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NFL Owners Have a Problem With Coaches of Color

Last month, a nonprofit think tank published a study about the black experience in corporate America, and the results were what one might expect. Black professionals largely feel invisible, receive less support from upper management than their white counterparts do, often experience subtle and overt racism on the job, and are discouraged by the lack of opportunities for advancement.

Had the Center for Talent Innovation surveyed black coaches who hope to be head coaches in professional football someday, the researchers would probably find the exact same problems.

Currently, only three of the NFL’s 32 teams have black head coaches. In the past three years, 19 head-coaching positions were available, but just two black coaches filled those openings.

This hiring cycle has been particularly cruel to black coaches. Five head-coaching jobs were available, and so far, not one has gone to a black candidate.* (The Cleveland Browns are the only franchise still looking for a head coach.)

Year after year, the hiring pattern shows the ineffectiveness of the league’s Rooney Rule, the policy the NFL instituted in 2003 to address the racial inequities at the head-coaching level.

The Rooney Rule, named for the former Pittsburgh Steelers owner who led the committee that proposed it, requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs and executive positions. While well intentioned, this policy can’t possibly fix the deep-seated culture of exclusion that plagues the league.

More than half the players in the NFL are black, and most coaches have played the game at some level. That would seem to be the perfect recipe for black coaches to find success. But most NFL owners have been white men, and they have seldom been willing to let African Americans or Latinos call plays—either on the field or from the sidelines.

This is no different from when franchises presumed that black players weren’t smart enough to play quarterback and lacked leadership skills to command men. The league’s paltry record of hiring minority head coaches comes from the same mind-set. And its primary effort to address the problem has been a failure, because a policy can’t compensate for ignorance.

In December, a study by the Global Sport and Education Lab at Arizona State University showed that the Rooney Rule didn’t actually improve minority candidates’ chances of being hired as head coaches, because many of the pipelines that lead to these head-coaching jobs are still overwhelmingly white. Since 2009, nearly 40 percent of head coaches hired in the NFL were offensive coordinators prior to their appointment. (Less frequently, teams hired the former coaches of other NFL teams, NFL defensive coordinators, and college head coaches.) Of course, during that same span, 91 percent of those hired as offensive coordinators—essentially, as the architects of their team’s efforts on that side of the ball—were white.

Black coaches have typically been pushed to the defensive side of the ball. Most of the black head coaches in the NFL, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, were defensive coordinators first.

Even when black coaches follow what appears to be an established blueprint to a head-coaching position, they aren’t guaranteed to be held in the same regard as their white counterparts. As of now, there are only two black offensive coordinators in the NFL—the Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy.

There is an expectation that Leftwich and Bieniemy will someday be head coaches, but Leftwich, according to the Tampa Bay Times, hasn’t interviewed with a team yet this off-season. Bieniemy has been at the helm of one of the most prolific offenses in the league the past two years and has tutored MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

By The Washington Post’s count, Bienemy has interviewed for seven jobs in the same period, including three since the end of the regular season—so far without success.

It would be hard to blame any minority coaching candidate for feeling frustrated after seeing the New York Giants hire former New England Patriots wide-receivers coach Joe Judge, a 38-year-old who spent all eight years of his NFL career with New England. Judge’s ascension is unusual because he made the leap from position coach to head coach without being an offensive or defensive coordinator first. Supposedly, Judge’s close relationship with coach Bill Belichick and the impressive presentation he gave to Giants general manager Dave Gettleman and owner John Mara were significant factors in New York’s decision to gamble on someone with his credentials. But this also was an example of how quickly the supposed qualifications shift.

To say that a nonwhite coach with Judge’s limited résumé would never have been hired for that position isn’t conjecture. It’s a fact. Compare Judge’s credentials with those of Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who also was an assistant coach with the Patriots for his entire NFL coaching career before landing the job in Miami in 2018.

