Diverse Bethune-Cookman staff guiding team through tough times

The Bethune-Cookman bench erupts after an and-one call. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman Athletics.
The Bethune-Cookman bench erupts after an and-one call. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman Athletics.

In early June, as social justice protests unfolded across the nation, Bethune-Cookman associate head coach Chandler McCabe got a call from a player, who was in tears.

“Someone had called her a racial slur,” McCabe said. “It was really hard being on the phone and not with her. I felt like, ‘tell me where this person lives, and I’ll go take care of it.’ But I helped her to calm down.”

Two weeks later the same player called, again in tears. McCabe braced herself.

“I’m like, ‘what happened this time?’ She just said, ‘coach McCabe, I love you. Thank you so much,’” McCabe said. “I held it together for her and then I hung up the phone and cried.”

“It means so much to be here at this HBCU with this staff.”

Similar discussions have likely played out at every Historically Black College and University across the country the last two months, as athletes and coaches stretch to communicate about racial unrest over distances mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the Wildcats, however, that dialogue is unique in at least one respect: McCabe, who has worked for head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis for six years, is white. And both women, together with the rest of the coaching staff, are guiding their team through an unprecedented time.

It was late in the regular season when news began to break of the racially-motivated killing of Ahmaud Arbery, just 160 miles from Bethune-Cookman. Players were traumatized by the incident and were still processing it when the NCAA called off the season, and everyone was sent home.

“Our Zoom meetings became about giving them a platform to talk,” Blair-Lewis said. “We don’t have answers for this, but they needed a place and a space to talk.”

Some athletes began to remember past instances of racism and discrimination they experienced as children. Their coaches walked them through it as best they could through computer screens.

“We were listening to them, with tears coming out of our eyes,” Blair-Lewis said. “Then weeks later everyone witnesses the murder of George Floyd. These have been our calls, to help them navigate these feelings. Should they protest, should they not protest.”

Initially in mid-March, however, the Wildcat’s online meetings were about processing their lost season and dealing with fear and uncertainty as the pandemic unfolded.

“We had no idea what was going to happen next,” Blair-Lewis said. “Our Zoom calls were like, ‘are you OK?’ We were trying, as coaches, to give these girls something. We were just playing a game the day before, and now the whole world is shut down.”

Counseling athletes on racial injustice was particularly difficult for Blair-Lewis, as it hit home.

“There’s no 20-second timeout for this,” she said. “They’re looking at me like, ‘you’re Black like me, you should have answers.’ And I don’t. It’s a hard feeling. But I think now they’ve found outlets for where to put those feelings. We’re here to listen and to support them.”

But though the staff is united, each has a unique viewpoint.

“Coach McCabe and (assistant) coach (Demetria) Frank, who are the same age, were both crying, and both having a different experience,” Blair-Lewis said.

McCabe’s tenure as an ally began with a recommendation from former collegiate coach Kristeena Alexander, who knew Blair-Lewis was looking for an assistant coach.

“She said, ‘I’ve got this girl – just interview her,’” Blair-Lewis said. “She didn’t tell me any character traits or anything…she just reached out because we’re friends. She said, ‘you won’t regret it.’”

Blair-Lewis already had a male candidate in mind, but she agreed to meet with McCabe.

“I didn’t even Google her, I just trusted Kristeena,” Blair-Lewis said. “With Chandler, I didn’t know white or black. I was just looking at her credentials.”

“So we Skyped her and my staff thought, wow, there’s something there. So I decided to bring her on campus.”

The male applicant came for an interview before McCabe got there, and Blair-Lewis was set on hiring him.

“We had already bought her (plane) ticket, but if I had it my way at the time, she’d have never got to campus,” she said. “I had it in my mind, fixed.”

McCabe “blew them all away” in her interview, according to Blair-Lewis.

“We all felt there was something special there,” she said, and decided to hire McCabe.

Then Blair-Lewis dealt with the race question directly.

“I had to make sure she was OK with it, so I asked, ‘coach McCabe, you know you’re coming to an HBCU, right?’” Blair-Lewis recalled. “And she said ‘is that OK, am I allowed?’”

Chandler McCabe and Vanessa Blair-Lewis consult at a timeout. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman Athletics.
Associate head coach Chandler McCabe and head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis consult at a timeout. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman Athletics.

