Struggles and rewards: Howard University’s volleyball experiment

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Howard volleyball 12/9/2020-Kayla Diaz-Howard volleyball
Howard's Kayla Diaz sets the slide for Kira Porter in the 2019 MEAC final/Howard photo

By John Tawa for VolleyballMag.com

Howard University volleyball coach Shaun Kupferberg is thinking big. 

And why not? 

His school, largely considered the nation’s leading HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), got tremendous publicity this summer when alumna Kamala Harris was announced as the Democratic candidate for vice president, and in athletics, when top-five men’s basketball recruit Makur Maker turned down UCLA and other Power 5 schools to play for the Bison.

When he arrived on campus eight years ago, Kupferberg just wanted to turn a struggling program into a perennial Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference contender. Now, having won five MEAC titles in a row, Howard’s elevated profile has Kupferberg dreaming about landing his own high-profile recruits, ones who put his program into the national top 25.

The only problem is that his market of potential deep-impact Black players is very, very small.

Shaun Kupferberg

A lot of HBCUs populate their rosters with foreign-born players.

“It’s a lot easier to get in on the ground floor with international students,” Kupferberg said. “Many U.S. players are pushed toward Power 5 schools and they don’t give HBCUs a chance.”

Kupferberg did not want to build Howard’s program that way. He wanted the volleyball program to look and feel like the university itself.

His fellow college coaches told him that building a championship team with only minority players couldn’t be done.

“Coaches, some I have known for years, said some fairly crazy and racist things to me during that first year on the job,” said Kupferberg, who is white. “It revealed a lot about our community and how much growth was necessary. Contributing to that growth requires us to be successful.”

Howard finished 20-13 in 2019 and dominated the MEAC once again, going 14-1 in the league. The Bison lost to the Big Ten’s Maryland in five, but beat Rutgers in four. They won their fifth MEAC tournament title in a row beflore losing to Pitt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“The goal is to help these young women build a program that is more than a championship volleyball team,” Kupferberg said. “If done right, they can be a page in that same Howard University history book just after Kamala Harris’ chapter and invoke the same sense of pride in alumni while inspiring a new generation.”

When Kupferberg took the job at Howard, half of his team was white.

“I’m not saying that’s wrong,” he said. “Howard, however, is unique within the HBCU community. The pride that Howard maintains in the African American culture is seen throughout law, medicine, entertainment, the business world … There are so many high profile African American voices out there that it’s important for the volleyball program to represent the heartbeat of the University, not be a separate entity.”

When Kupferberg set out to create a roster for Howard comprised exclusively of Black players, he encountered two distinct challenges:

1) A talent pool that was limited;
2) A club volleyball structure that worked against HBCUs.

Only 15 percent of club players registered with USA Volleyball are Black, Kupferberg said. That shrinks the recruiting pool right off the bat. If only one percent of those are Division I caliber, the pool recedes even more. Add the stiff academic requirements to be admitted to Howard and there are fewer than 100 players in any given class that the University can recruit, the coach explained.

Howard is doing its part to grow Black participation in volleyball by doing free clinics in and around D.C. at the local schools, by hosting coaches clinics for coaches from those schools and by hosting its own clinics for kids. Kupferberg knows that more must be done.

“We have to grow the game of volleyball within Black communities,” he said.

Kupferberg noted that it’s much easier for young African-American children to take up basketball because there are hoops at the local schools and you can easily put up a ring in your driveway or backyard. Playing volleyball, by contrast, requires access to a gym. Kupferberg noted that in Europe and Central America you often will see a volleyball court next to a basketball court in a city park. Not in the USA and definitely not in a Black community.

“Lots of people are not touching a volleyball because they have no place to play,” he said.

Educating the Black community about volleyball also is important, Kupferberg said.

“Volleyball is outside the norm,” he explained. “They don’t know it and are used to other sports. But it is rapidly becoming a major sport.”

Howard’s current roster lists players from California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, and Texas.

Educating club coaches and recruiting directors about places like Howard is equally important, Kupferberg said. Those 100 “possibles” every year are being coached and assisted in the recruiting process largely by white people, most of whom don’t know anything about Howard or its history.

“When we have an interest in a player, we’ll start by having a 30-second conversation with a coach or recruiting director,” Kupferberg explained. “If they’re white, 90 percent say they don’t know anything about us. We go through the quick spiel. That we are a Division I HBCU, that we produce more Black doctors, lawyers and CEOs than anyplace else. Then we ask them to pass along our card. We’ve found a lot of cards not being passed along because they think we’re a lesser school. They don’t know about the opportunities here or why for a Black family it’s such a big deal to go here.”

