Being the only black person in the room isn’t something new for Carrie Banks.

When she was hired as the head coach of UNO women’s basketball in April, she became the only black head coach at any of Nebraska’s three Division I programs. 

This is still familiar territory for Banks. When she first started coaching, she coached an AAU team in Ohio along with the JV team at Dublin Jerome High School, where 1% of the student body was black in 2018.  

“Being a minority in America, you are always used to being in a situation where maybe there’s not as many people that look like you that you’re interacting with,” she said. “Most of the time every room I walk into, that’s what the room looks like. So it’s not something that’s intimidating, to me, uncomfortable to me. It’s something that I think all black coaches, people manage their entire life.”

This isn’t something uncommon for Banks or any black coach in sports. In 2019, just 25% of Division I women’s basketball head coaches were black, compared to 45% of players. On top of that, just 17% of the coaches were black women.

Banks said that representation matters, and it’s important that student-athletes see themselves represented at every level. 

“Especially in a sport like women’s basketball, where there’s a lot of people that look like me, I think it’s important that they see people in positions of leadership.” she said. “I don’t want you to hand anything to me, but there are a lot of very, very qualified black coaches in this profession who are ready, and will be great as head coaches. So I would love to see more of them get the opportunity that I feel like they’re deserving of.”

Her mantra of not wanting anything handed to her stems from Banks’ childhood. Growing up in Delaware, Ohio, she had a “very athletic” family and her household was competitive.

“It was one of those things you come home and you want those bragging rights,” Banks said. “I remember going to a field day in elementary school and my sister, as I’m going down to the bus, she says, ‘Do not come home if you do not get all first places,’ and that was so real to me at that age.”

That competitiveness within her family combined with being from a small town gave Banks an underdog mentality that carried into her basketball career. Along with basketball, she played volleyball and track, but she ended up getting an offer from Detroit Mercy to stay on the hardwood. 

A lot of change, both positive and negative, came with that venture. Banks said she loved the opportunity of being in a big city, an environment she hadn’t been familiar with. The downside was that she never ended up playing for Fred Procter, the coach that recruited her. Before the 1996-97 season, Nikita Lowry took over as head coach. 

In her first year under Lowry, Banks found herself as an underdog once again.

“My first year in college, it was not a great year,” she said. “I had to look for every single opportunity that I got. And that’s great. I didn’t want anything handed to me. I just wanted the opportunity. And then I was going to prove that I was more than ready for things.”

After she graduated from Mercy, she played professionally in Portugal for a year. Then, she left basketball and worked for an advertising agency and trade publication. However, Banks knew that wasn’t where she belonged.

“My degree was in communications, so I got into that and it was just weird for me transitioning from being on the court to being in this like, corporate environment,” she said. “And it was a little stuffy. I just felt like my mindset was a little different.”  

That’s when Banks started coaching at the high school and AAU level. She also pursued her master’s degree in journalism at Kent State.

That journalism experience indirectly helped Banks break into the ranks of college coaching. However, it may have been helped even more by an unexpected reconnection with a former teammate.

Autumn Rademacher was a senior at Detroit Mercy when Banks came in for her freshman year. They weren’t really close during that year, but Rademacher noticed her contributions to the team. 

“[Banks] was a heck of a player,” she said. “I mean, she really helped out and, like, pushed everybody in practice. She was able to play and contribute. And we will always have that bond as teammates in college.”

Rademacher started her coaching career immediately after college. She spent seven years as an assistant coach at Western Michigan, followed by four more years at Green Bay in the same position. 

In her last year at Green Bay, the team played a game at Youngstown State. That’s where she noticed Banks on the sideline, but as a color commentator rather than a coach. Rademacher was being considered for the head coaching job back at Detroit Mercy, and asked Banks to come be an assistant.

“I had lost contact with her after I graduated and all of a sudden I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Listen, I think I might have a chance to get the head job at Detroit,’” Rademacher said. “I said, ‘You gotta come with me. You gotta come help me.’ And all of a sudden, fast forward a couple months, and it actually happened.” 

In 2008, Rademacher became the head coach, and Banks an assistant. After three years at Detroit Mercy, Banks left to take the same position at Southern Florida, and then spent time as an assistant in the Big Ten at Northwestern and Ohio State. 

