The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At hoops power DeMatha, a coaching change stirs a painful debate about race

DeMatha replaced Mike Jones, pictured here, with a White interim coach, Peter Strickland, upsetting some parents and alumni who said the school should have considered Jones's Black assistants. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Leonard Smith’s fondest memory from his time at DeMatha Catholic High was sitting in the office of the school’s legendary coach, Morgan Wootten, and watching him pick up the phone to secure Smith a scholarship, from a school that had never recruited him, strictly on the strength of Wootten’s word.

Two decades later, many of Smith’s closest friends, his “family,” are the teammates he bonded with at the prestigious all-boys school in Hyattsville, Md., all having taken in the lessons of a legend. Smith’s love for DeMatha still runs so deep that before marrying his wife, Shena, Smith told her that any future sons could go anywhere from kindergarten through eighth grade but that DeMatha was the only choice for high school.

The couple now have two young boys. But Smith’s plan for them has been shaken, he said, after his alma mater’s recent decision to replace Wootten’s Black successor, Mike Jones, with a White interim coach, Pete Strickland — bypassing, without even interviewing, several Black assistants in the process.

“DeMatha helped shape me into who I am today. I rep DeMatha everywhere,” Smith, who now works in insurance, said in a telephone interview, no longer believing that his love for the school is reciprocated. “Now it’s pretty much like: ‘F y’all. We’re going to do what we’re going do, and y’all just go play basketball and shut up.’”

Jones announced May 17 that he was leaving after 19 years to become associate head coach at Virginia Tech. Two days later, DeMatha hired Strickland, an alumnus with connections to the basketball team stretching five decades, for at least the next season.

The move upset not just Smith but many of the program’s parents, other alumni and other stakeholders, according to interviews with a dozen people in and around the storied basketball team. They criticize a lack of transparency in the hiring process — especially after that process led the administration to overlook all 10 of Jones’s assistant coaches, most of whom are Black, choosing instead a 64-year-old White man who hasn’t coached since he directed Ireland’s national team three years ago.

Strickland has his share of supporters, who tout his ties to the school, passion for the game and considerable experience. Even some critics of the hire say they have no doubt he can do the job. But the move signals something larger, several parents and alumni said: that even amid a nationwide push for more diversity in leadership — in sports but also in politics, media, entertainment and other industries — DeMatha officials couldn’t see the value of giving one of its current Black assistants a chance.

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“Everything for us is ‘One DeMatha,’ and all of a sudden it felt like two,” said one alumnus and parent of a current basketball player. Like other parents, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution against his son. “I was having an identity crisis. What the hell have I been out here doing, and what am I a part of? We scream, ‘One DeMatha,’ because of the brotherhood of it. This didn’t feel brotherly.”

“It’s nobody on this earth,” the parent went on, “that can tell me that if there were five White [assistant] coaches there that they would go find a 70-year-old Black coach to coach them without even talking to the white boys that were there. That’s not happening in America.”

Strickland’s hiring comes two years after DeMatha brought back football coach Bill McGregor, another White man in his 60s, to replace Elijah Brooks, who is Black, after he took an assistant coaching job at the University of Maryland. To Smith and others, these high-profile moves suggest a pattern of bias and discomfort with Black leadership.

In an interview, Father James Day, DeMatha’s president, said the school plans to establish a search committee to find a full-time coach in the coming school year. Day said inclusion will factor in the decision, pointing to the recent hiring of Shaka Dickerson, who is Black, as dean of students.

“We are very aware that the individuals we hire play a significant role in the life of the school, and we want to be sure, whoever we hire, we take everything into account,” Day said.

But to Smith and others, it should have been taken into account immediately, whether Strickland ends up staying on the bench or not.

“It’s like a spit in the face to every Black athlete that put that program on the map. It was clear from the start that DeMatha had an agenda,” Smith said. “Two Black coaches at the two most visible programs? They didn’t like that, I don’t think. And I don’t think that they would ever come out and say that, but they didn’t like that.”

A national pipeline

DeMatha has long been recognized as one of the elite academic institutions in suburban Washington. But the success of its basketball and football programs has elevated the school to national prominence.

Wootten, who died last year, was the first high school coach to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The basketball power he built produced dozens of NBA players, including Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, and a slew of successful coaches at every level. Chase Young, star defensive end for the Washington Football Team, is among many DeMatha graduates to reach the NFL.

When Jones left, “we were caught off guard completely,” Day said, adding that he and principal Dan McMahon needed to act swiftly to provide some stability. Given the talent on its roster — Tyrell Ward and Rodney Rice are two of the top-rated college prospects in the class of 2022, and Jacoi Hutchinson is a highly touted rising junior — DeMatha also had to worry about other schools trying to lure players away amid uncertainty.

