Sports

The NFL Wants “Unconventional” Head Coaches

They just have to be white.

Bieniemy shouting on the field
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. David Eulitt/Getty Images

The NFL painted more patronizing messages about racism on its playing surfaces this season than it hired people of color to coach on them during this hiring cycle.

Seven head coaching jobs opened during and after the 2020 season; only one has been filled by a person of color, while one more job—leading the Houston Texans—remains open. Robert Saleh (of Lebanese descent) became the first Muslim head coach in NFL history when the New York Jets hired him. In a league where 70 percent of the players are people of color, just four of the league’s coaches are now nonwhite. There has been only one coaching cycle where more than two people of color were hired for NFL head coaching roles: 2011, when three were. The grand total of people of color who have served as permanent NFL head coaches: 24 in the league’s 101-year history.

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(The league did somewhat better this year in hiring nonwhite leaders in front offices. Seven general manager jobs opened; three went to Black men. There are now five nonwhite GMs among the 32 teams.)

It wouldn’t be fair to say that NFL teams are loading up on the same kinds of coaches they always have. In reality, franchises have made a concerted effort lately to look for outside-the-box hires: young coaches, college coaches, and ones with nontraditional backgrounds. Those coaches do tend to have one thing in common, though: They’re white.

Saleh, like his predecessors among nonwhite head coaches, is about as inside the box as an NFL hire can possibly be. His skin makes him an outlier, but his qualifications do not.

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Which brings us to the job still left open, and a coach who’s still on the market. Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a Black man, is reportedly in the mix to lead the Houston Texans. (Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach David Culley and Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, both of whom are Black, are also in the running.)

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One year ago, Bieniemy and Saleh were coordinators of outstanding units on opposite sidelines in Super Bowl LIV, the former with the champion Kansas City Chiefs and the latter with the San Francisco 49ers. Since 2013, every conference champion has had at least one assistant promoted to head coach by the next hiring cycle after the team’s Super Bowl berth. Many assumed their positions immediately after their Super Bowl runs ended. The 2014 New England Patriots are the only exception, as their coaches had to wait an extra cycle or two to get hired. But that team actually employed two future head coaches (Matt Patricia with the Detroit Lions and Brian Flores with the Miami Dolphins) as well as a third in Josh McDaniels, who was announced as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts before backing out. (Flores is Black; Patricia and McDaniels are white.)

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Given his credentials, and the fact that the league is obsessed with chasing the next big offensive thing, it would be borderline unprecedented if Bieniemy isn’t hired. And yet his previous whiffs—he interviewed with more than one-third of the league over the past three coaching cycles (as well as at his alma mater, the University of Colorado Boulder)—make it seem almost miraculous that he might get this exceedingly well-deserved opportunity.

No, Bieniemy doesn’t call plays—Chiefs head coach Andy Reid does—but neither do new Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni or new Lions head coach Dan Campbell, both of them white. Hell, neither does Urban Meyer, the longtime Ohio State honcho recently named coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. What could be said about Meyer (that he will turn boys into men, and that he will have a hand in the offense without being on the headset telling his QB what to run on first-and-10) can also be said of Bienemy.

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After Sirianni got hired, a former Eagles staffer told NFL Media’s Jim Trotter that the team has “not had a full-time black HC/GM/OC/DC in 20 years yet they have a gigantic picture of MLK in the lobby of the practice facility.” In hearing from his own league sources, NFL Network’s Steve Wyche reported that he’d “never heard the phrase ‘Sham process,’ used more than it has in the past hour.”

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It’s been reported that Bieniemy didn’t interview well with the Atlanta Falcons. A Falcons source told me that was “completely fabricated and untrue”—that Bieniemy had done his research and “presented a great plan.” (As Trotter pointed out, it’s hard to take claims of Black coaches “not interviewing well” very seriously after Campbell ranted about cannibalism at his opening press conference.) It’s also been reported that concerns over the fruit from Andy Reid’s coaching tree (i.e., Doug Pederson’s and Matt Nagy’s recent struggles) were holding Bieniemy back. Anyone who has assessed the careers of John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, or Sean McDermott would certainly beg to differ.

