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Progress, Paul Tagliabue said. He stood at the raised podium, the fires of controversy around him, and the commissioner of the National Football League talked of his league and of its stand on matters of race. Progress, he said.

It was March, days before the NFL would vote to take the 1994 Super Bowl away from Phoenix, primarily because Arizona voted down a paid Martin Luther King Holiday. It seemed only fitting that someone would ask Tagliabue about his league's own history on race.

"I don't think we have anything to make excuses about," Tagliabue said. "The majority of our players come from minority groups. The highest-paid players in the game are minorities. We are making progress in the coaching area."

Others, however, disagree that there is progress, especially beyond the playing field.

Elsewhere at the NFL owners meetings, a meeting of NFL head coaches was going on, and all of the black head coaches in the league were sitting in one chair. That chair belonged to Art Shell, still the NFL's one-and-only as far as black head coaches.

Since Shell was hired in October 1989, there have been 10 new NFL head coaches. A black man has not been interviewed, let alone hired. During this off-season, there were five head coaches and 15 offensive and defensive coordinators _ none of them black _ hired, and the feelings of being left out have not changed for many black NFL assistant coaches.

Progress? What progress?

"There hasn't been any measurable progress," said Kansas City Chiefs defensive back coach Tony Dungy. "We're still at the point where we have only one black head coach. We're really at the same place.

"I think the identity crisis for the league is over. There was a lot of pressure on them (NFL owners) when they didn't have any black head coaches. When Art was hired, it was easy to say, "Well, we have one. The pressure is off.' "

So, really, what progress has there been? Tagliabue bristles at the question.

"We have Art as one of the top coaches in the league," Tagliabue said, an obvious edge to his voice. "We have a lot of top young coaches, such as Joe Greene, who are proving their talent as coaches. We have growing numbers of assistant coaches. We have people moving up to the coordinator position."

The truth is, the NFL has absolutely no black coordinators, offense or defense. There were two last season _ Ray Sherman of Atlanta and Jimmy Raye of New England _ but neither will return to their old teams this year. Terry Robiskie of the Raiders performs essentially the functions of an offensive coordinator, but he does not have the title.

There are other signs that the NFL still has a long way to go in terms of race relations. Consider:

Last season, the percentage of black players in the league hovered between 60 and 63 percent. Yet, of the 281 assistant coaches in the NFL, 51 (18 percent) are black. That's fewer than two per team.

Of those 51 assistants, 26 coach either the running back or wide receiver positions. There are no black quarterback coaches or offensive line coaches. "Those are the thinking man's positions," said former Washington and Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams, more than a trace of scorn to his voice. "A lot of teams hire one black coach to have on staff and say, "We practice equal employment.' Then they stick him at running backs coach or wide receiver because most of the players there are black."

There are 74 NFL coaches with the title of head coach or coordinator. Shell is the only black.

Ten NFL teams employ only one black assistant coach. Fifteen teams, including the Bucs, have two. Only three have more than two.

In baseball recently, one black man was hired (Hal McRae) and another was fired (Frank Robinson), and race was not a major issue. Baseball has only two black managers, but in its history there have been five (eight if you count Robinson's three hirings). In the NBA, five of the current 24 head coaches (three teams currently do not have head coaches) are black.

In football, there is only Shell.

"It's disappointing," said Shell, who is 19-9 as a head coach. "I've been a head coach for almost two years now. I would have hoped there would be more."

Coordinator jobs: the first battleground

Across a nation, those left out wonder why.

"Well, let me turn the tables and ask why there are only two Division 1-A black head coaches," said Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. "For the most part, our source of material comes from the colleges. We rely on colleges for our players and our coaches."

Modell, who twice in the past three seasons has filled his head coaching job with NFL defensive coordinators, said the Browns discussed hiring Stanford coach Dennis Green in January. The Browns decided to go another direction (the Giants' Bill Belichick eventually was hired), and Green was not brought in for an interview.

"We checked on him, and we didn't think he fit our needs," Modell said. "So we didn't bring him in. The worst thing you can do is interview a black coach just to say you interviewed a black coach."

There are other sources for head coaches, most notably coordinators from successful teams and former head coaches getting another chance. But no blacks are in those pools, either.