Strickland checked several boxes. He is a DeMatha alumnus who played for Wootten before starring at the University of Pittsburgh. He later returned to serve as an assistant under Wootten and has experience coaching high school, college and international basketball. He coached his predecessor, Jones, in high school, then recruited and coached Jones again at Old Dominion University.

“He has a wealth of experience and really is connected with the DeMatha mission,” Day said. “Everybody who is hired here has to be connected with the mission because we’re hiring an educator who happens to be a coach. We did not want the student-athletes … to feel as if they’re being abandoned. They needed someone that they could connect with right away.”

Day said between 25 to 30 people contacted the school to express interest in the position the morning after Jones moved on. He anticipated that there would be backlash.

“Rarely do people yawn when they talk about DeMatha,” Day said. “This is a national program. When people are passionate about a school or a teacher or a coach, then you get passionate responses. We’re happy with that.”

But what DeMatha officials might not have anticipated was the outrage over the process. Angry social media posts and emotional responses have gone viral within the DeMatha basketball community. One fact, in particular, overwhelmed the conversation: that none of Jones’s assistants were even considered, let alone consulted about the school’s plans.

“It’s confusing to me,” said Keith Stevens, director of an AAU program, Team Takeover, that has long attracted and trained top DeMatha players, including NBA all-star Victor Oladipo and Detroit Piston Jerami Grant. “You have multiple coaches — not only coaches but alums that’s been a part of DeMatha the majority of their adult lives. And to not even have a conversation with those guys before you bring in a quote-unquote interim — I think that’s kind of distasteful because all of those guys are qualified, if nothing else, to be an interim coach until you figure out who you want to bring in. [Strickland] is an . . . unknown to the kids. I don’t see how anyone would think that was fair.”

Most of the people who spoke to The Washington Post were vehement that their problems weren’t with Strickland or McGregor, the football coach. But several said they feared that the hires signaled a reset intended to attract more White donors — and to change the perception of a school that is located in predominantly Black Prince George’s County and has a student body that is 48 percent African American and about 65 percent non-White.

Last month, a week after the hire was announced, the school organized a meeting between Strickland and parents. It lasted nearly two hours.

Strickland, in an interview, admitted that the first hour “was heated” as parents peppered him with questions. According to those in attendance, he handled himself admirably. At one point, the mother of one player stood up and asked Strickland how he could relate to teenage Black boys. The Stags team is predominantly African American.

According to a person in attendance, Strickland responded that he couldn’t “change the color of my skin” and said his job was to meet them where they are.”

Strickland managed to assuage some of them, displaying the savvy and charm that helped him serve as head coach from Coastal Carolina University from 1998 to 2005 and Ireland’s national team from 2016 to 2018. He most recently worked as athletic director at St. John’s Catholic Prep in Frederick County. Strickland said the meeting ended with many of the parents shaking his hand.

“I didn’t say, ‘Get over it,’ ” Strickland said. “I said: ‘Guys, we’re going to figure out how to come together before maybe we’re ready to come together. I don’t expect you guys to snap your fingers to be ready.’ I think mentoring is about caring. I think it’s about being consistent with kids. And really it’s about being there when they need you. That’s what I’ve been doing as a coach for a long time. I’m not going to try and learn all of the handshakes, but I am who I am.”

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The way Strickland saw it, the meeting turned with the words of Jerrod Mustaf, a DeMatha alum who played in the NBA and whose son plays for the team now. Mustaf played under Strickland when he was Wootten’s assistant, and Strickland, who taught English, was Mustaf’s favorite teacher. Once, when Mustaf missed an assignment, Strickland assigned him James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” as a makeup lesson.

At the meeting, Mustaf told the parents that it was the first time in his life that he had read a book by an African American author and that it forever changed him.

“Talk about goose bumps when he stood up,” Strickland said.

But even Mustaf said he is disturbed by how Strickland got the job — and that none of the people behind the decision attended the meeting with parents.

“Pete knows that he means a lot to me. In terms of basketball and teaching, I can vouch for him. In terms of how this whole thing has taken place, I can’t,” Mustaf said in an interview. “I’ve talked to 100 people and all 100 of them said this process was faulty. We were hoping that the administration wasn’t that tone-deaf.

“I can’t sleep,” he said, “because it bothers my conscience. … I feel like they let us down.”

