Opinion: Black coaches, talent evaluators concerned that NFL teams will simply do more 'token' interviews
Mike Jones, USA TODAY 1 day ago
As this year’s NFL hiring cycle unfolds, coaches and talent evaluators of color find themselves closely monitoring the decisions around the league, wondering how these moves will impact their futures.
Could this year feature the breakthrough in career advancement they have long craved, or will the frustrations over decades of unfair hiring practices simply extend another season?
The year 2020 saw the topics of race, systemic oppression and social injustices dominate the national conversation like never before. The NFL was not immune for two painful reasons in particular. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery stirred NFL players, coaches and officials and caused them to use their platforms to demand justice, and because yet another hiring cycle saw highly qualified aspiring head coaches and general managers denied opportunities of advancement.
The highest-ranking NFL officials acknowledged the lack of diversity on the coaching and front-office levels and admitted the system was broken.
Since 2003, the league required teams to interview at least one candidate of color when hiring a head coach, and six years later, the edict, known as the Rooney Rule, expanded to require the same of general manager hiring searches. But in 2020, the league regressed on the diversity front.
So, as the league grappled with race and how to right past wrongs, owners agreed to an expansion of the Rooney Rule to require teams to interview two candidates of color for head-coaching positions, at least one candidate of color for coordinator openings and one external candidate of color for front-office positions. The NFL even went so far as to incentivize the development and promotion of coaches and talent evaluators of color. The owners approved a measure that will award a team two third-round draft picks if it loses a person of color to a head coach or general manager position on another team.
As this hiring cycle approached, NFL officials expressed optimism that its clubs’ top decision-makers at last were serious about providing equal employment opportunities in a league whose player membership is more than 70 percent Black.
“One thing I’ve seen throughout the calendar year was the engagement level,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, who is Black and has worked to spearhead change in the league’s hiring practices. “They’re asking, and they’re asking specific questions about people across our football universe. Not just on the football side, but in marketing, analytics, engineering, the science. That has been consistent all offseason, so, again, the results will speak for themselves."
However, Vincent’s optimism isn’t as widely shared by NFL coaches and talent evaluators.
Because they have long asked and waited in vain for the opportunities their white counterparts received, many NFL staffers of color find it hard to believe that these new initiatives will result in a true breakthrough.
“Mixed optimism,” one longtime scouting director told USA TODAY Sports, describing his feelings about a potential change in the NFL’s hiring practices and racial climate. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
He simply hoped owners or team presidents would stop disregarding a Black talent evaluator or a coach’s qualifications because he didn't look like the owners or team presidents, or didn't belong to their network of friends.
Another team’s director of player personnel, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, believes owners will become more inclusive after observing the Browns' and Dolphins' success. Cleveland has a Black general manager, and Miami has a Black head coach and GM.
Meanwhile, one potential head-coaching candidate of color told USA TODAY Sports he believed the expanded Rooney Rule would simply lead to more “token” interviews, and teams would still hire whomever fit their preconceived notion of what a head coach should be and look like. The expanded interview requirements still felt like “checking a box,” to another coach. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The coaches pointed to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ courtship of Urban Meyer as an example.
Jags and Urban Meyer
A week before the regular season even concluded and before Jacksonville had begun the interview process, Meyer was reported to have told potential assistant coaches that the job was his if he wanted it. Jaguars owner Shad Khan denied those reports and said the team would hold an extensive interview process. A diverse slate of candidates, including Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, interviewed. But Meyer arrived in Florida on Thursday and was announced as the new coach that night.
Black coaches around the league wondered whether the other interviews were shams.
Thursday night the Jets hired San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their head coach. Saleh, who is of Lebanese decent, brings the league's total of active coaches of color to four (joining Mike Tomlin, Ron Rivera and Brian Flores).
Five head-coaching positions remain open, and coaches of color like Bieniemy, Tampa's Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, Buffalo's Leslie Frazier, former head coaches Jim Caldwell and Marvin Lewis have and continue to interview with other teams.
Meanwhile, Detroit -- one of seven teams with general manager openings -- on Thursday hired Brad Holmes, a Black man, as its GM. He joins Cleveland’s Andrew Berry and Miami’s Chris Grier to give the NFL three Black top personnel men.
But one or two hires isn’t enough. The scales remain grossly off-balance.
A 'copycat league'?
Vincent acknowledged the NFL can't force teams to entrust people of color to lead them. His mission instead has been to change the way owners think by shattering stereotypical thinking and by facilitating networking opportunities for people of color.
