As fans celebrate the return of the NFL, Black coaches are hoping their biggest victory will come after the season is over.
The NFL’s 32 teams began the season in full on Sunday with only three Black head coaches and two Black general managers in a league where the players are roughly 70% Black. Of the five head coaching jobs that were open in the offseason, none went to Black coaches, and one went to a coach of color, Washington’s Ron Rivera, who is Latino.
Given a national climate in which protests against racial injustice have been at the forefront and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has openly acknowledged the league’s diversity shortcomings, the hiring cycle in the 2021 offseason looks to be one of the most scrutinized in NFL history when it comes to whether or not teams bring in Black head coaches and general managers.
“I don’t see it as having to build a pipeline and I don’t see it as coaches having to work their way up," former NFL quarterback James “Shack” Harris told TODAY. "I think it’s about opportunities. I think we’ve been head coaches and shown we can coach any position, so it’s just about being given a chance."
Harris, 73, who was the first Black quarterback in NFL history to start and win a playoff game and the first to play in the Pro Bowl, is a co-founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame, which has worked with the NFL since 2018 to hold the annual Quarterback Coaching Summit.
The June event, which was virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, brings Black coaches together to network and get their name out in coaching circles. Nearly 100 coaches from the college and NFL ranks took part in this year's event, which had participation from 22 NFL teams.
The summit has focused on coaches on the offensive side of the ball, namely offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches, because that is where 70% of the new head coaching hires have come from in the last three seasons.
Nearly 40% of head coaches hired from the 2009-10 season through the 2018-19 season were offensive coordinators, and 91% of the coaches hired as offensive coordinators in that same time frame were white, according to Arizona State University's Global Sport Education and Research Lab.
There are currently only two Black offensive coordinators in the league, Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich. Bieniemy helped engineer the high-octane offense behind superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes that led the Chiefs to last season’s Super Bowl title, while Tampa Bay had the No. 1 passing offense in the league and now has added legendary quarterback Tom Brady.
Bieniemy has interviewed with multiple teams in the last two seasons but not landed a head coaching job.
“Some of it’s just mind-boggling,” former NFL head coach Jim Caldwell, 65, told TODAY. “You look at guys who got opportunities when Eric did not. Those things make you scratch your head.
“What we have to understand is this, there are a lot of (Black) guys out there who can do the job. It’s not like we have to reinvent ourselves.”
Those with the ultimate say on hirings in the NFL are the owners, and only two of them are not white — Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula, who is Asian American, and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who is Pakistani American.
However, it’s the head coaches who have often decided not to promote Black coaches to high-level assistant jobs that could position them to one day be head coaches. The fact that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid even promoted Bieniemy to offensive coordinator is rare given that between February 2018 and February 2019, 15 offensive coordinators were hired by head coaches, and Bieniemy was the only one who wasn’t white, according to the Washington Post.
Super Bowl MVP and Black College Football Hall of Fame co-founder Doug Williams spoke on a conference call to reporters in June about the impetus for owners to step in.
“The owners have given too much lead to the head coaches,” Williams said. “Somewhere along the lines, the owners have to play a part in this and make the head coaches realize, ‘You can’t hire all your buddies just because you know them. You have to look outside ... because there’s some talent out there that you might be overlooking, and a lot of that talent is in this minority pool that we have here.’”
Goodell spoke about the issue in January during his annual press conference ahead of the Super Bowl. The NFL did not respond to TODAY's request for comment.
"Clearly we are not where we want to be on this level," he said, according to NFL.com. "It's clear we need to change. We have already begun discussing those changes, what stages we can take next to determine better outcomes."
Searching for Solutions
The NFL believed it had taken a big step toward addressing the issue with the 2003 implementation of the Rooney Rule, which currently requires teams to interview candidates of color for head coaching and executive positions.
Also, organizations like the Fritz Pollard Alliance, named after the NFL’s first Black head coach, were formed at the time to push for more diversity in the NFL coaching ranks.
Momentum appeared to be building when current NBC football analyst Tony Dungy became the first Black head coach in NFL history to lead a team to a Super Bowl title in 2007 after his Indianapolis Colts beat a Chicago Bears team coached by Lovie Smith, another Black coach.
The NFL tied a record with eight coaches of color to start the 2018 season, but this season began with just Rivera, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers as head coaches of color in the league.
The frustration with the Rooney Rule since its inception has been that Black coaches and potential general managers only get token interviews to fulfill the rule but have no real shot of landing the job.
