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Press Coverage

Grappling with lack of diversity among NFL coaches, GMs

In's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JIM TROTTER leads off a discussion of the NFL's ongoing efforts to increase the ranks of minority head coaches and general managers.

With two Super Bowl wins on his resume, 49ers coach Bill Walsh had the clout to take on NFL culture three decades ago. It was 1987, and Walsh was tired of seeing the door slammed in the faces of talented minority college coaches seeking to jump to the league. So, with the blessing and support of ownership, he invited aspiring coaches of color to spend training camp with the team.

At the time, NFL rosters were becoming more diverse, while coaching staffs were still relatively white, particularly at positions of authority, like head coach or coordinator. There had yet to be an African American head coach in the modern era, and there had only been one in the history of the league. This was unacceptable to Walsh, who believed racial balance between the locker room and staff was right, morally and competitively.

"He was very serious about the diversity situation," Carmen Policy, then the team's vice president, told me recently. "He felt the locker room shouldn't be all white or black, that a mixture made it work best. And he was talking about African American coaches in colleges who should be breaking into the NFL that weren't breaking into the NFL. He had a vision, and he had a way of understanding not only what was happening, but what should happen."

In the 14 years that followed his first class of interns, comprised of college and high school coaches as well as former players, the number of diverse assistants swelled, and five blacks were hired as head coaches. Of them, four came off the late Hall of Fame coach's staff or through his summer program: Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards.

The program proved to be so impactful that the league adopted it for every team and named it the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship. Among its graduates are current or former head coaches Mike Tomlin, Anthony Lynn, Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, Hue Jackson and Raheem Morris.

The fellowship seems like smart business today, but it was fairly radical at its time, just as the league's proposal Tuesday to incentivize the hiring of minority head coaches and general managers through enhanced draft positions. The resolution ultimately was tabled, but the issue of how to level the playing field when hiring for leadership positions remains front and center with those in the league office. The Rooney Rule has been changed to require teams to interview a minimum of two external minority candidates for head coaching positions, one minority candidate for coordinator positions and one external minority candidate for senior football operations and general manager positions. Teams are also now prohibited from barring assistant coaches and lower-level employees from interviewing for coordinator or assistant GM jobs.

Currently, there are only two black general managers and four head coaches of color, which matches a 17-year low and half the number of just two years ago. How did the league get to this point, and where can it go from here?

Jeffri Chadiha: There are a variety of reasons as to why we've gotten to this point -- many of which have been covered in the past -- but I think it's worth starting with some perspective as we move forward. We spend a lot of time talking about numbers when it comes to minority coaching hires, especially in years when there are fewer men on the job. That really hamstrings the conversation. Unless we're willing to actually determine the perfect number of minority head coaches working in the NFL at any given time, then we're always going to be unhappy with the final tally.

I definitely believe the league can do better at this issue, but I'll start by focusing on the coaching situation. From where I sit, exposure is a huge issue in the process. I'd like to see more minority coaches get more quality time in front of decision-makers, which leads me to these three suggestions:

1) Allow teams to bring their coordinators and their assistant head coaches to the Annual League Meeting every spring. It would be a great chance for those men to network with all the top decision-makers and give minorities an opportunity to connect in a way they might not have otherwise. You could even have diversity panels, where owners talk about what impresses them, and respected football minds -- men like former Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and Hall-of-Fame head coach Tony Dungy -- discuss how the process can improve.

2) Let coordinators coach the college all-star games (instead of head coaches), so they can display their leadership ability. Again, they can showcase their organizational and motivational skills in front of a live audience. This is where a minority candidate like Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy truly would shine.

3) Make more assistant coaches available to the media throughout the week. Too many teams limit their assistants to one day of talking per week, and some don't even let those who aren't coordinators talk at all. How can you sell yourself on a limited platform? Tweaking the interview process is a nice step forward, but I'd also like to see more of this stuff.

Judy Battista: I'm encouraged the league is taking such a holistic approach to improving its poor diversity hiring record. The idea that was tabled involving draft-pick compensation for hiring a coach or general manager from a minority group was flawed but well-intentioned. Still, it's hard to imagine this situation really improves -- and by improves, I mean gets to the point where we don't even think about it anymore -- until the league gets real buy-in from all the owners. And they just aren't there. 

There is a strong vein of "you can't tell me how to run my business" in the NFL. Dan Rooney himself ran into it when the Rooney Rule was first being crafted. That's why I couldn't agree more with Jeffri's sentiment that familiarity and comfort level are going to be the cornerstones of any revolution in diversity hiring. The mandates to interview minority candidates for coordinator jobs are an improvement -- that's an obvious way to improve the pipeline. But more importantly, it gets minority coaches, especially young assistant coaches who may not be as familiar to owners, in front of the decision-makers. That kind of exposure is priceless. And, I, too, think the league must mandate greater exposure for its up-and-coming minority coaches. 

When the league was first dealing with its diversity problem, then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue talked to the broadcast networks and asked them to identify by name the black coaches they showed on the sideline, just as they did the white ones. It seems like a small, silly thing. But if you don't think owners pay attention to the "hot" names, you aren't paying attention. Make teams make all assistants available. Let the coordinators come to annual meetings so they can schmooze with the owners. Get them in front of groups of owners at the NFL Scouting Combine, during Competition Committee meetings, whatever it takes. It may need not directly lead to a job offer, but it should increase exposure and, maybe just as importantly, it should enhance the owners' comfort level with minority candidates. 

It's embarrassing that the NFL still has to figure out ways to engineer this. But as much time as they can spend on the pipeline, they must spend more time working to change the mindset of those who are making the decisions.

