For whatever reason, more of the NFL’s black coaches seem to rise up on the defensive side of the ball.
And for whatever reason, more offensive coaches get hired as head coaches.
Terez Paylor of YahooSports.com has more.
Eric Bieniemy stood and smiled in front of the Kansas City Chiefs’ press corps last Wednesday. He spoke deliberately and passionately, with pauses in between as if he were a well-spoken professor or a preacher.
Days earlier, no fewer than five NFL teams expressed interest in interviewing the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for a head coaching job. He took many of those interviews, and given his upbeat weekly news conference, it seemed like he landed one of the three remaining jobs on the market (all of which he interviewed for).
Alas, one day later, the New York Jets hired former Miami head coach Adam Gase to be their new leader. And one day after that, news trickled out that the Cincinnati Bengals were leaning toward hiring Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, while the Miami Dolphins were expected to hire New England Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores.
Assuming the Taylor and Flores hires will become official when their teams’ seasons end — both are coaching in the NFL’s final four — it will bring an end to another head coaching cycle that was surprisingly rough for Bieniemy and other top minority candidates, like Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Kris Richard and former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
Of the eight new head coaches hired by NFL teams over the past two weeks, only Flores — a Brooklyn-born son of Honduran immigrants — is a man of color.
“I would have put my house up on Bieniemy getting a job … and lost the bet,” said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that was created in 2003 to promote diversity and equality of job opportunities across the NFL.
A statistical step back
Flores will join Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers as the only minority head coaches in the league to start the 2019 season. That’s half the high-water mark of eight that was in place at the start of the 2018 season.
On the surface this is a step back, one that — along with the fact that five of the eight head coaches who were fired this season were men of color — isn’t a great look for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, who has made it a goal to increase front-office and coaching-staff diversity in a league of players that is approximately 70 percent black.
“I do feel that the group we had, starting with Jim Caldwell, Kris Richard, all these guys, we had guys we knew could be head coaches,” said Wooten, who regularly fields calls from NFL teams seeking the names of qualified minority coaching candidates. “We’re not talking about just quarterback whisperers. We’re talking about guys we know have ability to teach, develop and, above all, lead.”
That’s why Wooten is primarily interested in identifying how the NFL got to this moment — with all these qualified black coaches on the outside looking in — and rectifying the situation.
It’s clear the success of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay — a brilliant 32-year-old strategist and quarterback guru who is white — contributed to at least five other teams (the Cardinals, Bengals, Jets, Browns and Packers) attempting to copy the formula by hiring young offensive coaches with quarterbacking backgrounds during this cycle. And given the fact a majority of the league’s quarterbacks coaches and offensive coordinators are white, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the McVay prototype also skewed toward a preponderance of white coaches hired during this cycle, too.
Plan of action: ‘We want to push this further’
Wooten and the Fritz Pollard Alliance have settled on a new proposal that they hope to pitch to the NFL at the scouting combine in late February, one they hope will increase the number of minority coaches in the mix for these jobs over the next several years.
“You’ve gotta get into the system, and the only way to get into the system is go back to what Bill Walsh did,” Wooten said.
Walsh, the legendary Hall of Fame coach for the San Francisco 49ers, was renowned for building a diverse coaching staff. During his 10-year tenure in San Francisco, he hired and trained minorities who went on to become head coaches or offensive coordinators, including Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes and Sherman Lewis.
And while the league has already adopted the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship — which has provided training camp coaching experience to over 2,000 minorities since it was established in 1987 — Wooten says the next step is to take that fellowship to the next level by establishing a pipeline that lasts during the regular season, too.
“We want to push this further and be more like Bill Walsh and put people on the [regular season] coaching staffs — that was his primary thing,” Wooten said. “We’ve got to ask the league that each team — [because] they’re going to hire quality control guys and assistants anyway — take one minority on offense and one on defense. That’s what we’ve got to ask them to do.”
Wooten added that ideally, the proposed minority coach on offense would have some quarterbacking expertise, which would in turn help the coach climb to the role of offensive coordinator, leading to a fully stocked background that would be more attractive in the head coaching market in an increasingly pass-happy league.