Some episodes from Bieniemy’s past could have affected his pursuit of NFL jobs, including an incident where he allegedly grabbed a woman by the neck and threatened her. If a team didn’t want to hire him for that reason, that’s more than fair. But this is the NFL, and it has always been interesting to see where league decision-makers draw their moral lines. It does not appear that Meyer’s relationship with Zach Smith—a repeatedly accused domestic abuser whom Meyer kept on two coaching staffs for more than a decade—hampered him when he was interviewing for the Jaguars job. Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel beat up a man in a parking lot while he was in college and was arrested for stealing liquor from a casino as a player. (Vrabel called that theft arrest “an unfortunate misunderstanding.”) It was not Patricia being indicted (though ultimately not prosecuted) for sexual assault in the late 1990s that got him fired by the Lions, but his overreliance on a defensive scheme he failed to adapt.

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There are notable success stories among the NFL teams that have taken chances on head coaches of color. The Steelers hired 34-year-old Mike Tomlin when he had just one year of experience as a defensive coordinator. In his second season, he became the youngest coach ever to win the Super Bowl. Brian Flores, a former linebackers coach with the Patriots, didn’t have any coordinator experience before becoming the Dolphins’ head coach. In two seasons, he’s transformed Miami from the worst team in the league to being one win away from the playoffs with the help of Chris Grier, one of the league’s five nonwhite GMs.

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Those men are the exceptions. It’s far more common to see overly qualified candidates of color get passed over for outside-the-box white coaches.

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Former Rams quarterback coach Zac Taylor got the Bengals job at age 35 after calling plays for five games in the NFL and a year in college. New Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley is 38 and went from Division III college assistant coach to NFL head coach in four years after a cup of coffee as an NFL defensive coordinator with the Rams. Each was hired in part because teams are looking to chase the next Sean McVay, the offensive mastermind the Rams hired as their head coach when he was just 30 years old.

The Falcons’ Arthur Smith, the Browns’ Kevin Stefanski, the Giants’ Joe Judge, the Panthers’ Matt Rhule, the Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury—all of them can be classified as risky, or at least unproven, hires for one reason or another. It’s not that they’re undeserving or that they can’t coach—it’d just be nice if coaches that don’t look like them would get similar opportunities.

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Byron Leftwich, the 41-year-old offensive play-caller for the Super Bowl–bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the past two seasons, has not yet been anointed as a wunderkind. Yes, he coached Tom Brady and a bevy of elite talent this season, but that shouldn’t be disqualifying. After all, Staley’s defense was undergirded by two All-Pro talents. Also, if Leftwich never ends up becoming a head coach, he will be the first of Brady’s four NFL offensive coordinators not to have done so.

Former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard, who is Black, interviewed for five head coaching jobs in the 2018 and 2019 cycles and didn’t get any of them. The 41-year-old Richard, who did not coach this season in part because he wanted to take a stand against having a job solely to have a job, reportedly didn’t get an interview anywhere during the 2020 cycle. And where was the interview for Joe Woods? The Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator and former defensive passing game coordinator under Saleh during the 49ers’ run to Super Bowl LIV was similarly shut out.

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Leftwich, Richard, and Woods are just some of the most obvious Black candidates. There’s a whole slew of Black up-and-comers—Duce Staley, Aaron Glenn, Jeff Nixon, DeMeco Ryans, and Patrick Graham, among many others—who might be getting head coaching interviews right now if teams gave nonwhite coaches the benefit of the doubt. And if a person of color does get hired, he’d better not lose that first gig. Retreads Jon Gruden, Mike McCarthy, Adam Gase, and Doug Marrone all got new jobs in recent cycles; Raheem Morris (who was the interim head coach of the Atlanta Falcons for 11 games in 2020), Todd Bowles, Vance Joseph, Jim Caldwell, and Marvin Lewis did not. You can guess one difference between the two groups.

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Whether or not Eric Bieniemy or any other Black coach gets the Texans job, the message the NFL sent this offseason is that Bieniemy is an entire league’s token Black friend. We’ll know the NFL has truly changed when its creativity in hiring extends to coaches who look like him but who don’t necessarily have his Super Bowl–winning résumé. Until then, messages like “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” might as well be painted in invisible ink.

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