In those 13 years as an assistant coach at the collegiate level, Banks has had to deal with the challenges of being a black coach. Along with other forms of racism, she’s had to fight off stereotypes associated with black coaches. Banks said that black coaches are sometimes labeled as “just recruiters.” While she has a strong recruiting background, she stressed that her coaching abilities are more than that.

“It’s a lot of things. It’s leadership. It’s inspiring and empowering people. It’s the actual basketball on the floor and being a coach,” Banks said. “So, for me, my experience has just been defying that stereotype and being a well rounded coach and individual.”

Becoming a head coach and having her own program was a goal for Banks. Despite that, Omaha wasn’t on her radar at first. Then, when UNO started calling and having conversations with Banks regarding the opportunity, she was impressed by the passion shown by the program. Then, when Banks came to the area, she said she thought it was “beautiful” and that she would be able to bring in good recruits. 

To most coaches, Omaha would not have been seen as an attractive destination as the Mavericks had finished each of the last three seasons in the bottom three spots of the conference. That challenge actually attracted Banks to the university, as she’d have the opportunity to build the program up. 

“That’s a challenge I wanted to take on, hands down. And I knew that just with my eye for talent, with the experiences I’ve had, I felt like it was a place that I could be successful,” she said. “As an assistant coach, I think when you’re looking to make that transition you want a lot of things to align. And for me, Omaha was that place.”

In making that change, Banks had to find assistant coaches to help. She brought on Darryl Hudson, who has spent the last two years as an assistant coach at Jackson State University. Along with Hudson, Banks brought on Rademacher, who was an assistant coach at Youngstown State last year. 

Banks said her strong prior connections with Rademacher helped her know that she could trust the coach she formerly served as an assistant for. More than that, what stuck out about both Hudson and Rademacher was that they “embrace the vision of being the underdog” that has been present throughout Banks’ life.

“I needed people around that really believed in that vision of, ‘Hey, we want to win a Summit League championship.’ And it’s not going to be easy, and they’re ready to kind of roll up their sleeves and get to work,” she said.

Rademacher said Banks getting a head coaching job was “long overdue.” She said that Banks has a high basketball IQ and is a talented recruiter. Although Rademacher originally gave Banks a chance as an assistant, she knows she can learn a lot from the head coach now.

“She did an interview right when she got here and I felt a little tear come up to my eye because I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so grown,’” Rademacher said. “I just was so proud of her and I just can’t wait to work for her.” 

Since being hired at Omaha, Banks and her staff have gotten to work on building relationships with the team. That has been a little harder to do this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the team has been able to make things work over zoom, bringing in guest speakers such as current free agent NBA guard Isaiah Thomas and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma.

The pandemic hasn’t been the only thing the team has had to navigate this summer. Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent protests, athletic programs around the country have made efforts to spark conversation among their teams, many of which are predominantly black.

The issue of police brutality is something that hits especially close to home for Banks. Her older brother was a football player at Vanderbilt, and was held at gunpoint late at night while walking home from studying at the library. 

“You really feel helpless. I mean, my brother again. One of the best universities in the country, a Division I athlete, ended up getting his law degree from Vanderbilt as well too,” she said. “So when you’re talking about just an elite person in a lot of different areas, but again for him to at the end of the day be viewed as a black man walking late at night, it’s tough.”

However, the change going on in the country currently has given Banks hope. That hopefulness only increased in the discussions with the team. She said she was impressed by how educated her players were, and how willing they were to listen and have open conversation about actions they could take.

“This is the generation right now that will shape our future,” Banks said. “So the fact that they were already well-educated on what was going on already in their communities talking about it, and figuring out ways that they could help affect change, I was proud of that. So it was a great conversation. I was glad they got to talk.” 

Banks also said that these conversations are one of the reasons that representation in coaching matters. For her, it was easier to have an open and candid conversation about the things currently going on in the country. 

She also said that she wanted to give her players a platform to speak out, and that she’s encouraging her players to use their voice however they can. Banks said that the team needs to support each other in these times, and that they “can’t afford to be silent.” With that being said, she expressed confidence that her team is doing just that.

“I’m proud of what our team has done so far,” Banks said. “And just having a voice and awareness about everything that’s going on, and it’s just my hope with them that I can continue to educate and inspire them to be these people who can care about the world, affect change, and just be great leaders and great voices for our future.”