'Make it undeniable': How Oklahoma State's Mike Boynton hopes to open doors for Black basketball coaches
Editor's note: Undeniable — The Oklahoman’s four-part series examining the lack of Black coaches in men’s college basketball — begins with a profile of Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton, who is on a rare path for a young, inexperienced Black coach. He’s making the most of it by being an example.
STILLWATER — Mike Boynton walked toward Gallagher-Iba Arena’s south baseline, raised both hands, clapped and pointed to the Oklahoma State student section.
Boynton wanted to celebrate the frenzy.
The Cowboys had just completed an early-February, double-overtime upset of Texas. Emotions ran high, and not just after the final buzzer. Down the stretch, Boynton punched the air. He threw off his protective mask in celebration.
“I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the world,” Boynton said afterward.
Deep into his fourth season as the Cowboys’ coach, Boynton understands the responsibility he carries every day. He has the day-to-day expectations of not only leading but improving a Big 12 program with a shortlist of recent successes but a storied tradition. Wins are important and worthy of celebration.
He’s also conscientious of the rare opportunity he’s been given.
Boynton is a 39-year-old Black head coach in a profession dominated by white men. In a time where few Black coaches lead power-conference programs, Boynton believes there is no greater duty than to open doors for others. Be an example. Light the way.
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“I’ve got a responsibility,” Boynton told The Oklahoman, “to help make sure that whatever I do while I’m here enhances someone else’s opportunity, not takes away from it.”
The six power conferences — made up of 76 programs — employ just 13 Black head coaches (17.1%). The numbers don’t get much better when every Division I program is examined. Only 98 of the 354 have a Black head coach (27.7%), according to the NCAA.
Remove the 21 Historically Black Colleges and Universities from that total, and the number drops to 23.1%.
The percentages have remained relatively the same since 2012 when 25% of Division I college basketball coaches were Black. The percentage peaked twice since at 28%.
“I don’t know how much of it is intentional,” Boynton said of the percentage of Black head coaches being so low, far behind the percentage of Black players (56%). “I think it used to be much more intentional before. I think now it’s a comfort. It’s, ‘This is how we’ve always done it, don’t feel like changing,’ and it’s a deal where it’s just ignorance. It’s ignorance.”
Boynton, however, is on a unique path.
He’s gone from the Brooklyn projects to Division I basketball to overlooked assistant to head coach of the Cowboys at a meteoric pace.
More importantly, he’s a beacon of hope for Black assistant coaches and players across the country. He’s also rapidly becoming the most beloved face of OSU’s athletic department while likely leading the Cowboys back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.
“Mike, to me, represents that new generation of young coaches that will be responsible for taking the game into the future,” legendary coach George Raveling said. “Mike is one of those young guys that sees himself in a greater context than just a coach.”
Mike Boynton was at his lowest point.
In 2016, he believed he was in line to be the next coach at Stephen F. Austin, succeeding Brad Underwood after a three-year tenure in which they won a remarkable 86% of their games.
Instead, the university hired former OSU assistant Kyle Keller.
Boynton considered going back to the East Coast. He was a recognizable name there, not so much in a southeast Texas community such as Nacogdoches. He thought he might be able to change his trajectory, but there was also this nagging thought that maybe he’d never be a head coach.
“I was hurt,” Boynton said. “It was the most disappointed I’ve ever been professionally, because I didn’t know that there was another path to this, to where I am now, other than getting a job at a level like that.
“No disrespect. A really good job. We had unbelievable success. But that’s the type of level that you usually get your first start.”
Boynton wondered what a young guy had to do to get a chance.
It’s a common feeling for Black assistant coaches.
Looking back, he has a better understanding of why he was passed over.
“They wanted another Brad Underwood,” Boynton said. “What I mean by that is, Brad related to this part of the country. He’s from Kansas, he’s been a juco guy and they said head coaching experience, but really when you look at it, it was a middle-age white guy who had been able to hire me as an assistant coach. That’s what it was.
“I don’t think I was a token interview. But I think I had to go above, I had to do way seemingly much better than anybody else in that interview because the rest of the candidates were all middle-age white guys who would hire me as an assistant coach. That’s what they were looking for.”
