NFL’s bleak record on diversity hiring ends with owners but starts with coaches

The tokenism with which owners have treated the Rooney Rule is superficial compared to the soul-deep failure by coaches to promote their black colleagues and place them in the job pipeline. Coaches aren’t hermetically sealed in luxury suites. They’re on the sideline with their players, 70 percent of whom are black, and they’re the ones who earmark future headset talents, foster and recommend them. That there are just three minority head coaches in the league in 2020 falls squarely on a professional clique that has choked off the candidate pool in favor of friends, sons, and sons of friends.

Owners can and should be held accountable for the fact that four of five head coaching vacancies in this cycle went to white men. But owners are not the ones choosing staffs, from which candidates are drawn, particularly offensive coordinators, the main route to carrying a clipboard and sitting in the big office someday. Between February 2018 and February 2019, head coaches hired 15 offensive coordinators. Fourteen of them were white.

Just one job went to a man of color, when Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs promoted Eric Bieniemy.

Given those numbers, here is a legitimate question: Who will become a head coach first, Bieniemy or Becky Hammon in the NBA?

Go ahead and blame NFL owners for the fact that the 50-year-old Bieniemy hasn’t gotten a head coaching job despite seven interviews in two years. But blame the head coaches for the fact that Bieniemy has so few peers that look like him. Since 2009, fully 91 percent of the offensive coordinators employed in the NFL have been white.

Such numbers come from the NFL itself, which deserves credit for taking a hard look at teams ’hiring practices. The Rooney Rule, passed in 2003, mandates that teams interview at least one minority candidate. For several years now, the NFL has published a series of painfully honest self-reports on its failure to create more diversity hires, entitled “Occupational Mobility Patterns in the NFL.” What those reports show is the league needs more guys like Bruce Arians.

Arians hired Byron Leftwich as an intern with the Arizona Cardinals in 2016 when his playing career was over. In 2017, Arians promoted Leftwich to quarterbacks coach. And in 2019, Arians hired Leftwich as offensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arians also elevated Harold Goodwin to a coordinator’s job in Arizona.

It’s hard to overstate just how rare the Arians-Leftwich-Godwin relationship is. Most head coaches funnel minorities to lesser position-coaching jobs: In 2019, just four black men served as quarterback coaches, the vital stepping stone to a coordinator title. The Associated Press counted up staff positions and found that three-quarters of minority assistants coached either running backs, receivers, or defensive backs.

Compounding the barrier to upward mobility for minorities is something the NFL labels “a troubling reshuffling effect.” White men who get fired are retreaded and rehired at a ridiculously high rate. In a results business notorious for job insecurity, white coaches are giving their old colleagues soft landings rather than promoting young minorities.

According to the league’s “Occupational Mobility Patterns” studies, since 1963, 112 white men have lost their head coaching jobs, only to find reemployment as offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, or head coaches. Know how many minority men lost their head jobs since 1963 and were able to reenter the league at the level of coordinator or better? Just 18.

John DeFilippo was relieved by the Jacksonville Jaguars this week, his third coordinator’s job. DeFilippo, the son of former Youngstown State coach and college administrator Gene DeFilippo, has been hired in various posts over the years by Tom Coughlin, Rex Ryan, Tony Sparano. Mike Pettine, Doug Pederson, Mike Zimmer, and Doug Marrone.

Compare that to the experience of Edgar Bennett. I have spent 17 seasons with the Green Bay Packers under Mike McCarthy and rose to offensive coordinator from 2015-2018, during which time they won a conference championship and set records for prolific yardage. At the age of 50, he has been bounced back to coaching wide receivers for the Oakland Raiders.

Then there is the winding career of Terry Robiskie. After rising to passing game coordinator and interim head coach for the Redskins in 2000, Robiskie was relegated to receivers coach by the Cleveland Browns. I have managed to claw his way back up to a job as offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans in 2016-2017, but was knocked down again to receivers coach by the Buffalo Bills. At the age of 65, he coaches running backs for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Then there are the syndromes that are less documented, but you can see and feel them at work. For instance, the NFL has become a fathers-sons business almost akin to NASCAR, and coaches unquestionably are protecting turf for their progeny. One longtime coordinator told me there is an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement to award apprenticeships to sons of old colleagues so their own kids also will get opportunities. Nate Carroll, Brandon Fisher, Adam Zimmer, Scott Turner, Stephen Belichick, Mike Nolan and Blake Williams are just a few of the legacies working in the league.

Some of them, of course, are immensely talented. You hope these men think more broadly, as Kyle Shanahan has with his staff in San Francisco, arguably the most distinctively mixed and forward-looking in the entire league.

Then there is the strong sense that religious and regional ties play a role. If you want to win NFL mentors, and job recommendations, it pays to have connections to northeastern Catholic schools, or to come out of Pennsylvania. Maybe Matt Rhule (played at Penn State, coached at Temple and Baylor) will turn out to be the next Jimmy Johnson for the Carolina Panthers. Or maybe he just looks and sounds like part of The Family. Same with the 37-year-old newly minted Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski (St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, played at Penn, are of NBA exec Ed Stefanski). And Joe Judge (Lansdale Catholic in Philly, are of Temple alum and Canadian football veteran Joseph Judge).

One of the more baffling things about intransigence in NFL coaching is that the goals of whites and blacks would seem to merge: Everyone wants to win. Don’t they? The argument for diversity is not that it’s right or honorable but that it’s better, more interesting. There is a lot of bland, mediocre, ineffectual offense in the NFL. But here’s the thing: Beneath the win-loss records is another game, and another goal: Real winning in football historically has been about the maintenance and perpetuation of certain power structures.

The game was born out of distinctly American forms of machinery, from Walter Camp’s New Haven Clock Company to the bituminous coal and mill towns of Pennsylvania. The NFL’s racial history looks not much different from that of trade unions: heavy on black worker membership, light on diverse leadership. The AFL-CIO too is struggling to remake an upper echelon notorious for being “male, pale and stale.”

Owners can pass all the Rooney Rules they want. What such rules can’t do is untie unspoken agreements, quash the quiet patronage system, or cure hearts. These things are diffuse, pervasive, and difficult to extirpate. The colleagues who have helped to perpetuate these tendencies have three basic options. They can look away uncomfortably and pretend it isn’t so. They can comfortably acquiesce and go back to watching tape. Or they can ask why their coaching trees always seem to carry so many snow-white ornaments, and decide to make a difference.

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