A FedEx employee in 1997, Marsell Colbert wasn’t surprised to learn he was Coeur d’Alene’s first African-American courier.
Colbert was eight years removed from leaving a rough Maryland neighborhood for a basketball scholarship at North Idaho College, in one of the more racially homogeneous areas of the country.
But Colbert, then in the infancy of his coaching career with local youth leagues, was proud of that distinction.
“It’s always special to be the first to accomplish something,” said Colbert, now a history teacher and head coach at Idaho small-school basketball power Genesis Prep Academy in Post Falls.
Twenty years later, it appears Colbert has marked another first and etched his name in Idaho high school sports history.
When Genesis Prep cruised to a 1A Division II championship in 2017, some wondered if Colbert was the first African-American head coach to win an IHSAA state title in any sport.
After the Jaguars convincingly defended their crown last weekend at the Idaho Center in Nampa, the prospect of Colbert being the first resurfaced.
The Spokesman-Review reached out to a wide-ranging group of current and former longtime sports journalists across the state of Idaho, as well as state officials. He is widely believed to be the first.
“In my entire coaching career, I have only seen two other black coaches in Idaho, period, in (former Falls Christian head boys basketball coach) Tim Mitchell and an assistant coach at Borah in Boise,” Colbert said. “So this is really important to me. It’s important for us to have success.”
Colbert coached at now-defunct Falls Christian in Post Falls alongside Mitchell for two seasons before he was an assistant at North Idaho College. In 2008, Colbert began his stint as an assistant at Post Falls High School, where his standout sons, Marcus and Malcolm Colbert, helped the Trojans win a 5A state title in 2010.
After both of his sons went on to play collegiately, Marcus at Montana State and Malcolm at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Colbert took a coaching hiatus before accepting the head gig at Genesis Prep in 2014.
Colbert has posted an 83-13 record in four seasons. About a dozen of those wins have come against schools over five times Genesis Prep’s size, including Mt. Spokane High School.
“I didn’t think I would coach again, to be honest,” Colbert said. “I needed the right coaches and administration around me, which I have. We’re doing things differently. We’re God-centered and want our players to grow up to be great men and great husbands.”
Mitchell, who moved to Coeur d’Alene from Compton, California, in the 1990s, was the rare African-American Idaho head coach from 2004-2006. He led Falls Christian to a pair of state tournaments, a North Star League title and top five ranking during his tenure.
Now Mitchell watches his son play at Post Falls High School and keeps tabs on his close friend Colbert.
“To see him to step up and go and win state, it’s a huge accomplishment. I am proud of him,” Mitchell said. “Things have changed a lot in North Idaho since the first time I moved up here. The diversity is getting a lot better. There are more African-American kids who are playing.”
Jared Phay, the head coach at national junior college power College of Southern Idaho, believes Colbert plays a big role in his players’ lives.
“The great thing about Marsell is that he has had a huge impact on many basketball players in North Idaho,” said Phay, who coached with Colbert at NIC from 2004-2007. “Whether it was camps or simply working with kids he has had a great influence, so it is nice to see him rewarded. Genesis Prep is lucky to have him.”
Phay recently hired Lester Stewart, the former coach at Century High School in Pocatello. Stewart was reportedly the Pocatello School District’s first African-American head coach when he accepted the Century job in 2014. PSD is Idaho’s fourth-largest school district.
Genesis Prep has drawn some scrutiny for boasting talented international players, prompting the IHSAA to invoke a rule beginning this fall that won’t allow schools to use its foriegn students in postseason competition.
Colbert said the overwhelming majority of his key players have been Idaho kids, including 1A Division II Player of the Year Johnny Hillman, a junior. He said the school petitioned to move up to the 3A classification but was denied.
Either way, Colbert said he’s happy where he is – coaching and living in North Idaho.
“I love it. I love where I am,” he said. “The positives far outweigh negatives here.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.