Boynton followed Underwood to OSU. Still bitter a year later, Boynton was even hesitant when OSU athletic director Mike Holder approached him about interviewing to replace Underwood, who had surprisingly departed for Illinois following a run to the NCAA Tournament.
“There were a lot of reasons not to hire me,” Boynton said.
He had never been a head coach at any level. He was an unknown, even to people who worked inside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
The search committee also did not have a minority member. Additionally, Payne County is made up of more than 80% white residents.
That didn’t bode well for a Black coach on a campus without a minority head coach.
“The truth is, most of the time people hire people who they’re comfortable with,” Boynton said. “People are usually comfortable with people who are like them, not just racially but socially. … it’s not my experience.”
“I’m thankful and appreciative of the opportunity,” Boynton said. "But I know that my experience is very, very rare.”
Holder was the difference-maker.
Boynton unknowingly interviewed with Holder every day that season.
“I knew that he was someone that would make a difference in the lives of our students,” Holder said in an email. “The only question, could he walk the fine line between loving his players and making them accountable for all the things it takes to be a leader, the great unknown for every assistant that becomes a head coach?
“In Mike Boynton, we had someone that checked all of the leadership boxes but also someone who lacked a head-coaching rèsumè with a win-loss record. For other candidates, we had extensive head coaching resumes but limited information on their character.”
Holder and the committee ultimately chose Boynton because of his personal qualities. He could figure out the head coaching part.
“There would not be five ADs in America — there might not be three — he might be the only one that would be that supportive,” said Eddie Fogler, Boynton’s former South Carolina coach who aided the search but had no involvement in his hiring.
“Mike Holder, he’s the guy. He’s the guy that stood up, and for whatever reason, he knew Mike Boynton had it. And he was willing to stick his neck out.”
Mike Boynton has been through the wringer in the last three-plus seasons.
His first post-practice interview came after assistant Lamont Evans was arrested for accepting bribes to influence student-athletes, which led to the NCAA banning the Cowboys from the upcoming postseason. OSU has appealed and is eligible until further notice.
Over the next two seasons, Boynton also dismissed a handful of players, conducted mid-season open tryouts and weathered the storm through erratic play.
But his biggest challenge might have been this summer.
Not only was the COVID-19 pandemic raging, but the NCAA sanctions also threatened to wreck the roster and incoming recruiting class. Plus, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited a social justice movement across the country.
Boynton attended peaceful protests. He was outspoken about the issues, even publicly sharing a harrowing story from his childhood when he was racially profiled by three police officers. He was open and honest with his players, both those already on campus and those Cowboys fans hoped would be.
Boynton simply led.
It’s a big reason why he was named to the search committee for OSU’s new university president.
“It’s amazing to me,” said Millie Boynton, Mike’s mom. “I always say I’m blessed that he’s my child, but I’m so blessed that he has a voice and he’s not afraid to use it.
“I’m glad he feels that just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m wrong or you’re wrong. You just have to be able to see things in a different way and be OK with it.”
All but two players remained committed to the Cowboys, including superstar Cade Cunningham. And Boynton became a voice of empowerment for his players.
“He’s somebody that we can all relate to,” Cunningham said. “There’s not a lot of schools that we can transfer to where there’s going to be another coach that looks like him and treats us the way that he does and looks at us the way that he does.
“Just having that, it’s a lot easier to run a suicide for somebody like that that we can relate to than some dude that doesn’t really know what we’re going through throughout this time.”
Boynton brought in officers from the Stillwater Police Department and OSU Campus Police to speak with his players about everybody’s role. He spoke about financial literacy with his players. He encouraged them to vote while explaining how the process affects each of their lives.
Every player except for Bernard Kouma and Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe — who are not U.S. citizens — voted in the November election. A few even drove to Texas to vote in their hometowns.
“There’s just a connection and it’s really genuine,” OSU assistant Erik Pastrana said about Boynton’s relationship with the players. “You can tell when a guy’s hitting you with a car sale’s job and when a guy’s genuinely trying to find out about you, about your family. When you do that, I think it bleeds over to all parts of your program.
