Wednesday, January 24, 2007


The State of the NFL: Black Coaches

With two black head coaches in the Super Bowl, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at black coaches in the NFL. While there are still quite a few coaching vacancies around the NFL (1 head coach, 5 offensive coordinators, and 2 defensive coordinators), we can still get a feel for the situation.

Currently, there are more black head coaches (6) than offensive coordinators (1) and defensive coordinators (4) combined. Considering it was only 16 years ago that the NFL had only one black head coach (Art Shell), this is significant progress.

Are six black head coaches (out of 32 teams) enough? While that is comparable to the black population in society, it is not comparable to the percentage of black players in the NFL. However, that comparison assumes players become coaches, which is often not true. Players generally make more money than coaches. After they retire, they normally pursue higher paying careers, such as broadcasting. When you see former players in the coaching ranks, it is usually (but not always) players of lesser quality, who made less money. For them, coaching is not quite as significant a drop in salary.

Keep in mind that players nowadays NEVER go from playing to head coaching (Norm van Brocklin was the last player I can recall who did this back in 1961). This means any coach has to "pay his dues" in order to become a head coach. Why would any player who has made seven or eight figures want to make five or six figures in order to become a coach? It takes a true love of the game for a player to do this. Unfortunately, for every Mike Singletary (former all-pro linebacker with the Bears, currently defensive coordinator with the 49ers) and Herman Edwards (former all-pro cornerback with the Eagles, currently head coach with the Chiefs), there are ten Shannon Sharpes or Tom Jacksons who go into fields such as broadcasting to make more money.

But that leads to the question of why aren't there more "lesser quality" black players who take up coaching after they retire? Since there tend to be more black players in general in football, it might be a good idea to look at the path they take to the NFL.

They start in high school. Assuming they have success there, then they move up to the college ranks. Assuming they have success there, they move up to the NFL. This is where the "lesser quality" players bust, or have mediocre careers. Considering they have success and glory and fame on two levels, then are another face in the crowd at the NFL level, is it any wonder they get disillusioned with the sport by the time they retire?

Another common thing you see in NFL coaches are guys who played football in college, but never made it on the pro level. Hue Jackson, the only black offensive coordinator in the NFL, was a college quarterback who never played pro football. He went into coaching on the college level immediately after college. Ron Turner, the offensive coordinator of the Bears, was a wide receiver in college who never played in the pros. Mike Martz of the Lions was a tight end in college who became a high school football coach after he graduated. Mike Tomlin, the new black head coach of the Steelers, was a wide receiver in college who never played pro football. Lovie Smith? No pro football experience as a player. One other thing to note is these guys played college football at small schools, not the USC, Ohio State, Florida-type "programs".

For black NFL players, coaching is not the best post-career option for them. They can use their name recognition to make money in other fields.

On the other hand, why aren't more black coaches coming up from the college ranks? That is a question for a college football expert.


Robert George asked, "Another question that might be asked is why (at least as it seems to me) do there seem to be more black defensive coordinators than offensive ones." There are, by a 4-1 margin (although there are five offensive coordinator openings now, so that might change).

The reason? This is just speculation on my part, but I suspect it is because defensive players in general are not the "glory hounds" that offensive players are (Deion Sanders being a VERY notable exception). Also, in general, defensive players get paid less than offensive players. Therefore, black players playing defense would be more agreeable to pursuing a coaching career after they retire.

Bill Barker suggested, "Just a guess: Fewer black quarterbacks." Actually, quarterbacks are NOT more represented among the coaching ranks than any other offensive position. (If anything, I have seen more former wide receivers in the offensive coaching ranks, but I would not say they are the majority.) The more successful quarterbacks avoid coaching like the plague, regardless of the color of their skin.

While fewer black quarterbacks and fewer black offensive coordinators might be symptoms of the same problem, one does not necessarily lead to the other.

R.A.G. UPDATE (12:50 P.M.): Ed, forgive me for hijacking your really great post. This started out as a simple Comment, but then I realized I was on too much of a roll.

That's a really great analysis. I will add, however, that as much as I was uncomfortable with it, the Paul Tagliabue-Dan Rooney affirmative action rule passed a few years ago seems to have had a tremendous impact on bringing black coaches into the hiring pipeline.

Just look at the Tony Dungy coaching "tree": Herman Edwards, Lovie Smith and now, Mike Tomlin. It goes to show that once one or two qualified minority candidates are allowed into the available pool, the usual social networking dynamics start falling into place. Dungy gets a job; he knows talented people, trains them in a system, is able to put in a good word with a GM when a position opens up on another team, and so on. However, if those first couple of seeds aren't planted, few things will grow.

Interestingly, aside from the Raiders' Art Shell, the initial wave of black coaches -- Dennis Green and Ray Rhodes, came out of the then-dominant Bill Walsh-era 49-ers system. However, there wasn't anything league-wide put in place to help take advantage of that.

Again, it may have been pretty ham-handed, but Steelers owner Rooney's insistence that owners and GMs have minority candidates in the mix seems to have born results.

It was nice to see Rooney put his money where his mouth is by hiring Tomlin. However, if Tomlin hadn't been hired, you could have expected a sh**-storm over the Raiders' hiring of 31- year-old Lane Kiffin -- precisely because of what you said about the need for coaches to "pay their dues."

One of the more frustrating things for black coach aspirants in years past was facing this catch-22: They were told that "you have to work your way through the ranks" -- only to see a white candidate with a seemingly much thinner resume come out of nowhere and get a job for which an on-paper more qualified black coach wasn't even interviewed.

As I said, the Tomlin hiring should mute that criticism, but I can imagine a number of coaches (especially coordinators) -- irrespective of race -- who are truly rolling their eyes at the Kiffin hiring: He's been running the USC offense for one year (one in which it significantly declined from the Norman Chow era) -- and he's suddenly an NFL head coach?? Huh? But that move, I think says more about the increasing senility of Al Davis than it says about the hiring practices in the National Football League.

Anyway, thanks for letting me vent, Ed!

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