Article by Jac Coyne
Prior to the start of the contest between Tusculum and Lees-McRae on Wednesday, there will be a ceremony. Since it's the first home game in the history of the Tusculum program, an honorary faceoff will be staged featuring school president, Dr. Nancy Moody, among others.
Shortly after that moment, a more intriguing event will happen.
Tusculum coach Richard Carrington and Lees-McRae coach Darry Thornton will stride toward each other and shake hands, establishing the contest as the first-ever between two black head coaches at the Division II level, and just the second known meeting in NCAA men's lacrosse history.
It's a bittersweet moment for lacrosse.
That Carrington and Thornton are the faces of their respective programs is certainly a big step forward for a sport that has been working tirelessly at various levels in pursuit of diversity. On the flip side, that this subject is even topical in the 21st century raises a level of disappointment.
"It's something to reflect on," said Carrington, who has spent the last 18 months getting Tusculum ready for this season. "It's crazy to think that it's 2014 and this is one of the first times that two African-American coaches are meeting. It's weird to think about, I guess."
"The game is growing, but it's tough," Thornton said of the lack of black coaches in lacrosse. "At the end of the day it doesn't surprise me. That doesn't mean that it won't change in the future, but it doesn't surprise me."
Both coaches love lacrosse and have found their calling in it.
Carrington has had stops at every collegiate level. Prior to Tusculum, he was on the staff at Division I VMI and started the program at Division II Chestnut Hill. He's had stops at Division III Kenyon and Alvernia and was an assistant at his alma mater, Division II Mars Hill.
Thornton arrived at Lees-McRae after a stint at Mohawk Valley in the junior college ranks. Prior to that he started the men's and women's programs at Mount St. Mary (N.Y.). It was there that he coached against Penn State-Abington's Keith Brandon in what is thought to be the first meeting of black coaches in NCAA men's lacrosse competition in 2011. He also has been an assistant at Oneonta State, where he graduated in '03, and Queens (N.C.).
With their extensive backgrounds, Carrington and Thornton also are quick to point out what attracted them to the sport.
"It is a great avenue and it has afforded me a lot of opportunities," Thornton said. "I've made some great relationships that I wouldn't have otherwise."
"It's also pretty rewarding to be at this point with lacrosse," Carrington added. "Diversity in lacrosse has been something that we're trying to push over the past 10 years or so, and it's definitely improving. Throughout my career as a player and a coach, I've always tried to be one of those guys who has been one of the first black players or coaches to participate in a game, a team or a league."
Are there answers to the diversity question? Addressing the subject of race in sport, or any aspect of life, is a complex task because there are many nuances. The same is true for lacrosse. Accessibility has been one of the challenges -- whether it is field space or equipment costs -- that is being tackled by numerous lacrosse organizations, including US Lacrosse. The sport's national governing body in January signed on as a charter member of the Urban Lacrosse Alliance, one of several ongoing efforts in diversity and inclusion.
Carrington and Thornton point out that it's as much about changing perceptions as handing out sticks.
"At the end of the day, we want to continue to grow the game and make sure that as the game continues to grow that the black race understands that this is a game for all races and all people," Carrington said. "The days of this being a prep school, northeast sport -- that's done."
"Where I grew up at, it was tough because being African-American, you get made fun of for playing what seen as, for lack of a better term, 'a white boy sport,'" Thornton said. "In our community, we erased that stigma. We need more Sam Bradmans and Kyle Harrisons and Chazz Woodsons of the world. Until we change the way we look at it and approach it, it won't change. And it starts at home."
Exposure to the sport is critical. Thornton liked lacrosse, but wasn't sure what it held for him until his high school coach told him about Billy Daye, the former North Carolina and Major League Lacrosse goalie who won an MLL title as the Boston Cannons' coach in 2011. "It was one of those things where I said, 'Oh, there are opportunities," Thornton said.
The new generation of black college and pro lacrosse stars will continue to open eyes as they are seen more and more on screen.
"You're seeing more people getting involved and the television exposure has certainly helped out a lot," Carrington said. "It's a lot easier to wrap your head around lacrosse when you turn on ESPN on a Saturday and watch a game as opposed to seeing it in passing at a high school. You have that tangible piece where you can say, 'I can actually give this a try.'"
Wednesday's game won't instantaneously alter the lacrosse demographics. Ultimately, it's a game between two coaches who want to pick up an early-season win.
Race is an issue that will continue to be a topic of conversation in our sport, and the more dialogue the better. On Wednesday, it will be just part of the experience.
"I take more pride in the fact that through a lot of hard work and mentorship that I've received throughout my career from several coaches, I have the opportunity to be head coach at Tusculum, because it's a special place," Carrington said. "I take a little bit more pride with the ability to lead this team for the first time. But there is certainly that little added factor that Darry and I are representing African-Americans, as well."