“I get calls all the time about how hard our guys play this year. They play hard because they play hard for Mike. They play hard because they know it means a lot to him and they mean a lot to him.”
George Raveling sees a lot of himself in Mike Boynton.
They first met when Boynton was playing AAU basketball in New York City in the eighth grade. Raveling’s friend Ernie Lorche made the introduction and asked Raveling to mentor Boynton.
The two have been close since. And Boynton appears to be following in Raveling’s footsteps.
Raveling was hired at Washington State in 1972. He was the Pac-8’s first Black men’s basketball head coach, and it happened in a rural farming community near the Washington and Idaho state lines.
“Washington State should have been the last team in the league to hire a Black coach,” said Raveling, a pioneer who later coached at Iowa and Southern Cal. “I’m coming, no coaching experience, Black and an Easterner. It’s the first time in my life I’d ever been in the western part of the United States physically.
“I can feel and see the path forward and the journey that Mike is on. I kinda lived it.”
Back then, there were few Black head coaches across the country. Georgetown’s John Thompson Jr. was still 12 years away from becoming the first Black coach to win a men’s basketball national title. Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson was a decade further away.
Raveling made six NCAA Tournament appearances in 22 seasons as a head coach. John Chaney coached in 18 NCAA Tournaments.
They had success. That’s what Boynton and other Black coaches believe is the key to more hires being made.
“That’s really the only way to make it undeniable,” Boynton said. “Somebody has to be in the Final Four or win a national championship consistently. One of the Black coaches needs to be in the Final Four. Somebody — Cuonzo Martin, Mike Boynton, Shaka Smart — somebody needs to be in the Final Four so that people can see.
“Again, that’s what validates you in this sport. But the other part is that there’s got to be a serious conversation. Are we really giving opportunities to people who deserve them the most?”
The numbers say no.
In the 1997-98 season, 25% of major-conference head coaches were Black. The number grew to 33.8% in the 2004-05 season. But in the past seven seasons, the number has not been higher than 21.3%.
The Pac-12 has no Black men’s basketball head coaches. The Big Ten has just one — Juwan Howard at Michigan. Boynton and Smart at Texas are the only Black coaches in the Big 12.
“We have to acknowledge things are better,” Boynton said about today’s numbers. “Things aren’t the way they were. But, when you consider the big picture, we got a long way to go. A long way to go. There’s still resistance to giving guys opportunities.”
Boynton feels he can make a difference. He believes nobody in the country works harder. His quiet confidence alleviates any possible pressure.
And he understands he’s responsible for more than just himself.
Boynton is coaching to open doors for coaches around the country like OU’s Carlin Hartman, a longtime assistant, or Baylor’s Jerome Tang and Texas’ K.T. Turner, both of whom had the opportunity to coach in the absence of head coaches this season due to COVID-19.
“The opportunity afforded to Mike at Oklahoma State is something that a lot of us longtime assistants can only dream of,” Hartman said. “So, we’re really pulling for him to keep on doing what he’s doing and be the standard-bearer for head coaches.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Alma mater: South Carolina
Degree: African American Studies
Family: Jenny (wife), Ace (son), Zoe (daughter)
Coaching career: OSU head coach 2017-present (65-55 overall); OSU assistant 2016-17; Stephen F. Austin assistant 2013-16; South Carolina assistant 2008-13; Wofford associate head coach 2007-08; Coastal Carolina assistant 2005-07, Furman graduate manager 2004-05.
Playing career: Played in 125 career games from 2001-04 at South Carolina, leading the Gamecocks to the 2004 NCAA Tournament. That season, he averaged 9.9 points and 3.5 assists as a senior. Boynton was also first-team All-New York City at Bishop Loughlin High.
There are only 13 Black head coaches this season among the 76 schools in the six major conferences of college basketball. That's 17% in a sport in which more than half players are Black. Here are the Black head coaches in the six major conferences:
Jeff Capel, Pittsburgh
Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Kevin Keatts, NC State
Juwan Howard, Michigan
Mike Boynton, Oklahoma State
Shaka Smart, Texas
Mike Anderson, St. John’s
Ed Cooley, Providence
Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
LaVall Jordan, Butler
Dave Leitao, DePaul
Cuonzo Martin, Missouri
Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt