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The University of Utah women’s basketball team and Mississippi Valley State University Devilettes; credit: Keith Embray, Athletics

The University of Utah kicked off the school’s first-ever athletic partnership with the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Thursday night, December 1, 2022, when the 16th-ranked Utah women’s basketball team faced off against the Mississippi Valley State University Devilettes at the Harrison HPER Complex in Itta Bena, Mississippi.  

The partnership, dubbed the Pac-12/SWAC Legacy Series, is the first of its kind in the country and brings together Utah with its peers in the SWAC, a conference comprised of a dozen historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the southern US, including Texas Southern, Alcorn State, and Grambling State. The Commissioner of the SWAC, Dr. Charles McClelland calls the Pac-12/SWAC Legacy Series “a game changer” and says “the opportunity for a collaboration of this significant magnitude has never occurred in the history of HBCU Athletics.” The partnership between the two conferences includes both sports and competition as well as the chance to promote education and build understanding around issues of social justice and antiracism.  

Televised nationally on ESPN+ and the Pac-12 Network, the game represents what will become a growing relationship between the conferences and schools—and a shining hallmark of Utah’s efforts to build a broader and more inclusive coalition with diverse communities and institutions.

“It’s more than a game. I know we say that all the time, but in this case it’s real,” says Keith Embray, associate Athletics director for equity, diversity, inclusion & student belonging, and executive director for operations in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). Embray, the first to hold these newly created roles at the U, emphasizes the tremendous cultural and educational opportunities that the partnership makes possible for everyone involved—”from the student-athletes to the coaching staff and even college administrators. Not to take anything away from the game, but it’s about much more than what happens on the court. This is about building bridges.” 

University of Utah's women's basketball team at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorriane Motel
The University of Utah’s women’s basketball team at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel; credit: Keith Embray, Athletics

The cultural and educational importance of the Legacy Series was immediately apparent to the team from Utah. Before they left Salt Lake City, Dr. Rodney Cohen, Manager of HBCU Partnerships at Utah prepared them with a presentation on the rich tradition of historically Black colleges and universities in the country. Dr. Cohen told the group, “there was a time, many decades ago, when schools from our conference couldn’t play against any HBCUs. Today is a great day—and I’m sure it will serve as a template for others to follow.” 

After the team arrived in Mississippi, they enjoyed a pre-game meal with the MVSU Devilettes on Thursday, allowing students and coaches to meet and giving the Utah squad a chance to hear from MVSU Athletics Director, Dianthia Ford-Kee. On Friday, the team toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the Lorraine Motel, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Afterwards, the team visited historic Beale Street, home of the blues, and took in some real Memphis barbecue before flying back to Utah on Saturday.  

Embray says both the men’s and women’s teams from Utah are scheduled to participate in the Legacy Series, while the whole partnership stays focused on cultural and educational exchange. But thinking about this first game, he adds “I am so proud to have our women’s basketball team serve as ambassadors for the University, the state, and the Pac-12 Conference. These partnerships go beyond athletics—this is equity, diversity, and inclusion in real-time.”

To learn more about the University of Utah’s IMPACT Partnership with HBCUs, visit the program website—and to learn more about the Pac-12/SWAC Legacy Series, readers can visit the announcement on the Pac-12 site or stay tuned for updates from the U of U Athletics page

EDI  Identity  Social Justice