Flores is the son of Honduran immigrants of African and indigenous descent. Like Judge, Flores also was hired when he was 38 years old. But Flores spent 14 years with the Patriots, and held eight different positions, which included calling the plays for the Patriots defense in his final season with the team. Perhaps Flores’s crowning moment was when the Patriots played the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LII. The Rams had one of the most dynamic offenses in professional football, but Flores’s defensive scheme held the Rams to three points as New England collected its sixth Super Bowl championship. Judge was never given play-calling duties in New England.

It may not be a coincidence that general manager Chris Grier, who is black, was responsible for bringing Flores to Miami. Grier is the NFL’s only African American general manager—another position that is nearly always out of reach.

My point is not to cast aspersions on Judge’s experience, but to show that Flores is just another example of how black coaches generally need to have far better credentials than their white counterparts if they want to receive the same consideration.

Unfortunately, NFL owners treat white men as their default example of leadership.

Former Baylor coach Matt Rhule received a seven-year, $60 million contract from the Carolina Panthers that could end up being worth up to $70 million if certain incentives are reached. That is an absurdly high contract for someone whose NFL experience is limited to spending one season as an assistant offensive-line coach for the Giants in 2012.

Since then, Rhule has been a college coach. Certainly he attracted a lot of attention for impressively turning around Baylor after a sexual-assault scandal leveled the Bears’ football program. Baylor went 1–11 during Rhule’s first year, and this season the Bears finished 11–3. Rhule had performed a similar miracle at Temple, going from 2–10 in 2013 to a school-record 10 wins just two years later.

This year, he was a hot NFL commodity. The Panthers pursued Rhule hard, and signed him to such a healthy deal to fend off the Giants.

Rhule’s lucrative contract has reset the market for coaches, but it’s also set unattainable expectations for black coaches. For one thing, a black coach is unlikely to be in Rhule’s position, because the underrepresentation problem is just as bad at the college level. Only 12 of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have a black head coach.

The NFL will never solve this problem if the owners continue to operate as if the lack of minority coaches is somehow the fault of the coaches—and not the system that the league and its owners have purposely constructed. Each franchise makes its own decisions, but the outcome is to exclude minority coaches from head-coaching positions outright—and to hold the few black head coaches to a tougher standard.

With Peyton Manning as his quarterback, Jim Caldwell won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2009. More recently, he guided the lowly Detroit Lions to consecutive nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018. Caldwell, who is now an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins, hasn’t been able to sniff a head-coaching job since Detroit fired him after just three seasons. On the day general manager Bob Quinn announced Caldwell’s firing, he explained that Caldwell was being let go because his 9–7 record didn’t meet the franchise’s expectations. But considering that the Lions have had one playoff win in the past 54 years, perhaps the conversation should be about how the Lions failed Caldwell, and not vice versa.

Quinn then brought in former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, a hot commodity on the coaching circuit who was held in high regard partly because of his proximity to Belichick, the mastermind behind the Patriots’ dynasty. But Patricia was 9–22 in his first two seasons, which included this year’s 3–12-1 season. If Caldwell’s performance wasn’t good enough, why does Patricia warrant a pass?

Since 2009, the only African American to get a second chance as a head coach is Hue Jackson, whom the Cleveland Browns hired several years after he was fired by the Oakland Raiders. He didn’t last in Cleveland, either. That doesn’t bode well for Marvin Lewis, who managed to make the playoffs seven times during his 16 years with the Cincinnati Bengals. Even though Lewis failed to win a playoff game, he still managed to produce some success for a franchise that has had 27 losing seasons since 1968. In 2019, the Bengals replaced Lewis with 36-year-old Zac Taylor, who went 2–14 this season. Lewis, by the way, never won fewer than four games in a season during his entire tenure with the Bengals.

As bad as the most recent hiring cycle has been for minority head coaches, it may not have been worse than the end of the 2018 season. That’s when five of the eight minority head coaches in the league were all fired. All five of those fired were black.

If the NFL wants to create an equitable system for minority head coaches, the owners can’t rely on a rule to create institutional change. NFL owners must recognize that their lazy stereotypes of black male leadership have created this embarrassing problem. In time, we’ll see whether they have the courage to fix it.

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