"We have to expand the pool," said Bucs' general manager Phil Krueger (team owner Hugh Culverhouse declined to be interviewed for this story). "Right now, it's a matter of numbers. We're working on it. Each team is getting more assistants, and they're working their way up the ladder. Maybe it isn't happening as fast as people would like, but progress is being made."

Since 1988, the NFL has hired 15 head coaches. Four of those were former head coaches, two were college head coaches and two (Shell and the Bucs' Richard Williamson) were position coaches hired by their own teams. The other nine were coordinators.

To some, that means that the coordinator positions are the first battleground.

"That's where head coaches come from," said Dungy, who was defensive coordinator of the Steelers in the mid-'80s when he was interviewed for head coaching positions in Philadelphia and Green Bay. "Since the early '80s, I've said that head coaching wasn't really the issue as long as we didn't have black coordinators. Ninety percent of the time, that's the criteria owners use."

Are black coaches ready?

Without a doubt, said Johnny Roland, running backs coach of the Chicago Bears: "I don't want to be 60 years old and waiting for my chance to be a head coach. I think I've paid my dues. It's frustrating, and it's a little bit irritating."

Maybe not, said Modell: "The worst thing that could happen to the individual and minority cause is to force a black coach into a situation that may not be consistent with his capabilities. That doesn't accomplish anything. You don't want him to fail. You want him to succeed."

David Cornwell, an assistant legal counsel and Director of Equal Employment for the NFL, knows the frustration of many black assistants.

"No one can quarrel with the notion that you have to hire the best coach for the job," Cornwell said. "The concern is that there has been an appearance that the best has been exclusive of those who are black, and that just is not the case."

Rule modification provides help

Cornwell, and others, were heartened this year by a small rule change that received scant attention. The change, approved at the March owners meetings, officially recognized the coordinator position as a step up from an ordinary assistant's position.

In the past, a team could prevent an assistant coach leaving its team for anything other than a head coaching position if that coach were under contract. In recent seasons, that rule kept three black assistants from becoming coordinators _ which might have made them head coaching candidates in the future.

Two years ago, the Cardinals wanted to name Washington secondary coach Emmitt Thomas defensive coordinator and the Falcons wanted to name Indianapolis assistant Milt Jackson as offensive coordinator. The year before, the Browns attempted to hire 49ers secondary coach Ray Rhodes as defensive coordinator. All were blocked; under the new rule, they could no longer be.

"Texturally, it was a non-racial issue," Cornwell said. "But there were instances _ at least in the view of many of our black assistant coaches _ that the practice (of allowing coaches to leave despite the contract) did not apply to them. In reality, the inability to move kept them from being in a place it is now recognized that you go to find a new head coach."

Cleveland Browns' general manager Ernie Accorsi thinks that the rule modification will help.

"I think this new rule is the best thing that could have happened to the coaching situation," Accorsi said. "The key is the coordinator jobs. Once there are blacks in the coordinators jobs, there are going to be more black head coaches."

Accorsi was refused when he wanted to hire Rhodes as defensive coordinator under Bud Carson two seasons ago. The 49ers said that Rhodes was under contract and too valuable to lose. "My feeling was that that was going to retard his chances to be a head coach," Accorsi said.

Rhodes, by the way, interviewed with the Bucs during the off-season for the defensive coordinator's position. "It came down to him and Floyd Peters," said Krueger. "Ray will be an excellent head coach eventually. He was very impressive."

Instead, Rhodes will stay with the NFL's most diverse staff (six white assistants, five black assistants) on the San Francisco 49ers. There, he will be joined this season by Ray Sherman, who last season was offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons last year rose from 24th to 10th among NFL offenses, but head coach Jerry Glanville brought in June Jones from Detroit in the off-season to run the offense. Sherman resigned and joined the 49ers as a running backs coach. (The other NFL coordinator last year was Jimmy Raye, who was fired along with the rest of the New England staff.)

WLAF opportunities are declined

Sherman was one of seven black coaches who were offered head coaching jobs in the new World League of American Football. All of them (Dungy, Roland, Buffalo's Elijah Pitts, Indianapolis' Milt Jackson and college coaches Green of Stanford and Ken Riley of Florida A&M were the others) declined.

"It was a big disappointment to me," said WLAF commissioner Mike Lynn, a longtime general manager of the Minnesota Vikings. "But we weren't going out just to have a black coach. These were qualified people."