“We’ve been thinking and looking at this for quite a while,” Wooten said. “We’ve already talked about it, but we plan to make it a formal proposal at the combine because we have the support of the [NFL’s] diversity and inclusion committee.”
Wooten said they’ve been talking to committee members for quite a while, and will pitch the idea to two or three NFL committees at the combine.
“I think the committees realize there are times in which we need to do certain things,” Wooten said. “It’s just like [the recent] strengthening of the Rooney Rule, where the owner or decision maker now have to be in the interview.”
The current reality has left many quality minority head coaching candidates disappointed and wanting, yet Wooten is encouraging overlooked candidates like Bieniemy, Richard and Caldwell to focus on becoming better coaches and leaders while helping their teams win.
“They’re with good teams, and they know the road is long and it’s crooked,” Wooten said. “You have to endure. They’ll get another shot. This comes around every year. Just keep working.
“As the old folks say … get up, get your boots on and let’s get after it again. The race is not given to the swift, but the one that endures to the end.”
The DB thinks it might be a bit early to be proclaiming the three coaches that Paylor and Wooten are concerned about – Caldwell, Bieniemy and Richard – as passed over.
Richard seemed to do nice work alongside Rob Marinelli with the Cowboys, but we should note that he was fired as DC by the woke Pete Carroll after the 2017 season for reasons that remain murky. The Seahawks played about the same defensively in 2018 under the new DC Ken Norton, Jr. (also a man of color).
Bieniemy, age 49, surely must be a good coach or Andy Reid wouldn’t have had him alongside for so many years. The former running backs coach for the Chiefs, he has just one year under his belt as OC. At the same time that some are wondering why Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor have been elevated so quickly as associates of Sean McVay, we would also have wondered if Bieniemy got a head coaching job after just one year as Reid’s primary associate in the Kansas City offense.
Caldwell, age 63, is a more nuanced situation. A rare African-American who has been a lead offensive coach for many years, he has had two head coaching runs already. He’s 62-50 with Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford in Indianapolis and Detroit. The book is that he’s a good coach, well-respected, but also a very low-key personality. His body of work probably is comparable to Bruce Arians, but he just doesn’t have the spark that would convince an owner or GM who wasn’t familiar with him to take a chance with him on a turnaround the way Arians did. Perhaps an even better comparison for Caldwell is Mike Mularkey – both were canned last year for Belichick disciples after 9-7 seasons and both have not been re-hired as head coaches in 2019.
More on the subject from Robert Klemko of SI.com on the “privilege” that propelled the four young coaches to the top of the hiring heap – as near as we can figure out it is that they had fathers, fathers who were coaches.
Let’s start with some facts. The 2018 firings left just two of the NFL’s 32 teams with African-American head coaches, in a league in which the players are better than 70% African-American. This latest wave of hirings has done nothing to ameliorate that disparity; the league’s head coaching fraternity has gotten far less diverse. Of the eight newly hired or presumptive head coaches, one, Brian Flores, who’s in line for the job in Miami, is black. Two coaches are recycled—Bruce Arians in Tampa and Adam Gase with the Jets. In addition to Flores, first-timers include Vic Fangio (Denver), Freddie Kitchens (Cleveland), Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona), Matt LaFleur (Green Bay), and Zac Taylor, the presumed candidate in Cincinnati. In this year’s process, the ineffectiveness of the Rooney Rule—which requires that all teams interview at least one minority candidate before making their hiring choices—was laid bare once and for all.
But instead of focusing on who the newcomers are not, it may be more instructive to examine who they are.
In 2016, I wrote about that year’s rookie class of quarterbacks, a predominantly white group of young men who, through special talent and hard work, ascended to the 1% of the most difficult and important position in the game.
What made them who there were? Turns out they had a lot in common. They were mostly sons from two-parent homes, with strong parental advocates who guided their amateur careers with ample resources and a depth of knowledge about the challenges ahead. They were from affluent families, with few exceptions, and they carried themselves with confidence and a sense of responsibility unmistakable in successful quarterbacks. They were invested in themselves, and perhaps as important, they’d been invested in—by the elaborate framework of advocates and resources surrounding them. It was no mistake that they were NFL quarterbacks. There was perhaps one Cinderella story in the bunch; the rest were bred to be where they were.
