks, the SMC rowing search took six weeks. But in the end, athletic director Mike Matoso was committed to a thorough search, former University of Central Oklahoma coach Brian Edke was ultimately hired, and a diverse candidate made the finalist pool, fulfilling the Russell Rule.
“If you do have an equitable process, if you do stay true to the things that are most important to you, and that institution, and the search, and have an open mind on who can really fulfill those responsibilities and tasks, then I think you will have more diverse hires,” says Courtney.
Going forward, data on all hiring processes is due from each university by July 31 each year, and the conference aims to publish data in the fall. While that level of consistent scrutiny did not hold back university presidents from signing onto the rule, some were concerned about how it would look if they did not meet the standards right away.
Early in the process, “there was worry that in any one year, if a school did not meet its goals for having an inclusive process, would there somehow be embarrassment?” says University of San Diego President James Harris, DEd. “Schools wanted to put their best foot forward, but would there somehow be a standard we couldn’t reach?”
Similarly, university leaders were nervous that the rule might punish them or make them look bad for retaining a successful coach who did not come from a historically underrepresented group. But in contrast to annual sports diversity reports from TIDES, which measure the ratio of racial and gender minorities to total people in an organization, reporting by the WCC under the Russell Rule will serve as a progress report each year, measuring universities only on how they did with newly opened positions.
“If you replace a candidate that is of an underrepresented population with a candidate from an underrepresented population, your TIDES number improves none, because you haven’t improved your ratio,” Hatfield-Clubb explains. “But under the Russell Rule, you get credit for that.”
Keeping a great coach in place “doesn’t mean you’re not committed to this work, it’s just that we’re making a statement that when we do hire, it’s as diverse a pool as possible,” says Harris.
A Guiding Light?
It’s an open question whether the Russell Rule has created a replicable template for others in U.S. college athletics – or if the rule will be a one-off, unique to the WCC.
Brigham Young University has committed to upholding the rule even after its scheduled move to the Big 12 starting in 2023, Nevarez says. Otherwise, while many major conferences formed new committees or new conference-level positions to encourage diversity after the social uprisings around Floyd’s murder in 2020, the Big East remains the only other prominent conference to move toward a bylaw like the Russell Rule.
Under Commissioner Val Ackerman, a longtime advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Big East formed a BE the Change strategic education platform in 2020. Last year, the conference announced the creation of a resume talent bank aimed at expanding the minority talent pipeline for athletic departments at member schools as well as the conference office.
A college athletics veteran and a member of the NCAA’s constitution committee, Nevarez has heard from other leaders in college sports about their interest in building accountability tools for diversity in their organizations, and has assigned Hatfield-Clubb as a liaison to others who want to follow the WCC’s lead. However, Nevarez doesn’t expect other diversity rules named after conference legends to start sprouting up around the United States.
“I do feel like I would like to see it grow and [be] adopted,” she says. “However, one size does not fit all. And if you can’t even get your room to talk about a hiring commitment, then you’ve got a different challenge to tackle.’
Nevarez says that the public nature of reporting hiring data is the biggest thing holding other conferences and universities back from implementing their own versions of a Russell Rule. Athletic directors in charge of departments lacking diversity may shy away from looking in the mirror or publicizing poor performance when it comes to hiring.
“I really think with the commitment and its three parts, especially the data and the accountability, maybe folks don’t know they have an issue,” Nevarez says. “You don’t know until you collect the data. Maybe without even having the hold-your-feet-to-the-fire, you start counting the data.”
Related: Without a Push, Lisa Campos Never Would Have Become an Athletic Director
Thanks to a long history of bias and discrimination, college sport remains a deeply White and male business. Minority candidates have made great strides, but in many ways, are still making up for lost time. Even if a well-meaning school or conference prioritizes finding great candidates, it may be difficult for them to consistently find and hire diverse coaches or administrators – something that also could discourage the creation of diversity rules in hiring.
“If all the conferences said ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to put in the Russell Rule,’” Pilgrim says, “I suspect that there are not going to be enough candidates who are going to apply, so you have to build it so that they come. You have to spread the word. You have to educate.”
Hatfield-Clubb remembers trepidation from a board of trustees member when she was hired as athletic director at Drake, becoming the first woman AD in the entire state of Iowa. Pilgrim says she has often been the only woman or woman of Color in her career, as well, and that sting can direct people away from college athletics. It’s why they both advocate for an educational message that encourages diversity rather than a negative one that punishes for a lack of it.
“I don’t want to step into that,” Pilgrim says. “And I want to be appreciated and valued for what I bring to the table, even if I happen to be a diverse candidate.”
In the end, Courtney says, creating more diversity in college sports leadership comes down to whether it matters to the people currently in charge. “You spend time when things are important,” she says. “With the current landscape, it is important to have those relationships to people from all backgrounds whether ethnic minorities, or gender, or LGBTQ, or veterans.
“When you know something’s important, and it can affect the bottom line, then you have to come up with solutions, and I do think others are being more thoughtful in that space.”
While it’s not a catch-all, what the Russell Rule establishes in the WCC is a commitment that equity does matter to these universities. It signals that university and conference leadership is ready to hold their own feet to the fire and show their successes and failures. That all helps, but the rule does not itself build a new pipeline. There is no hiring quota. Aside from a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee integrated with student-athlete leaders, the WCC has no mandated professional development or fellowship programs. That is the work ahead; hard work that will require creativity and concerted effort.
“It’s a tiny first step,” Pilgrim says.
Progress vs. Power in Sport
In his 1996 book "In Black & White," Global Sport Institute founding CEO Kenneth L. Shropshire wrote that "the selection of the right person for a position in sports, both on and off the field of play, is extraordinarily subjective." That book prescribed reforms across levers of society to increase the representation of Black leaders in sport.
This issue continues Shropshire's exploration, with a particular interest in how those in power have shaped progress when it comes to diversity, for better and worse.