More than anything, the NFL’s owners need a mindset change, and that could be coming. The NFL is often described as a “copycat league,” so as people of color in positions of leadership succeed, more teams could follow suit.
Owners shouldn’t need further proof that Black people are capable of building and coaching championship organizations.
Some of the most successful executives and coaches of the last 20 years are Black: Ozzie Newsome (former Baltimore GM, two Super Bowl rings), Jerry Reese (former Giants GM, two Super Bowl rings), Tony Dungy (coach, Super Bowl ring, Hall of Fame), Mike Tomlin (coach, Super Bowl ring), Jim Caldwell (two Super Bowl rings as an assistant), Marvin Lewis (27th on the all-time wins list).
And owners don’t have to look far for further proof of the rewards diversity-based hires can yield.
The 33-year-old Berry assumed control of the long-suffering Browns a year ago and reshaped them into a contender, reaching the playoffs for the first time in 18 years under Berry and first-year coach Kevin Stefanski’s leadership.
Berry, who played football at Harvard, broke into the NFL in 2009 as a scouting assistant with the Colts. From there, Berry went to Cleveland, whose former executive Joe Banner had set a strong tone of inclusivity, hiring Black general managers Ray Farmer and Sashi Brown.
After two years with the Browns and a year with the Eagles, Berry returned to Cleveland when owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam tabbed him as their next GM.
Re-inventing the Browns
Being a Black man, Harvard graduate and college player who had a cup of coffee as a rookie in Washington’s organization, then working under successful general managers, Berry can relate to a wide range of personalities. His diverse background also shapes his thinking in a non-traditional way.
As Berry reshaped the culture within the front office and on the team, he assembled a diverse staff in the front office, football, analytics and scouting departments. He also implemented internship programs to identify, educate and develop college students of color and women who wish to pursue football careers.
Berry’s approach bucks the longstanding good ol’ boy approach that NFL teams have operated under in front offices and coaching staffs. Rather than building a contender in a bubble or small circle, Berry believes strongly in collaboration, and Stefanski agreed.
As Berry explained, “If you’re a general manager or coach, you’re making big decisions that can alter the trajectory of an entire organization, and to get those decisions right more often than not, it’s important that you bring a lot of different perspectives to the table. And I think that when you build a diverse football operation -- not just demographically, but also in experience and cognitively with peoples’ way of thinking -- I think it’s overall better for business and better for decision-making.”
It’s just one year, but the results speak for themselves.
After Berry, Stefanski and Co. fortified the roster and cultivated existing talent, Cleveland went 11-5 this year, its first winning season since 2010 and first 11-win season since 1994.
Talking to people familiar with Berry’s approach, there’s a strong belief that Cleveland has a chance for long-term success like the organization hasn’t known in decades. But it starts with the willingness of ownership and top officials to think outside the box and build their franchises with diversity in the forefront of their minds.
“I do think it requires being deliberate," Berry said. "People are comfortable with what they’ve known and experienced. If your perspective and background and upbringing is narrow in nature, it’s not something that crosses your mind.
"I’m fortunate that our ownership group has been active in that. Not everyone is as naturally proactive in that space, but it requires deliberate thought ... it leads to better decisions, better business, and that’s why you do it.”
But will they do it? That’s the question, and until lip service turns to action, people of color will continue to view the NFL’s decision-makers with skepticism. And rightfully so.
Following are black candidates eligible and qualified for advancement:
Teryl Austin, senior defensive assistant, Steelers
Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator, Chiefs
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Buccaneers
Jim Caldwell, assistant head coach, Dolphins
Romeo Crennel, interim head coach, Texans
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Bills
Harold Goodwin, assistant head coach, Buccaneers
Pep Hamilton, quarterbacks’ coach, Chargers
Vance Joseph, defensive coordinator, Cardinals
Byron Leftwich, offensive coordinator, Buccaneers
Raheem Morris, interim head coach, Falcons
Andre Patterson, defensive coordinator, Vikings
Kris Richard, former Cowboys defensive coordinator
Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator, 49ers. He was hired by the Jets to be their head coach.
Duce Staley, assistant head coach and running backs coach, Eagles
Eric Studesville, running backs coach, Dolphins
Tyke Tolbert, wide receivers’ coach, Giants
Eric Washington, defensive line coach, Bills
After all, it took a quite a while for the league into believing that a man of any colour could become a QB in the NFL. And, now I can see an upcoming in higher team position hiring, becoming a natural thing in a year or two. jmho