“Most of the people doing the hiring and the interviewing are white,” Harris said. “The headhunters, they’re white. I think the whole process needs to be balanced."
A point of emphasis has been having more offseason events where Black coaches can network with decision-makers, considering many owners and general managers hire coaches they have met in informal settings and gotten to know.
“I’ve been a part of three teams and I’ve seen the buddy-buddy-type situations,” Williams said. “It’s all right to have your buddies, but you’re leaving a lot of good coaches out there by bringing your buddy along. We all know this is a family league, and most of the minorities are not in the clique with most of the coaches that are hired, and it’s hard to get in there. That’s part of our biggest problem ... coaches hire the guys they hang out with, play golf with, drink with, eat with or what have you, and we get left out in a lot of cases.”
"I think it’s about opportunities. I think we’ve been head coaches and shown we can coach any position, so it’s just about being given a chance."
James “Shack” Harris
Suggestions include more panels and other gatherings after the Super Bowl, as well as allowing assistants to attend the annual league meetings that include owners and GMs.
Grooming more African Americans for positions of leadership has also been a focus. Washington’s hiring of Jason Wright as the first Black team president in NFL history last month has been lauded as a step in the right direction.
Wright is a former Northwestern University running back who played seven years in the NFL before getting his MBA at the University of Chicago and working his way to partner at McKinsey & Company, a leading management consulting firm.
“If you took my picture off the résumé and just read through it, would it sound like a team president? I would argue it does,” Wright told NBC News last month. “If somehow, Blackness or fill-in-the-blank characteristics all of a sudden makes a résumé look less good than it would have otherwise, that’s all you need to know about that individual’s worldview.”
Brandon Martin believes Wright’s journey is one that young Black coaches and aspiring general managers need to hear.
Martin is the athletic director at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and he has worked closely with University of Central Florida professor Dr. C. Keith Harrison on the annual report issued by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport that tracks minority hiring. He also is part of the Black AD Alliance, which aims to elevate more Black administrators in the Division I college ranks.
“The key is, ‘What’s the blueprint that (Wright) had as he navigated through in his journey?’” Martin told TODAY. “More people need to hear his story. If there’s a gathering where we have five or six other people like him and they talk about their journey, they can talk about how they put together some sort of professional plan, and how they had a networking plan and one contact led to another. The bottom line is we need more representation in the front offices.”
Simply getting Black coaches’ names circulating in the media during the hiring cycle can also have an effect.
“That’s part of it, unfortunately,” Caldwell said. “It’s not just simply a meritocracy in that regard. It helps to get their names out there. Believe it or not, ownership also watches ESPN and NFL Network and reads all the columns, so it’s part of the process.”
Black coaches also have been frustrated over the years by having a short window in which to land a head coaching job.
Caldwell cited the example of retired defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who was on the radar as a candidate after his New York Jets defense squashed a high-powered Colts offense led by Peyton Manning in a 41-0 playoff win in 2003. (Caldwell was the assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach for Dungy's Colts at the time.) Cottrell did not land a head job that offseason, and then the Jets slid to 6-10 the next season.
“Ted Cottrell was getting all these interviews, and the next year the Jets didn’t fare so well, and he disappears,” Caldwell said.
Teams have also been criticized for giving Black head coaches a shorter leash than their white counterparts.
“If things go a little awry for one season, or you reach the playoffs and don’t reach the Super Bowl like Lovie (Smith) did, change comes a little more quickly for African Americans,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell himself went 36-28 in four seasons with the Detroit Lions, becoming their first coach with a winning record since the 1970s, yet was fired in early 2018 after a 9-7 season. His replacement, Matt Patricia, went a combined 9-22-1 in the last two seasons and was retained for this season.
“That’s more of a reason to say that coaches of color, specifically those who are African American, have to be that much more prepared, not only for the interview, but when they win the job,” Martin said. “They don’t have the same margin for error like some others do.
“Getting the job is not enough — they need the infrastructure. They need the support from the front office, they need to be able to hire the staff they need, and be allotted the opportunities that some of the non-black coaches have in terms of time to build a program.”
They have to get the opportunity first, which is why all eyes will be on teams looking for new head coaches during this coming offseason.
The NFL’s Black players have also shown in recent months that they are not afraid to speak publicly about racial injustice, so they may not be silent if another year goes by where Black coaches are left wondering what more they have to do to attain positions of power in America's most popular sports league.
“It’s often said for us that we’re progressing,” Harris said. “I don’t think ‘progressing’ is the word. We need results.”