Ahead of their time

Published by Karl Ludwig, Author: Karl Ludwig - Assistant Sports Editor, Date: February 21, 2019
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When walking around the campus of Slippery Rock University, most of the faces that pass by—85.4 percent to be exact—are going to be white.

When attending class across Slippery Rock’s campus, 86.8 percent of the time, the face at the front of the classroom is going to be white.

Unfortunately, that trend also carries over to the gridiron, the courts and the pitch.

Since Paul Lueken took over as the Director of Athletics in 1994, there have been countless African-American assistant coaches but only three African-American head coaches at SRU.

Lueken attributed part of the blame to the fact that, for the most part, the coaching tenures of SRU head coaches have been very stable over the last quarter century.

“I’ve been here 25 years,” explained Lueken. “Football? We’ve only had two coaches. Baseball? We’ve only had one coach. Track and field? Only one coach. Volleyball? Only one coach. Softball? We’ve had three and one of them was Vashion Johnson.”

With the hire of Vashion Johnson, Lueken said that Johnson was one of the most fun coaches that he has had the pleasure of working with during his time at The Rock.

Johnson was brought into the university to jumpstart the softball program,  which had languished in the basement of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference standings for nearly two decades. Fourteen  straight seasons of sub-.500 softball preceded Johnson’s tenure with the team.

“Vashion Johnson…we brought him in to get our softball program going and he did a great job,” stated Lueken. “He got us to NCAA postseason play and to be much more competitive in the conference. He got the opportunity to move onto the next level. He’s a Division I coach now.”

During Johnson’s eight years with the Green and White, he became the program’s most accomplished head coach by setting 42 school records. Johnson’s 184 career victories made him SRU’s winningest softball coach of all-time.

Johnson guided the squad to its first PSAC Tournament appearance in 2009 and the first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history during the 2008 season.

Following a 19-13 season in 2011, Johnson left for Division I program North Carolina Central University where he currently serves as the head coach.

Lueken stressed that almost every coach he has hired has been a great person and, that was especially true with the hiring of men’s basketball coaches, Anthony Jones and Jamal Palmer in 1995 and 2006, respectively.

“Anthony was a great guy. He was a strong family value guy; he had a big family. In the end, he just couldn’t win enough games. We gave him a long haul here and he couldn’t quite get into the areas we needed to get into,” Lueken said.

One of the first coaches that Lueken hired as a second year Athletic Director at SRU, Jones inherited a difficult situation following the loss of scholarships under the leadership of the previous AD before Lueken.

For the first four years of Jones’ tenure, the basketball team operated under sanctions levied by the NCAA in 1993. Scholarship funds were slashed to a league-low sum of $58,000.

Despite the challenging circumstances, Jones, the current Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Thiel College, coached the Green and White for seven seasons. The Rock went 57-120 during his time coaching at Morrow Field House.

Unable to revive Rock basketball during his seven years with the team, Lueken felt that it was time to make a change.

“I think we gave him a fair shot and he gave us a great effort,” explained Lueken. “He was a good man, but it was just time to try somebody different.”

Following Jones’ dismissal in 2002, SRU struggled mightily under the leadership of new Rock coach John Marhefka.

With just 25 wins in 106 contests, Rock assistant Jamal Palmer took over for Marhefka following the 2005 season. However, Palmer’s promotion may have been premature.

“Jamal was an assistant that we moved up to head coach, and he was here for two years,” Lueken said. “He was another good guy but probably wasn’t quite ready yet to be a head coach. We wanted to give him that opportunity.”

Palmer was hired to attempt to inject more youth into the stalled basketball program.

The experiment did not pan out as Palmer’s tenure ended two years later following a 12-42 run.

With Johnson, Jones and Palmer experiencing mixed results during their times with SRU, Lueken expressed his desire to maintain a diverse and inclusive athletic department but the opportunity to hire new head coaches has not always been present.

“I haven’t had to hire a volleyball coach or a track coach or a baseball coach,” Lueken said. “Football coach…that was Coach Lutz. He was groomed by Coach Mihalik for the position, but we’ve had lots of African-American assistant coaches. One of our African-American grad assistants just took a position with Toledo. We’ve had former African-American assistants who are out there coaching at higher levels. Keith Willis is an example of that with the Steelers.”

Despite the lack of African-American head coaches at SRU, Lueken emphasized how even with the lack of head coaches, the athletic department has continued to increase and strive for diversity with African-American associate and assistant ADs along with countless assistant coaches across the varsity level.

“We definitely try. If there’s a qualified applicant, then we’re definitely going to bring them in and interview them,” Lueken explained. “I have an African-American associate athletic director,  and I just had an African-American assistant athletic director that left for an associate AD job. From that point of view, I think we’ve proven that if there’s a qualified candidate, we’re going to hire them.”

With the representation of African-American coaches rising at the assistant level, Lueken has expressed his desire to continue to promote assistants who wish to rise within the program.

While no African-American head coach currently calls The Rock home, Lueken said that he feels as though SRU’s athletic department is as diverse as any on campus and that diversity is represented in many ways.

“Whether it be people of color, different orientation, be it sexual or other, internationally and from around the country, we are as diverse as any group here,” Lueken said. “We haven’t seen issues because they’re all working toward the same thing. They’re teammates.”

Whether having the success of Johnson or the difficult times of Palmer, each of the three African-American coaches who have been at SRU have led the way for future African-American head coaches and all those in the athletic department and working as assistant coaches.

While the diversity among coaches at The Rock appears to be lacking, promising African-American assistant coaches and individuals of color in the athletic department have the future of Rock athletics heading in the right direction.

With the renewed success and prominence of varsity athletics across the board at SRU, Lueken has attributed the diversity among coaches, athletes and faculty in leading the university forward.

Trailblazers like Vashion Johnson, Anthony Jones and Jamal Palmer will be looked back upon as those who truly began the movement.