Hawkeye basketball coach Sherman Dillard is happy to see America 'woke' on race issues

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Sherman Dillard came of age in Virginia in the turbulent 1960s.

He’s dismayed to see the same battle for racial equality playing out on the streets of America today.

“I’m saddened by where we are as a country, quite frankly,” Dillard, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Iowa, said on Wednesday’s “HawkCentral” radio show on KxNO.

“I would think that after so many years that we would be beyond that. I hate to say this, but it’s reality: It seems to me that history is repeating itself.”

Dillard, who is Black, was born in 1955 in the small town of Bassett, Virginia, near the North Carolina border, just days after the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. The death of the African-American teenager became a catalyst for a civil rights movement that played out throughout Dillard’s childhood.

Now, one month after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed and died after being in police custody in Minneapolis, demonstrations have been ongoing in many U.S. communities, including Iowa City. Dillard has watched with great interest, hopeful that this time America can move toward lasting racial harmony.

“Racism is like a pandemic. It’s been around for ages. And it’s one of those things that we refuse to talk about. I think we deny that it exists,” Dillard said. “And because of the denial, I think it’s gotten worse.”

Sherman Dillard, seen here instructing Joe Wieskamp during a game last season, has been an Iowa assistant basketball coach for 11 seasons. Dillard grew up in Virginia during the civil rights era and has been following current demonstrations for racial equality with great interest.

Dillard is in his 11th season on Fran McCaffery’s coaching staff at Iowa. He has been vocal on social media about the need for greater awareness of how Black people have been treated in America.

And he shares those messages with his players, Dillard said.

“Everybody’s got to open their minds and open their hearts and be able to understand and see and walk in the shoes of the opposite race,” he said he tells the Hawkeyes.

“I say, ‘Sometimes you’ve got to fall hard before you know where you stand.’ And I think this country has fallen hard with the recent chain of events. And perhaps it has everybody more cognizant of the need to address these matters.”

Dillard grew up in a family of seven, with his mother displaying a lingering distrust of police officers. He came to realize that mindset was from seeing images on their black-and-white television of authorities siccing dogs on civil rights protesters, or turning fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators.

Dillard went to predominantly white schools, and it was there that he said his perspective changed. As a sophomore, he played basketball for a white coach who became his mentor.

“I am today who I am because of this high school coach, a white man, that took me under his wing and taught me about equality and treated me as an equal,” Dillard said.

That’s the message he passed on to his two sons, Ben and Langston, who were teenagers when the family moved to Iowa City in 2010.

“I shared with my sons that life isn’t fair, and I’ve talked to them about how to deal with police officers and how to say, ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir,’” Dillard said. “What bothers me, and I think what is the frustration that a lot of Black people are going through right now, is the fact that even when we are subservient, when we do what we’re supposed to do, when we’re unarmed, we have our Black brothers being murdered by police officers.

“I hate the divide. I’ve taught my kids, both Ben and Langston, to live a life of caring, to be altruistic, to understand that we are one human race.”

Dillard said his family has always been fortunate to have been accepted in the communities where they lived. His profession has helped.

“In a certain way, I’m insulated from the normal racism that my brothers and sisters experience because I’m walking the sideline at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and there’s 13,000, 14,000 fans there. They see me in a different light,” he said.

But he knows that’s not the reality for all Black families. He’s optimistic that can change as a result of the current social justice movement.

“Atrocities like this have been going on for years in America,” Dillard said. “The thing that kind of excites me is that America is woke right now. I think everybody is more in tune with what’s going on. I think somehow, we’ve got to find a common ground.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.