There are no rules at HBCU’s precluding non-Blacks from working, attending or playing there. But those instances are still much more the exception than the rule.

“It’s a very logical question, because when you think HBCU, you think black,” Blair-Lewis said.

McCabe had returned to Arkadelphia, Ark., where she was a graduate assistant, when she got the call from her new boss.

“She asked, ‘do you want us?’ and I said ‘yes, are you joking?’” McCabe said. “It was one of the best days of my life.”

Blair-Lewis did pause for a moment before introducing McCabe to athletes, thinking, “I wonder how the team is going to view this.” Ultimately, she decided that it wouldn’t matter to a group that is part of a young generation that accepts diversity more than any other before it.

“I realized that when we called a lot of these kids to offer them a scholarship at Bethune, some of them didn’t know – even being Black – what an HBCU meant,” Blair-Lewis said. “They were coming here for basketball, because they felt love from us, and then it was like, ‘oh, HBCU, what’s that supposed to mean?’”

Sure enough, McCabe was smoothly brought into the fold.

“When they saw coach McCabe, they saw a basketball coach or a high school teacher, or someone they’d had in their high school,” Blair-Lewis said. “There was never a thought that, she’s white coaching at an HBCU. The players we’re coaching now, they never saw a difference in coach McCabe. They’re being coached in school, in AAU, and they see diversity.”

“If you’re around a sport, you’re usually around diversity. They’re used to being around diversity.”

McCabe said she has always felt comfortable within the Wildcat program.

“I’ve never felt like I’m an outsider once at this University,” she said. “It’s such an incredible institution, it’s so rich in history and it’s a diverse campus, as well.”

“The girls accepted me from day one, and it’s just been incredible. And it says so much about these institutions, and how important and incredible they are.”

McCabe’s initial season was typical of any new coach who is learning the ropes.

“The first year was harder just to learn everything, and how a DI program operates, and specifically what Vanessa wanted from me,” McCabe said. “I had a lot of trial and error, but there was definitely a lot of love and correcting and coaching going on from Vanessa directly to me.”

It is a philosophy that Blair-Lewis and her staff pass down to their athletes.

“Our program is definitely based off of love, from the head coach on down,” McCabe said. “When we recruit them, we recruit them for life. They’re going to play four years for us…..and after that is what’s most important.”

McCabe said Blair-Lewis makes sure athletes are prepared for their next step after college, and has housed several of them until they’ve figured it out. She called her boss “an incredible woman,” and said she also does her part to ensure players are career-directed before they leave.

“Don’t get us wrong – between those lines, we are extremely competitive, and we’re going to get on you,” McCabe said. “We’re going to coach you and play hard and win games. But outside those lines, anytime of day, Vanessa and the rest of the staff are there. It’s so much more than basketball for us.”

That approach has helped Bethune-Cookman’s players to find some peace in turbulent times, as has being at their school.

“The freedom and luxury to be at an HBCU is they can substantially be themselves,” Blair-Lewis said. “Sometimes when you’re at a Power 5 school, you have to be careful and make sure you’re not offending others, and if you are, you’re labeled. But not at an HBCU.”

Head coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis hugs associate head coach Chandler McCabe after a big win last December. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman Athletics.
Vanessa Blair-Lewis hugs Chandler McCabe after a big win last December. Photo courtesy of Bethune-Cookman Athletics.

McCabe said the love that underlies the program has made the screen-only communication – which will continue indefinitely for now – difficult.

“It’s been really really tough to not be able to love them in person,” McCabe said.

But Blair-Lewis said her all-female staff is fostering team healing.

“It’s really special in this time that these girls have four amazing women to look up to,” she said. “It’s crazy because we work at an institution that was founded by a woman – the only HBCU founded by a woman – and now here we are years later with women in the forefront of this movement.”

“For our girls to have that pool of women from different backgrounds of different ages and characteristics to look up to – that right there – it’s empowering.”

And it seems that Blair-Lewis, McCabe and the rest of the Bethune-Cookman staff have been right in step with young people all along.

“There’s a change in our youth, and they are on the front lines (of the social injustice movement),” Blair-Lewis said. “And it makes us so proud to see the youth – white and Black – stepping up for injustice.”