Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) has two of the few black collegiate head coaches in all of Nebraska despite being a school with a predominantly white student body.
Sam Dixon, head coach for the women’s basketball team, and Brandon Bradley, head coach of the men’s wrestling team, are both well-respected and strong leaders at Wesleyan.
While black players have long been a part of collegiate sports, Dixon says African Americans were not always considered coach material.
“In the early days, African American coaches were pretty much solely looked at as not having the temperament maybe or, whatever words you want to use, to be head coaches,” Dixon said. “And slowly that evolved to where there was a strong period of time where African Americans were getting head coaching jobs.”
Dixon is beginning his fourth year as head coach for the Lady Prairie Wolves. He graduated with a degree in physical education from the College of Wooster in Ohio. In 1980, he earned his Master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University.
Then in 1987, he received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. He has over 30 years of coaching experience, as a head coach and assistant coach at the collegiate level.
The four years prior to coming to NWU, he served as top women’s assistant coach at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
He said when he had traveled with the team to play in Lincoln, he appreciated the sense of community and positive vibes that Lincoln had for college athletics because it was the home of UNL.
“I’ve been coaching for quite a while, so it’s been an excellent fun time,” Dixon said. “[I’ve] had some great opportunities to teach and learn and grow, and hopefully I’ve been able to help some young people grow and develop and achieve their goals academically and athletically.”
Bradley is beginning his third season as head wrestling coach at NWU. He was hired by Wesleyan in 2015 when the return of its wrestling program was announced.
He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise and Sports Science while wrestling for the Braves at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, and his Master’s degree in 2012 from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Bradley began his collegiate coaching career right out of college in 2010. He served as an assistant coach for two years at Whitewater while earning his Master’s in Health, Human Performance and Recreation.
“My third year [out of college] I moved to Virginia, and helped start a college wrestling program for two years,” Bradley said. “Then I got the head coaching job at Nebraska Wesleyan.”
So, how do these two coaches fit in, stand out, and make a difference in the work of establishing diversity at Wesleyan? It seems that they’re among a host of others who are working together to figure that out for the University as a whole.
Alex Linden, Sports Information Director at NWU, said first year President Dr. Darrin Good has stressed the importance of inclusion for everyone on campus, not just in athletics, but within each department and throughout campus life.
“In general, they’re all reaching out,” Linden said. “Not necessarily just focusing on people of color, different colors, but just different backgrounds and [different] everything than what we’re used to here in Nebraska.”
Dr. Ira Zeff, entering his 22nd year as athletic director at NWU, has seen some improvements in diversity on campus in his tenure at Wesleyan.
“If memory serves me correctly, we’re probably about 15% people of color on our campus, from different backgrounds,” Zeff said. “When I first came, 20 some years ago, we were probably about 5%. We’ve worked really hard on that. It’s a challenge. And we certainly try to follow one of our core values which is diversity.”
While the growth is modest, Bradley agrees that Wesleyan has been intentional and dedicated in its efforts to establish a diverse community through hiring and recruitment.
“Wesleyan is doing a great job of being proactive in getting minority faculty, coaches, and staff,” Bradley said. “And also looking to get minority students from Nebraska, but also all across the United States, to bring up our diversity population.”
Dixon explained that while there is always room for improvement when it comes to diversity at NWU, it is truly about having an open mind to hiring or recruiting the best person for the job or position.
“I think we have a president who’s committed to diversity in campus life and in campus experiences,” Dixon said. “I think we have, at Wesleyan, a commitment to diversity across the board.“
Linden praised the role Dixon has taken on, both on campus and in the community, to reach out and be inclusive.
“He’s [Dixon] been instrumental in helping turn the women’s basketball program around,” Linden said. “Also, in the community I know he’s helped volunteer, with the team and himself, to speak at some youth programs, primarily focused on ethnic groups.”
Zeff said Dixon is a great fit for Wesleyan.
“[We were] very excited when we were able to hire Sam [Dixon],” Zeff said. “His background and the length of his experiences, at the college level in a variety of roles, is phenomenal, and we’re very proud to have him as a part of our staff.”
Zeff also spoke highly of Bradley’s background and skill in building programs and implementing recruiting systems.
“Bradley had a great background in how to start programs, and how to recruit,” Zeff said. “[He] got our program off the ground…and already has had success, with our first All American wrestler in our conference, which is probably the top small college wrestling conference in the country.”
Zeff believes that in hiring Dixon and Bradley, Wesleyan hired the best candidates for the jobs, and both coaches provide the experience the student-athletes deserve.
“From the pool, inclusive of all backgrounds, we worked it down to having a qualified candidate and made sure that they represented those qualities,” Zeff said.
Zeff also pointed out that Dixon and Bradley are valued resources for the students of color on Wesleyan’s campus.
“Certainly having coach Dixon and coach Bradley [on staff] gives students of color a resource person on campus that they can go to for help in any situation that happens naturally in their lives,” Zeff said. “They’re both very good people first, with good values, and certainly understand what they [the students] have gone through in their lifetime, and can help students navigate situations that arise in our society.”
In the hiring of faculty and the recruiting of athletes, diversity is important, and in both there is a keen awareness that diversity refers to many factors, not only race.
Bradley believes that recruiting wrestlers to build diversity in his team is about so much more than race. He says it involves bringing in student-athletes of all different backgrounds, kids from small towns, big cities, affluence, and need.
“I think that’s what makes them better-better wrestlers, better people, better students,” he said. “I think diversity is made up of a lot of things, not just race … you know, if you’re good at what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter about your race.”
Dixon is like-minded. He believes that immersing oneself in diversity is a path forward.
“Growth comes from being in the midst of people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religions,” he said. “I feel I have a responsibility to model the environment that I want to create. I need to be at the forefront of positive change or just positive relationships.”
Zeff agrees wholeheartedly. He shares the sentiment that it’s up to all of us to make a difference and set an example.
“Each and every one of us have that responsibility, and certainly having people of color in leadership roles helps us,” he said. “Having them out, front and center [in our programs and community], to be able to send that message and be examples for all of us to live by.”