But if they are so qualified, why aren't they being offered head coaching _ or even coordinator _ jobs in the NFL?

"I've always been optimistic," Riley said. "I'm not a guy who says that this isn't happening for me because I'm black. But at the same time, you look at things and you wonder. You don't want to believe that it's because of the color. You see (black) men who are qualified."

Riley said he turned down the WLAF because of its newness and because of his commitment to Florida A&M. He had recently withdrawn his name from consideration for the SMU job, and when both Orlando and New York/New Jersey came calling, he didn't want his bosses to think he was job hunting.

Besides, why was Riley to believe this would pave his way to an NFL job?

"When I was in the NFL, the excuse was that blacks needed head coaching experience," Riley said. "We had people who were coordinators. So I thought this was a great opportunity for me to run a program. As far as black coaches, it's always something."

The WLAF did hire two black general managers _ Reggie Williams of New York/New Jersey and Michael Huyghue of Birmingham. The NFL never has had a black general manager.

Williams, a former player with the Cincinnati Bengals, said that he believes the NFL is committed to hiring more black head coaches. "But I'm bottom-line oriented, and the score is 27-1," he said. "The culturally diverse crew is getting crushed."

It's even worse if you consider that the coordinator score is 46-0 (not all teams have two coordinators).

One assistant coach who isn't frustrated is Tampa Bay assistant Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton, a defensive line assistant.

"I haven't been coaching long enough to be anything but optimistic," said Hamilton, who was head coach of the minor-league Bay State Titans last season and is a former Patriots player and assistant coach.

Hamilton, however, acknowledges that progress has been slow. "If qualifications were all that it took, we'd have lots of black coaches. There are guys who have had head coaching jobs who haven't been worth a damn. And there are guys _ black and white _ who haven't had jobs but are qualified for them."

Hamilton is 39, and yes, he wants to be a head coach in the NFL.

"Oh, yeah, I think it's realistic," he said. "And very do-able. It's just a question of when. Five years, 10 years, I don't know. You get a couple of breaks here or there, get into a winning program, and word of mouth gets started. It's a word of mouth business."

Does the interview have credibility?

Time was, the hot talk was about Dungy, who at one time seemed destined to be the first black coach in the league since Pollard. He took over Pittsburgh's defense at age 28 and the Steelers had immediate success.

In 1986, Dungy interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he has good memories. "They pretty much wanted Buddy Ryan," he said. "If he hadn't taken the job, I think I had a legitimate chance." Not so, Dungy remembers, two years later when Dungy interviewed for the Packers. "I really felt that one was to say they interviewed a minority candidate," he said.

Roland, too, has interviewed twice _ in San Diego in 1989 and in Green Bay in 1987. Were they legitimate interviews?

"Who knows?" Roland said. "I went through the process, and I was thankful for that. I hope they were genuine, but you never know if it's that or they're paying lip-service. But if you're not at the plate, you don't get a chance to swing. At least I got up to bat."

For Roland, that was better than in 1978, when he was so frustrated over the lack of progress for black coaches that he quit. He went to St. Louis and purchased a radio station.

"I was frustrated," he said. "I saw other guys getting the opportunities who weren't any better than I was. With the lack of progress and opportunity, I just felt I could do something else with my life."

Down deep, however, Roland wanted to coach football. So he came back a year later. "It was in my craw," he said.

Roland said that he would hope there would be another black head coach "at least by expansion (1994)." Others, however, say that a way of thinking must change.

"It isn't really racism," Williams said. "It's buddy-buddy. And sometimes, buddy-buddy is the same thing."

Said Dungy: "It's just that most owners don't know enough football to sit and talk to any coach for an extended period of time. They have to rely on publicity and name recognition, and most of us haven't gotten in position to have that."

Is there really an incentive for NFL?

Aside from the obvious, why should the NFL be interested in hiring more black coaches?

"There really is no reason, other than public opinion," Dungy said. "It doesn't affect television ratings, or income, or the way the game is played. It's not like there is a shortage of coaching. There really is no reason for them to be concerned."

Cornwell disagrees.

"I'm not in the position to say if an owner is being unethical," Cornwell said, "But it's just sound business judgment. If you exclude a significant number _ or group _ you are doing your organization a disservice."

It also could be argued that more diverse coaching would lead to improved morale among the players, most of whom are black. And that it could be an advantage in marketing to black fans.

