The Black Hole
The annual "humiliation of black coaches," as described by ESPN columnist Howard Bryant, has just concluded. This, of course, is the yearly post-season exercise where a bunch of black football coaches are interviewed for NFL head coaching vacancies, but very few, if any, are hired.
This year there were seven vacancies in the NFL. One black coach was hired, and one other minority coach was hired. Longtime Ravens' Assistant David Culley was named head coach of the Houston Texans, bringing to three the number of black head coaches in the league. (The others are Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Miami's Brian Flores. Anthony Lynn was fired by San Diego, so the number remains static).
And 49ers' defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a Muslim born to Lebanese parents, was hired by the Jets.
There are 32 teams in the NFL, and about 70% of its players are black. There are lots of able black candidates, most notably Chiefs' Offensive Coordinator Eric Bienemy (above), who was interviewed by six teams but passed over by all of them.
Yet consider the impressive resumes of some of the white coaches who were hired instead. There's Brandon Staley, hired to replace Lynn. Most of Staley's coaching experience has been at two obscure Division III colleges, St. Thomas and John Carroll, where he was defensive coordinator as recently as 2016. But, hey, he did have four years in the NFL, including three coaching linebackers with the Bears and Broncos, before serving as the Rams' defensive coordinator this year.
Then there's Dan Campbell, hired by the Lions after being tight ends coach with New Orleans. I could go on, but you get the idea.
In case you missed it, this weekend's Super Bowl will feature two black coordinators who should've been hired this year: Bienemy with the Chiefs and Todd Bowles, the defensive coordinator for Tampa Bay.
This isn’t a new problem. But it seems to be getting worse instead of better.
The NFL treats the hiring of a black coaches as a monumental achievement, as if finding someone who’s black and could do a better job than Jim Tomsula is a big deal.
If you’re white, the NFL assumes you’re competent. If you’re black, you might not be smart enough to know whether to go for it on fourth down or when to call a timeout.
Unfortunately, the college game is no better.
Even after a year when millions protested the killing of an innocent black man by a policeman who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, a year when America elected a black woman vice president, and athletes throughout the country participated in protests, none of the Power Five schools with head coaching openings hired a black head coach.
There were seven openings. All were filled by white coaches.
The Power Five vacancies were filled by household names like Jedd Fisch (Arizona), Bryan Harsin (Auburn), Bret Bielema (Ilinois), Shane Beamer (South Carolina), Josh Heupel (Tennessee), Steve Sarkisian (Texas), and Clark Lea (Vanderbilt).
Ok, maybe Sarkisian is a household name. But not for his coaching. Sark is better known for getting canned by USC after he showed up drunk in public at a donor function and a team practice.
Out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, there are now 12 black head coaches. Ten are in Power Five Conferences, including five in the Pac-12. But two Power Five conferences—the SEC and Big 12—do not have a black head coach. In fact, the SEC has had 13 head coaching vacancies in the last four years. None were filled by a black coach.
In a sport where about half of the players are black, this is, pardon the bad pun, a real black eye. And unfortunately, as in the NFL, things are headed in the wrong direction. College football had 19 black head coaches in 2011, seven more than at present.
Why aren’t things improving? There are at least four reasons.
The comfort factor. Whites typically hire whites, and the people making the hiring decisions in the NFL and NCAA—team owners, general managers, athletic directors, school presidents, and donors—tend to be overwhelmingly white. Until there are more blacks in position of power, things won’t change much.
Stereotypes are alive and well, particularly among conservative team owners and athletic directors. Blacks are often limited to coaching running backs or the secondary, just as, for many years, blacks weren’t considered “smart enough” to play quarterback.
Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson might beg to differ.
You can’t force a team or a school to hire someone. The NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires every team to interview at least one minority for every head coaching vacancy, has been a total failure. Sometimes these “for show” interviews take place after a white coach has already been offered the job, as was the case when the Raiders hired Jon Gruden a few years ago. That’s why college football, while admitting something needs to be done, has so far decided not to employ a Rooney-type rule.
Black coaches rarely get a second chance. The “good ol’ boy network” ensures that white coaches will be recycled again and again, but for most black coaches, it’s “one and done” if you don't succeed the first time.
It’s interesting to reflect back to when Notre Dame hired George O’Leary in 2001. The Irish referred to O’Leary, who is white, as "something out of central casting. A second-generation Irish-Catholic, a good football coach and a good institutional fit.”
You may recall O’Leary only lasted five days. He was forced to resign for lying about his past athletic and academic accomplishments.
So Notre Dame turned to Stanford’s Tyrone Willingham, the coach they should’ve hired in the first place. A man of honor and integrity. Also a damn fine coach.
Unfortunately, Willingham was fired after three seasons. He was national Coach of the Year in his first season, and posted a 21-15 overall mark, but became the first coach in Notre Dame history to be let go before completing his contract. Even Joe Kuharich (17-23) and Gerry Faust (30-26-1) were allowed to finish their terms.
Some important donors and board members forced Willingham out so they could hire a white man, Charlie Weis, who turned out to be an utter—and very expensive—disaster.
O’Leary on the other hand, was hired a few years later as head coach at the University of Central Florida. Despite his history of resume padding and an 0-11 record in his first season, O’Leary was retained for 12 years and had some success before resigning when his 2015 team started 0-8.
I’ve been fortunate to know, work with, and become friends with three terrific black coaches at Stanford—the aforementioned Willingham, current coach David Shaw, and the late Denny Green—and several other men of character whom I worked with in the East-West Shrine Game and the Bay Area's post-season bowl game, like Randy Shannon and Karl Dorrell.
I got to know Tyrone when “Touchdown Tommy” Vardell lived with us and he was Tommy’s position coach. We’ve been good friends ever since.
I was particularly close to Green (at right). We had a standing phone call the Sunday after every Stanford game, and I emceed all his team functions. When the Minnesota Vikings came calling in 1992, I spent an hour trying to convince him to stay at Stanford.
After listening to my pitch, he said, “You know Gary, there are only 28 of those jobs, and if you have a chance to get one of them, especially if you’re a black man, you can’t pass it up. You’ve got to take it. It’s probably the only chance you’ll ever get.”