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New SFU coach finally gets opportunity she’s deserved for so long

LORETTO — As she stood at the podium on a day devoted specifically to her — not someone else who was being named head coach — Keila Whittington explained why she had such confidence and belief that her big day would indeed finally arrive.

“Yes, I absolutely knew that this day would come for me,” Whittington said Thursday during her introductory press conference after being named Saint Francis women’s basketball coach.

That’s head coach. Not assistant coach.

Not this time.

It took nearly 30 years of being a college basketball assistant before the 51-year-old Whittington finally got her opportunity to lead a program. She’s been interviewed for head coaching jobs numerous times over the years, but she never got the job.

She doesn’t know why.

She really doesn’t even care why.

“Throughout my journey as an assistant coach, I always felt that every coaching opportunity that I received was a part of God’s plan,” she said. “Each next step, each next place that I went to and my job responsibilities, the things that I did, the people that I met, to be in those places at that time and to experience those things in people’s lives, I have no doubt that that’s where I was supposed to be at that time.”

Her perseverance is amazing, and it’s brought about by her faith.

“God says he does not work by clock or calendar,” Whittington said. “So in some people’s minds, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve been an assistant for so long, will this ever happen for you?’

“Well, if you trust and believe like you say you do or like you should, then you’ve got to know it’s going to happen. So I wasn’t questioning like how or why not this one and why not that one. I was just waiting. You know, Lord, your will be done. And when that time comes, I’m going to be ready.”

Whittington went on to say of the Saint Francis job that “There’s no question that I was ready, I knew it was going to happen and this was the place. This is where I should be. This is the time when I should be here.”

Still, after listening to her speak, looking at her resume and seeing all the accomplishments, it’s hard not to wonder why Keila Whittington had never been named a head coach prior to this past week.

“I can’t answer to why they didn’t choose me,” Whittington said of places she’d been considered for a head coaching job. “But when you look at the person that they hired, some people were sitting head coaches, some people had head coaching experience … some people went for a younger fit, or some people went for a male.”

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw made news at the Final Four earlier this month with a passionate, eloquent, candid answer about young girls needing more female role models in position of leadership.

“We don’t have enough visible female leaders. We don’t have enough women in power,” McGraw said. “Girls are socialized to know that when they come out, gender roles are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the man that is the stronger one.”

McGraw went on to say, “When you look at men’s basketball and 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. And that’s the problem.”

At Whittington’s last job, Marist, the longtime head coach is a man, Brian Giorgis. Two stops ago, at Oregon, the head coach was a man, Paul Westhead of Lakers and Loyola-Marymount fame.

Saint Francis’ previous head coach was a man, Joe Haigh.

In women’s college basketball, 59.6 percent of Division I coaches are women, 40.4 percent men. Only 11.9 percent are African-American women. Those numbers are from renowned sports diversity expert Dr. Richard Lapchick’s study from the 2017-18 season.

It’s hard to get a job when you don’t have experience. And it’s hard to get experience when the numbers have been so skewed against hiring women and especially African-American women as head coaches.

In her career, Whittington said she’s never looked at opportunities she did or not get based on her gender, nor her race.

“No, I never felt that way,” she said. “Because some of the places hired an African-American male or female. I literally didn’t dig that deep into their decision. My desire was just to focus on the next opportunity.

“When someone with head coaching experience got the job, it was very evident. They wanted someone who had more experience than I did, and I did not have the head coaching experience. So I think it’s more the athletic director and the (search) committee and the university and what they needed at that time.

“I never questioned that I missed out or that they screwed up by not hiring me. I’m very happy with my path and my journey and all the places that I have been and the things that I have done.”

Saint Francis has a female athletic director, Susan Robinson Fruchtl, and she’s certainly aware of McGraw’s comments at the Final Four.

“We need to think about what Muffet said, and we need to, I think, at least consider that in our search process,” Robinson Fruchtl said.

“As a female, whether it was coaching or now, I definitely feel a sense that I need to pay attention to that. Now, you ultimately want the best candidate who’s going to be a good fit, recruit great kids, coach them up, mentor them.”

Whittington looks to be a good fit in all those areas, but only time will tell if she can succeed at Saint Francis. The program is losing superstar Jess Kovatch and has to rebuild in a lot of areas, but Whittington has high expectations for herself and where she can take the program.

The bottom line, though, is it’s just great to see someone who has persevered for so long and been so patient finally get an opportunity she deserves.

And has deserved for many years.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ‘Toona 1430-AM.

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