These new head coaches have a lot in common with our quarterbacks.
Take new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, 39, who played football for his father at New Braunfels High in Texas. His late mother retired from teaching, only to rejoin the high school so her schedule matched with her sons. Kliff played quarterback.
Throw in Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, 44, whose father, Freddie Kitchens, Sr., was a Gadsden, Ala., youth coach. Freddie Jr. played football for Freddie Sr. as a boy, and Senior had the means to ferry Junior to and from practice and games for numerous youth baseball teams, too. Freddie played quarterback.
Then there’s new Packers coach Matt LaFleur, 39, son of Denny and Kristi LaFleur. His father was a standout linebacker at Central Michigan, and later, linebackers coach at the school. Matt would get his coaching start as a graduate assistant there in 2004, years after the retirement of his father, who maintained close ties to the program. LaFleur, of course, played quarterback, as did his brother, now an assistant with the 49ers.
As for presumed Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, currently the Rams’ quarterbacks, coach, he played quarterback at Nebraska and got his start in coaching as an assistant under his father-in-law, Mike Sherman, at Texas A&M. Here’s my colleague, Andy Benoit, on the Taylor family:
The Taylors grew up in Norman, Okla., on a cul-de-sac in the type of neighborhood you see in a 1990s Americana family sitcom. More than 20 kids lived nearby. A neighbor had a big square yard, and the touch football games were epic. “Everyone in Norman knew our block,” Zac says. “There were five kids in our neighborhood who started at QB in high school. We had Division-I athletes from a number of sports available to play at any moment.”
The Taylors’ dad, Sherwood, played football for Barry Switzer at Oklahoma in the 1970s and coached briefly for the Sooners and Kansas State Wildcats in the early ’80s. “He was always the most physical when we played sports, not afraid to elbow an eighth grader,” Zac says. Besides Zac and Press, Sherwood and their mother, Julie, had two daughters. It was a close-knit family with strong traditional values.
The exception to this group, Brian Flores, is an all-too-rare example of a young, African-American coach leapfrogging more experienced candidates on the way to a top gig. He’s been propelled not by quarterback expertise or pedigree upon entry to the NFL, but through a 15-year long alliance with Bill Belichick, the most successful head coach in NFL history and one of football history’s renowned defensive minds.
To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with what the Kingsbury, LaFleur, Taylor and Kitchens families have accomplished.
Parents should strive to make lives better for their sons and daughters. The greatest and most successful American families are built on sacrifice and experience, and it’s no coincidence that the majority of successful NFL coaches got head starts from their dads.
But let’s not pretend this is a meritocracy. The journey of the most elite football coaches mostly mirrors that of the most elite quarterbacks. There’s an exceedingly narrow path to becoming an NFL head coach at a young age, as Kingsbury, Kitchens and LaFleur have done, and the first step on the drawbridge—the prerequisite—is privilege. That necessarily leaves a number of boys, white and black, on the outside looking in. At an immediate deficit are those from single-parent homes, those whose fathers aren’t coaches, those who aren’t surrounded by advocates and resources and examples of professional success in close proximity.
As a result, the game suffers. When the pool of candidates in any field is narrowed by pedigree, connections and nepotism, many of the best potential candidates are never seeing the light of day.
The statistics tell us the boys in this group are disproportionately children of color, and the history tells us that America’s legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, and every other manifestation of systemic oppression of African-Americans in this country is a direct influence on the station of the typical black child in America.
This is only part of the problem, of course. The argument can be made that white coaches may appeal more to predominantly white decision-makers, whether those decisions are conscious or unconscious, the result of intentional racial bias or bias unknown to the boss himself. An equally compelling argument could be made that black coaching candidates are held to higher standards than white candidates.
But the problem of under-representation among NFL head coaches, at its root, begins much earlier. It begins with socioeconomic disparities deeply rooted in this nation’s sad, exploitative history. It’s about our collective willingness to ignore that history, and to be satisfied with programs and policies meant to curb racial inequality, which in reality amount to nothing more than Band-Aids on gunshot wounds. It’s about the way black, football-loving boys grow up in comparison to the men they end up playing and working for in pro football.