Either way, the coaches are waiting.

"It isn't going to change anytime soon," Williams said. "They (owners) don't want to admit that we can lead."

Said Riley: "I don't think a coach should be hired because he's black. But he shouldn't not be hired because he's black, either."

Old-boys network rules job market

Much of the time, however, coaches are simply hired because they're familiar programing on the old-boys network.

"I think every organization tries to hire the best coaching it can," Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche said. "At the same time, if I'm a white coach _ which all but Art are _ then my circle of friends is much broader with other white coaches. So the odds are that when I go out looking for the best coaches available, I'm going to be more familiar with white coaches. You have to make a conscious effort to acquaint yourself more with black coaches."

Numerically, it is easier for white coaches _ there are more jobs. That increases the odds against a black coach becoming a coordinator and a head coach.

Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, said he knows that some black assistant coaches are frustrated. "I understand that," he said. "It's a difficult profession no matter what color you are. We have 10 assistants, and one is black. So right away, the odds are 9-1 against him."

More blacks might go into coaching, Dungy said, if the ladder seemed to go higher.

"I've seen a few guys I thought would do well who were really hesitant to get into coaching," Dungy said. "Because they can't see the possibility of moving up the ladder. Most players look at it as most staffs are going to have only one black assistant."

After his career, which included being the first black quarterback (to start, win and earn MVP honors) in a Super Bowl, Williams wanted to coach. And he will _ this year at Point Coupee Central High School in New Rose, La.

"I'm not going to say that I would have been an NFL assistant if I had been white," Williams said. "But the case could be made. Any team I was with, no one could say I couldn't communicate. But I'm a pretty straightforward individual. If you're not an a--kisser, it's tough to get one of those (NFL) jobs."

Williams aside, Cornwell has heard an argument that superstar black players such as Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson make too much money to work coaches' hours for coaches' pay. On the other hand, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath aren't working as assistants either.

"You hear that (that stars make too much money to be assistants), and it's just irrelevant," said Cornwell. "By doing that, you limit the number of available candidates. A significant number of white coaches have never played a down in the NFL. It's an inappropriate prerequisite to attach to job qualifications, especially when you don't attach it to white candidates. A lot of them never had a cup of coffee in the NFL."

Said Williams: "Look at (former Dolphin guard) Larry Little. He was told to get some experience, and he's still at Bethune-Cookman. Look at James Harris. He should be the quarterback coach of the Bucs, but they want him to scout."

Yet, Cornwell said that he remains not only optimistic, but convinced that Tagliabue is sincere about making opportunities equal.

"I recently heard the commissioner criticized on minority affairs," Cornwell said. "It was said that he has never tongue-lashed the owners on race relations. Well, the speaker has never been in the meetings rooms. And of the four hires the commissioner has made in the executive offices, two (NFC public-relations director Reggie Roberts and Thomas Henderson, the executive vice president) have been black."

On the sideline, however, everything remains white but Shell and Jerry Glanville's shirts. And some don't expect the process to speed up anytime soon.

"In the near, near future, I don't see it happening," Dungy said. "I know we've made progress _ there were 14 of us when I came into the league in 1980. But we're really at the same place we were when Art was hired.

"What we're looking for is a day when a black coach can be interviewed, hired and lose their jobs _ and it's not newsworthy."

History lesson

The NFL and its history of blacks in the league.

1904: Charles Follis becomes the first black player in pro football when he joins the Shelby (Ohio) Athletic Club.

1919: Fritz Pollard of the Akron Pros and Robert "Rube" Marshall of the Rock Island Independents become the first blacks to play in what would become the NFL.

1921: Fritz Pollard becomes the player-coach of the Akron Pros, becoming the first black head coach.

1934: As a result of a "gentleman's agreement" of owners, blacks are totally phased out of the NFL, and the league would remain all-white until 1946.

1946: Kenny Washington of UCLA (the college roommate of Jackie Robinson) breaks the NFL color line by signing with the Los Angles Rams. The Rams were told they could not use the L.A. Coliseum unless they had black players.

1953: Willie Thrower of the Chicago Bears becomes the first black quarterback to play in the NFL.

1957: Cleveland's Jim Brown becomes the first black to lead the NFL in rushing (942 yards).

