COLLEGE PARK—University of Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy’s 6-foot-2-inch, broad-framed body is an imposing presence matside at the Comcast Center.
Like most wrestling coaches, McCoy patrols with an intense glare while belting out instructions, words of encouragement and nuggets of constructive criticism to his wrestlers.
Unlike most wrestling coaches, McCoy is black – one of five black head coaches in NCAA Division I wrestling.
McCoy stands out, but he said he has never felt out of place—least of all within the predominately white sport of wrestling.
“I never really thought about it in an active way,” McCoy said. “I’m me, and I’m black. I don’t want to be identified by that, but at the same [time I] don’t want to take that away.“
McCoy, 37, has earned two ACC Coach of the Year honors since he was named head coach of the Terps in 2008. As a wrestler, McCoy was an Olympian and a two-time national champion at Penn State University.
McCoy said he has never dwelled on the color of his skin in the predominantly white sport because of his early wrestling experiences.
From the time McCoy first started wrestling in Middle Island, N.Y., in the seventh grade with his cousin, best friend and other neighborhood pals, he competed on racially diverse teams.
One of McCoy’s closest friends, John Lange, wrestled with him in middle school, high school and at Penn State. Lange, who is white, said that he never thought about McCoy’s race growing up.
“He was always just Kerry,” Lange said. “I think part of that is a product of where we grew up. We had enough of an integrated team that it just was.”
Growing up, McCoy wanted to be a basketball player, not a wrestler. But he decided to join the wrestling team after coaches cut him from his middle school basketball team in seventh grade.
McCoy said he fell in love with sport from the first day he started wrestling—even though he wasn’t all that good at first. Lange said he worked hard to improve.
“He just was a mat rat. He stayed on the mat as much as he could year round,” Lange said. “I don’t think there’s a better wrestling mind out there because of how much time he’s put into the sport.”
When he competed against teams in less diverse areas, McCoy said he sometimes faced racial stereotyping – which he used to his advantage.
“The one funny thing about wrestling is you always see that a black athlete, if he’s real successful, the way that he’s described is, ‘He’s so athletic; he’s so explosive.’ But when a white athlete is successful, you hear, ‘He’s such a technician; he’s in great shape.’” McCoy said. “And they could be doing the exact same things.”
If opposing wrestlers came in anticipating only explosiveness and athleticism, he would catch them off-guard with his cerebral approach and relentless energy.
McCoy views his position as one of only a small number of black college wrestling coaches as a platform to attract more minorities to the sport.
Besides McCoy, the other black Division I wrestling coaches are Kevin Jackson of Iowa State, Shawn Charles of Arizona State, Joe Heskett of Army and Carl Adams of Boston University. More than 90 percent of Division I wrestling coaches are white, according to the NCAA.
This disparity can be attributed in part to the fact the majority of all college athletes seek professions outside of college sports, McCoy said. Only a fraction of the already small number of minority wrestlers pursue careers in coaching after college.
But McCoy hopes that more minority wrestlers will consider coaching if they have more black role models like him to follow.
“He’s like my father,” said Maryland wrestler Christian Boley. “That’s another advantage for me as a black male. I get to see a good role model as a black coach. He’s a successful man. He’s a successful father…I can try to model my life after his and try to do a lot of thing he does in his life.”
His wrestlers tend not to think too much about the race of their coach.
“I don’t really think about it all,” said Maryland wrestler Josh Asper, the 2010-2011 ACC Wrestler of the Year, who is white. “I just think of him as our coach, our leader and the guy that’s going to lead me to a national championship.”
McCoy is also hopeful that his success in wrestling will draw more younger minority athletes to the sport as well.
“Now, when you’re looking in the collegiate ranks and the international ranks, you’re seeing more people of diversity and more people of color who are having success,” McCoy said. “That’s something that’s going to draw a kid who says, ‘Oh, well, you can’t go wrestling, that’s a white sport.’”
Adams, who has been the head wrestling coach of Boston University for over 30 years, said that the younger generation of black coaches like McCoy and his counterparts are helping to create new opportunities for minority wrestlers.
“They have to carry the torch for the younger generations. They’re great role models. They represent the sport at the highest level,” he said.