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Diversity in coaching hires remains an issue for NFL owners

The league has just three black head coaches, same as when the Rooney Rule was introduced in 2003.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, right, had one of the most prolific offenses in the league this season, yet no team sought him for a head coach opening.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, right, had one of the most prolific offenses in the league this season, yet no team sought him for a head coach opening. [ Times ]
Published Jan. 8, 2020|Updated Jan. 9, 2020

TAMPA — When Tony Dungy was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota in 1974, his Golden Gophers were destroyed by Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, who went on to win his first of two Heisman Trophies.

“There was no doubt in my mind, he was the best running back in the country,” Dungy said Wednesday. “Ollie Bakken was a senior linebacker on our team and played in the East-West Shrine all-star game. He came back to campus and told us a guy on his team was so much better than Archie Griffin, it wasn’t even close.

“We said, ‘That’s impossible.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, Walter Payton (from Jackson State in Mississippi) is unreal.’ The East-West game opened up (Bakken’s) universe. Eventually, we all got to see it. But in January 1975, we would’ve drafted Archie Griffin for our fantasy team. He was the best back in college football because that’s all we knew. Same with these (NFL) owners today.”

Only three black head coaches were employed by the NFL as of Wednesday: Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, Dolphins’ Brian Flores and Chargers’ Anthony Lynn. That’s the same number as when the Rooney Rule — which requires NFL teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs — was adopted in 2003. And that number hasn’t changed, even with the recent slew of openings, with just one team — the Browns — left to hire a head coach.

You don’t have to look any further than Tampa Bay to wonder how in the world Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who are both black, didn’t at least merit interviews as head-coaching jobs opened.

On Tuesday, the Panthers hired Baylor head coach Matt Rhule as their coach and the Giants chose Patriots special teams coordinator and receivers coach Joe Judge. That followed the Cowboys’ hiring of Super Bowl-winning coach Mike McCarthy and Washington’s selection of former Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

In this Jan. 20, 2019, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy gestures during the second half of the AFC Championship  in Kansas City, Mo.
In this Jan. 20, 2019, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy gestures during the second half of the AFC Championship in Kansas City, Mo. [ CHARLIE RIEDEL | AP ]

As of Wednesday, the Browns had interviewed six candidates, only one of whom is black: Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. They had two more interviews scheduled, with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, both of whom are white.

Bieniemy also interviewed for two other openings this year. He interviewed for four head-coaching vacancies last year, including the Bucs job that eventually went to Bruce Arians.

Rivera is Hispanic, the lone minority in the recent hiring spate. But the universe of pro football hasn’t exactly been widened by NFL owners. There is only one black general manager — the Dolphins’ Chris Grier — and there are no black owners.

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Look, if you pay what these guys pay for an NFL franchise, you should be allowed to hire the person you think gives your franchise the best chance to win. On the other hand, why is a guy such as Bieniemy being overlooked?

For years, what you always heard was that owners were looking for former offensive or defensive coordinators. Bieniemy, a former NFL running back, worked his way up on Andy Reid’s Kansas City staff from running backs coach to offensive coordinator.

So what do you hear now? He doesn’t call the plays. Guess what? Neither did Eagles coach Doug Pederson or Bears coach Matt Nagy, both of whom are white, when they were offensive coordinators on Reid’s staff.

Leftwich and Bieniemy are the only two black offensive coordinators in the league. There are also only two black quarterbacks coaches. Perhaps so few opportunities are why only five black head coaches have come from that side of the ball.

“It’s up to the owners to figure out what gives them the best chance to win,” said Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, in the 2006 season with the Colts against the Bears, who were led by Lovie Smith, who is also black. “Unfortunately, many have no idea. You can’t fault people for the choices they make. But you can fault them for being uninformed. So the idea behind the Rooney Rule was to give owners information. And that’s the problem.”

Dungy mentioned Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who is white, and Bills defensive coordinator and former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, who is black. Schwartz interviewed with the Browns on Wednesday. “He is a good candidate with good credentials,” Dungy said. Frazier “has been a solid (defensive coordinator) for three different teams. He’s been a head coach that has taken a team to the playoffs. I’d venture to say there are many owners who wouldn’t know that.”

Also, Dungy said, “Matt Rhule has done some very good things in college football. He is certainly a good candidate. He won at Temple and Baylor. James Franklin (who is black) won at Vanderbilt and at Penn State in the aftermath of (the Jerry Sandusky sexual-assault scandal). Is he not a good candidate?”

The idea is not to hire a coach because he is black. It is to give qualified candidates the same consideration that coaches such as Schwartz and Rhule received.

It’s almost a given that Leftwich, who turns 40 Tuesday, will be an NFL head coach one day. In his first full season of calling plays in the NFL this season, he had the No. 1 passing offense in the league and the No. 3 offense overall. Fortunately for him, he was a quarterback in the league who was drafted in the first round by the Jaguars and is used to leading a franchise.

Many expected Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to garner some head coaching interest once the regular season ended.
Many expected Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to garner some head coaching interest once the regular season ended. [ Times ]

As for Bowles, you could argue that after going 10-6 in his first year as head coach of the Jets, he never did better than 5-11 in the next three years. But Schwartz got five seasons as head coach of the Lions and finished with a 29-51 record and only one winning season.

Jim Trotter, who covers the league for the NFL Network, posted this on Twitter on Tuesday:

“Received this text from an NFL assistant coach who happens to be black: ‘NFL has finally shown it’s not the place for black men to advance. It’s ridiculous, it’s disgusting. We can sell tickets and make plays, but we can’t lead.’ ”

Trotter then wrote this about the current hiring climate.

“The lack of black head coaches in the NFL is not a league issue, it’s an ownership issue. Owners are master contortionists when coming up with reasons why we aren’t ‘qualified’ or ‘ready.’ Thirty-two teams: one black GM, three black coaches.”

Dungy was passed over for head-coaching vacancies for more than a decade, overlooked twice by the Eagles and once after an interview with the Jaguars. In 1993, Dungy was the coordinator when the Vikings had the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and despite eight head-coach openings, he didn’t receive so much as a phone call.

He was the Bucs’ third choice when they hired him as head coach in 1996, after then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson.

In 2016 Dungy was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Glazers are among the few owners who have a history of diverse coach hirings. They have hired three black head coaches. All three coordinators on Arians’ staff, including special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, are black.

As for the majority of the league? Well, its universe hasn’t changed much.

“That is what has minority coaches shaking their heads,” Dungy said. “And that’s what owners don’t understand. They have their minds closed to a portion of the universe that might help them.”

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com or (727) 709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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