Michael Silver: All of these ideas are really good. If I were in charge of everything, I'd implement each of Jeff's suggestions immediately. And Judy is absolutely right about the root of the problem. When owners make these big hires, they're wanting to create a winning culture -- but most of the time, they want to win the press conference, too.

One reason 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh suddenly became a legitimate candidate last season was because his sideline celebrations and gesticulations, as captured by television cameras, became a thing. More importantly, respected players like Richard Sherman, DeForest Buckner and others eloquently expressed their regard for his teaching, schematic and leadership skills to journalists looking to explain the emergence of the Niners' defense as one of the league's best.

This brings me to my next point, and an accompanying suggestion: This charade about coaches not getting hired until their teams are done with postseason play has to stop. Saleh, like many others before him, was hurt because the 49ers made it all the way to the Super Bowl. He got just one interview -- from the Browns -- and by all accounts, he completely crushed it. Yet, the Browns were impatient, instead hiring Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski three weeks before Super Sunday and getting a jump on their latest rebuilding project/culture-change initiative. The joke was that Saleh's unit had just manhandled Stefanski's in a divisional-round playoff game. Absurdly, had it been the other way around -- and had the Vikings won the game because of it -- Saleh's chances of landing the Cleveland job would have been much better.

I get why playoff teams don't want their coordinators (or other assistants) to start new jobs that could distract them from the mission at hand. Yet, after watching this phenomenon play out over and over again, with Saleh and Bieniemy being the latest casualties, I've had enough. The great Bill Walsh once let his wide receivers coach, Denny Green, take the Stanford job on Jan. 3, a full 19 days before the 49ers' Super Bowl XXIII victory over the Bengals. Walsh correctly surmised that Green was capable of multi-tasking, and he was correct: One of Green's starting wideouts, Jerry Rice, caught 11 passes for 215 yards in that Super Bowl, while the other, John Taylor, hauled in the game-winning pass from Joe Montana with 34 seconds to go.

My proposed change: If an owner wants to hire a playoff team's assistant, with the understanding that the coach in question will continue to fulfill his/her duties until that team has played its final game, have at it.

Trotter: So many great ideas by all, but I believe too much of the focus is on the league to do something when the real problem is the owners themselves. They do the hiring and firing, and if the turnover rate for head coaches since 2000 proves anything, it's that they're much better at firing than they are at hiring, with an average of seven changes per year. Owners have to stop asking: Who are the hot candidates? Before ever considering a coach, they need to ask questions like: What am I looking for in a coach? Do I want someone young or old? Someone who is hands-on or someone who delegates? Someone with an offensive background? A defensive background? Special teams? Do I want someone who is charismatic or understated? Someone with no head-coaching experience or someone who has held the title before? If you haven't answered questions such as that before ever considering a name, then you're more prone to fail. 

The other thing I'd suggest is that owners stop wasting money on search firms that know very little about NFL culture and what it takes to succeed as a coach. On many occasions, search firms call football people to get the answers to questions that owners themselves should be asking. Eliminate the middle man. Do your homework yourself. Get a real feel for the candidate before the interview. 

Finally, owners need to listen to minority candidates who believe "comfort level" is a real problem in the process. I remember writing a story a year ago and mentioning to Katie Blackburn, then the chair of the league's diversity committee, that many of the minority coaches I had spoken to felt that comfortability was an issue. That owners were more likely to hire someone who looks like them and shares some of the same cultural or social experiences. She dismissed that notion. Granted, that might not be a factor in the case of the Bengals franchise her father owns and for which she serves as executive vice president, but can she speak for the 31 other clubs? Dismissing the suggestion so easily speaks to the larger issue that these men feel, as if their voices are not being heard, that their opinions are not valued. It's hard to believe things will change until that changes.

Chadiha: I agree with everything that has been said. Since I'm going to be the last voice on this topic, I'm also going to address some matters that are probably going to be considered far more controversial. If we're going to dive into this subject, we need to call everyone out.

One factor in the problem of minority coaching hires -- especially in an era where the league is so tilted towards offense -- is that very few minority quarterbacks can extend their careers as backups. Those second-string signal-callers who stick around into their mid- to late-30s are perfectly positioned to move into coaching jobs and move up the ranks. Think about guys like Philadelphia's Doug Pederson, Indianapolis' Frank Reich and former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. There are precious few men of color who play quarterback in the NFL who can find their way into that kind of gig.

The second factor the league must think about is college football. You think the NFL has problems? I didn't hear anybody complaining when Ohio State walked Ryan Day right into the job vacated by Urban Meyer. The same thing happened at Oklahoma, when Bob Stoops stepped out and Lincoln Riley stepped in. Just interviewing a minority coach for such prestigious, high-powered positions could've put an unknown, aspiring head coach on the radar of a future employer. This isn't to knock those college coaches or the previously mentioned men who made their careers as long-time backups. It's just a way of noting that sometimes we can be blind to how these elements impact the pro game.

Finally, I'll end with this: We can't ask others to do what we won't do for ourselves. As much as I agree with Jim about the burden owners should share, I also believe minority coaches can create more opportunities for minorities to advance. Tony Dungy created a hell of a coaching tree that included a number of successful black head coaches (names like Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards, Jim Caldwell and Mike Tomlin). Of the four minority head coaches currently in the league, not one has a minority coordinator (two have minority assistant head coaches -- Pittsburgh's John Mitchell and the Los Angeles Chargers' George Stewart). I get that some new head coaches are forced to keep holdovers from previous staffs. However, if we want hot names for candidates, we need those coaches in power to help deliver more.

We have to remember one important thing here: Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 24 have hired either a minority head coach or general manager in the last 25 years. That is progress that can't be ignored. But as we all know, evolution is inevitable. The league got this far by relying on innovation. It will take a lot more creativity to determine where it goes from here.

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