Representation 'matters’

DeMatha hasn’t been down this road often. The Stags have had just two basketball coaches since 1956, and the previous hire had its share of controversy. When Wootten began considering retirement near the end of the last century, the assumption, even by him, was that his son, Joe, would slide over one seat from his role as top assistant.

Instead, Joe Wootten left to become the coach at Bishop O’Connell, and Jones became the choice. Jones was 29 and had no previous head coaching experience. But he went on to win 511 games, a 2006 national title and eight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships.

Given that history, Day said, the school should get some benefit of the doubt.

“Here’s my naive wish as an administrator, ‘Oh, they know what they’re doing.’ That’s a wish that we don’t always get,” Day said.

Day said DeMatha opted for a temporary fix in Strickland because he was available and open to guiding the program through the transition. Strickland’s wife, Mary, is also a faculty member. And since DeMatha requires coaches to be educators, Strickland can easily fill the position in the English department vacated by Jones.

“We don’t have an opening in science. We don’t have an opening in math. Imagine how that would be received in the news — firing the physics teacher because we need a coach,” said Day, adding that DeMatha doesn’t allow parents of current students to be on its board.

Those explanations haven’t been conveyed, which frustrates some parents, who contend that handling a transition the way DeMatha did 20 years ago isn’t acceptable. Times have changed. And with the decision coming around the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, parents and other stakeholders said, simply emerging from a room with a name opens up the decision for more scrutiny.

One Black former DeMatha player suggested that hiring Strickland, on the heels of McGregor, signals the desire of the administration to reset the culture and return to the days when Wootten would leave victories and head over to Ledo in College Park and draw up X’s and O’s over some pizza and Miller Lite.

Smith took it a step further.

“It’s ‘Make DeMatha Great Again,’” he said.

Smith and Mustaf said the stability the school claimed it sought in Strickland could have been achieved by hiring someone already on the bench. Most of the assistants played at DeMatha, either for Wootten or Jones. According to people with knowledge of Jones’s thinking, Reggie Veney was his preferred choice to step in. (Jones did not respond to a request for comment). Coming off a challenging, pandemic-condensed season, some found out about Strickland on social media. Jones formally shared the move with varsity coaches shortly before the formal announcement, confirming what some had assumed when Strickland showed up to the gym earlier that day.

“Anytime there is an interim tag, you don’t bring someone from outside the organization,” said one member of last year’s staff, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his job prospects. “It would’ve made a little bit more sense if, when he came in, [Strickland] didn’t have an interim tag. It would’ve been: ‘Okay. At least they hired a coach.’ But they brought him in, and he was an interim. We already had an interim.”

Aaron Proia, a video coordinator, is one of two assistants to leave the program since Strickland was hired. He announced his departure on Instagram. “I DO want people to understand that representation absolutely matters,” he wrote. “Having an example in Coach Jones and our assistants to look up to was HUGE in the development of our young men both on and off the court the past two decades.”

Strickland already has started leading offseason workouts. At least four of Jones’s assistants have committed to staying through next season, Strickland said, and he plans to give others the time they need to come to a decision.

Howard University Coach Kenny Blakeney, a DeMatha alum, said he supports placing Strickland in the position on a short-term basis and trusts the school will properly vet the next full-time coach. Blakeney, who is Black, compares the transition to the one unfolding at his college alma mater, Duke, which announced a plan to have Jon Scheyer as coach-in-waiting for the retiring Hall of Fame legend, Mike Krzyzewski.

DeMatha’s administration “needed to keep the continuity together moving forward and felt that Coach was the best choice to do that,” said Blakeney, who was teammates with Jones, Veney and DeMatha assistant Kevin Cromer. “I know they love the school and they’ve invested a lot of their time and energy and intellectual property into developing young men. I’ve reached out to every last one of those guys to express how proud I was of them and their commitment and their success. It’s allowed me to walk around the last 19 years and pound my chest and be a proud DeMatha alum.”

But for others, the pain of the process lingers. Before he decides to spend his savings on two DeMatha educations, Smith said he needs to hear an apology or a satisfactory explanation. He is not anticipating he will get either.

“I knew every time I walked into those DeMatha doors, it was always a place of love and unity. Right now, I can’t look at DeMatha that way. It really hurts my heart because I never thought DeMatha would get to this point and to not even think enough about us. They know people are mad, but they’re not touching it,” said Smith, who has friends on the coaching staff. “They’re just waiting for it blow over. And I’m like, ‘Nah, y’all have got to address this.’ I’m willing to do this for the greater good because I know a lot of my guys want to say something but can’t.”

This story has been updated with additional information about how assistant coaches learned about Strickland’s hire.

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