1962: The Washington Redskins, under government pressure, become the final NFL team to integrate when they trade for running back Bobby Mitchell and sign fullback Ron Hatcher.

1963: Emlen Tunnell becomes the first black assistant coach when he joins the New York Giants.

1965: Burl Towler is named the first NFL official.

1983: Tony Dungy becomes the league's first black coordinator when he's named defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

1988: Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins becomes the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl.

1989: Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders becomes the first black head football coach of modern times.

How the teams break down

Here's a look at minority representation among on-the-field coaches in the NFL. The chart does not include part-timers, strength and conditioning coaches or film breakdown personnel.

Team Assistants Blacks Black

on staff coordinators

Atlanta 8 1 0

Buffalo 9 1 0

Chicago 9 1 0

Cincinnati 8 1 0

Cleveland 9 3 0

Dallas 11 3 0

Denver 10 2 0

Detroit 8 2 0

Green Bay 10 2 0

Houston 8 1 0

Indianapolis 8 2 0

Kansas City 10 1 0

L.A. Raiders 12 2 0

L.A. Rams 12 2 0

Miami 11 2 0

Minnesota 10 1 0

New England 12 2 0

New Orleans 9 1 0

N.Y. Giants 9 1 0

N.Y. Jets 10 2 0

Philadelphia 11 1 0

Phoenix 10 2 0

Pittsburgh 11 2 0

San Diego 12 2 0

San Francisco 11 5 0

Seattle 11 2 0

Tampa Bay 11 2 0

Washington 11 2 0

Totals 281 51 0

NOTE: The Los Angeles Raiders do not list coordinators, and several teams list only one.

The Top 10 candidates

1. Terry Robiskie, tight ends, Los Angeles Raiders: He doesn't have the title, but Robiskie performs the functions of offensive coordinator for the Raiders. Last year, teams looked to Raiders quarterback coach Mike White as a possible head coaching candidate, but Robiskie's turn might be coming.

2. Ray Rhodes, secondary, San Francisco 49ers: Look for Rhodes to become a defensive coordinator for some team next season. The Cleveland Browns wanted to give Rhodes that title two years ago, and Rhodes made the final two of the Tampa Bay Bucs last year. When is the last time the 49ers had a bad secondary?

3. Tony Dungy, linebackers, Kansas City Chiefs: His name isn't as hot as it was when he was the defensive coordinator of the Steelers, but Dungy is still young (35), and he helps to coach a talented defense with Kansas City. He might have to become a coordinator again, but don't give up on him.

4. Johnny Roland, running backs, Chicago: Much of the reason for the ease of transition between the Walter Payton era and the Neal Anderson era must go to Roland. Twice, Roland has interviewed for head coaching jobs (San Diego and Green Bay). As a player, Roland rushed for 3,750 yards with the Cardinals.

5. Emmitt Thomas, secondary, Washington Redskins: Thomas is well-known for his ability to relate to athletes, which is one of the reasons the Redskins wouldn't let him go to Phoenix as defensive coordinator two years ago. Thomas, a former star with the Chiefs, will be a coordinator soon.

6. Joe Greene, defensive line, Pittsburgh Steelers: If name recognition is important in coaching, and it is, keep an eye on Greene. He was a player as popular as he was successful for the Steelers. Greene has only been coaching since 1987, but he's off to a good start.

7. Dennis Green, head coach, Stanford: Green was well-regarded as an assistant for the 49ers, and he's been a Division I coach for seven years. His record is only 18-59, but that's been at Stanford and Northwestern, where it's tough to win. Green declined a chance to coach in the WLAF.

8. Chick Harris, running backs, Seattle: He's been with Chuck Knox for a decade, and he was with Washington's Don James for six years before that. He's an organized, well-thought-of assistant who will be a hot item if Knox is able to lead the Seahawks back to the playoffs again.

9. Jimmy Raye, wide receivers, L.A. Rams: Three times, Raye has interviewed for head coaching positions. That shows he's well-thought-of enough. He was the offensive coordinator of the Patriots last year, but was a victim to housecleaning. With the Rams' offense, his stock could rebound.

10. Ray Sherman, running backs, San Francisco: Last year, Sherman was offensive coordinator of the Falcons, and they improved dramatically. However, when Atlanta handed its offense to June Jones, Sherman left and joined the San Francisco 49ers.

_ GARY SHELTON

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