Certainly some of the NCAA’s biggest stars have been Black, but in most cases at PWI (predominantly white institutions).

“Most Black athletes aren’t aware of the opportunity to play this sport that they love with teammates that look like them,” said Julian Welsh-White, a Howard assistant coach. “Instead of being the only Black player on their team at a predominantly white institution, they have the opportunity to be amongst 15-20 other girls that are Black at an HBCU. There won’t be the uncomfortable feeling at an HBCU that one would experience at a PWI.”

“My experience at PWIs was opposite of that at an HBCU,” noted assistant coach Ciara Jones. “You never see this many Black people in one place. Most African-Americans at a PWI are athletes, and those who are not are disbursed around campus and you constantly need to explain yourself. 

“I went to Marquette University, where I was the only minority in most of my classes. At an HBCU you are the majority for probably the only time in your life outside of your own home.”

Kupferberg knows that if he can make Howard’s interest known to the players and their families, then he has at least a shot, even with the top recruits in the nation.
 
“Black families are excited to hear from Howard,” he said. “They know the place Howard holds in history.”

“I tell the stories that I see in my players, but I can’t possibly have first-hand experience,” Kupferberg said. “The passion I see on campus every day in the general student body is something that I cannot describe nor understand based on my life experiences. 

“The empowerment our students describe is awe inspiring and the reason I expect high level athletes to want the opportunity to experience this opportunity. All of that said, I find it hard to speak on their behalf about why it is so special to attend Howard … that internal pride I see in generations when their daughter/granddaughter joins our community is so hard to capture in a quote.”

Howard wins the 2019 MEAC title

Kupferberg was the head coach Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, before six seasons at Jacksonville. His first season at Howard, 2012, the Bison went 1-23. But the next year Howard went 21-11 and made the MEAC tourney semifinals. In 2014, the team finished 20-11, this time getting to the tourney final.

And in the past five years, Howard’s overall record is 100-53.

Howard has developed a recruiting book to send out to clubs educating them on all that the the school has to offer. Kupferberg wants those clubs to understand that Howard presents a unique opportunity for Black students.

“Good academics and community while surrounded by everyone who looks like you and is steeped in the Black culture. When our players get to Howard you see them get their confidence and voice. They talk about how much they’ve been hiding through the years. Here they can just relax and be themselves.”

As Howard has started having consistent success in volleyball, not only has the vibrant community and alumni base supported the program but the Bison also have been “in the conversation” for more elite prospects. Those players have usually eschewed the university for traditional Power 5 programs and all of their bells and whistles. Kupferberg, however, can feel the winds of change, from basketball player Maker to VP Harris to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in America.

“We’re hoping to turn conversations with those players into commitments,” Kupferberg said. “I think the athletes themselves are starting to feel more empowered about their situations. In the past, they felt they needed to go someplace else to get what they wanted out of their college experience. I think that has changed. The vice presidential pick shows Howard’s continuing role in the history of empowering Black America. BLM has given students and alumni their own civil rights movement they can push for what should have been guaranteed 150 years ago.”

“PWIs have the shiny bells and whistles as far as facilities, but will never live up to the experience of an HBCU because there is no substitute for the support you get from this community,” added Jones.

Indeed, early in September, Houston-area twins Cimone and Bria Woodard, both considered among the top 150 recruits nationally in the class of 2021, announced their commitment to the Bison.

“The history of the school and the strong sentiment of Black excellence is something that I cannot wait to learn from and contribute to,” Bria Woodard said.

“I just know that the HBCU experience is right for me and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store,” Cimone Woodard said. “I want to thank the coaches at Howard for giving me this amazing opportunity to go to a university filled with great history.”

That’s just what Kupferberg wants to hear.

“It’s a moment in history right now,” Kupferberg said. “We’ve captured the attention of all students. They are starting to think about why they are doing what they are doing. One such decision is the university to attend. 

“The value you get at a place like Howard is beyond the degree. It’s truly a community, a place where people can grow and develop and achieve their goals. It’s not a four-year decision; it’s going to affect you the rest of your life. When you’re here you’re more than an athlete.”

Shaun Kupferberg coaching in the 2019 MEAC tournament championship match/Howard photo

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