After Matt Rhule's firing, Steve Wilks steps into unwinnable battle too many Black coaches have fought

I really wish Steve Wilks had told David Tepper thanks but no thanks.

But I understand why he essentially had no choice other than saying yes.

Not long after the Carolina Panthers announced they had fired head coach Matt Rhule partway through the third year of his failed but highly lucrative tenure (he earned roughly $5.6 million for each of his 11 wins in 38 tries), the team announced that Wilks, the secondary coach and defensive pass game coordinator, would take over as interim head coach.

Wilks is now the 15th Black man to be an interim head coach in the NFL since 1990, or about 30 percent of the interim stints in the league over that time. Black coaches have gotten a chance to be a full-time head coach just 13 percent of the time over the same period, in a league where roughly two-third of players are Black.

It's a depressingly familiar situation: A white coach steers his team straight into the iceberg, and a Black coach is tasked with trying to keep it afloat for the remainder of a season, no matter how much water it has taken on. In that way, however, NFL teams are simply continuing the American tradition of relegating Black people to little more than the help, hired to clean homes in neighborhoods they weren't allowed to live in or paid to mop the floors in schools they weren't allowed to learn in.

Wilks is a highly experienced coach, as are nearly all Black coaches who get a chance to become coordinators or head coaches. In 2018, after his first year as a defensive coordinator for these same Panthers but 23rd as an NCAA and NFL assistant, he got a chance to lead a team at the sport's highest level, hired by the Arizona Cardinals.

The hiring was doomed from the start. Wilks was saddled with a rookie quarterback playing behind a terrible offensive line and an aging defense, all things that were the decision of the Cardinals' general manager. And yet Wilks was fired after just one season, not the GM, replaced with alleged whiz kid Kliff Kingsbury.

Our beloved colleague, the late Terez Paylor, called Arizona's decision to fire Wilks "unfair and outrageous."

Steve Wilks is the latest Black coach whose shot at a head coaching job is on an interim basis amid a mess left behind by someone else. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Steve Wilks is the latest Black coach whose shot at a head coaching job is on an interim basis amid a mess left behind by someone else. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

On Monday afternoon, Tepper, who has been a hot mess in his four-plus years as Carolina's team owner (and isn't making friends with would-be fans of the MLS team he brought to Charlotte or the people of Rock Hill, S.C. either), said he had spoken with Wilks, including about the possibility of becoming head coach full-time.

"No promises were made," Tepper said. "But if he does an incredible job, he'd have to be considered for that."

And there it is, laid bare. White coaches like Rhule can get seven-year, $62 million, fully guaranteed contracts with one bowl win in four tries as a college coach and minimal experience as an NFL assistant. But a Black man like Wilks, with 15 years on NFL sidelines and nearly 30 as a football coach, has to do an "incredible job" to even merit consideration for a full-time title.

What exactly constitutes an "incredible job?" It's nebulous, of course. At the moment, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are atop the NFC South at 3-2, so the one-win Panthers haven't completely fallen out of the division race with a dozen games to go. Do they have to win the division for the first time since 2015 for Wilks to merit consideration? Get to the conference championship? Win the Super Bowl?

It's not like we haven't heard this before.

Nearly two years ago to the day, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank fired Dan Quinn and named Raheem Morris as interim head coach for the final 11 games of the season.

Blank, incredulously but not incredulously, said that if Morris went 11-0 as interim, "he's certainly going to be a candidate" for the job on a full-time basis. Blank went on to hire Arthur Smith, another young, white, so-called offensive guru, who has a whopping nine wins in 22 games so far and boasts the ...{checks}... 25th-ranked offense in the NFL at the moment.

The bar for Black coaches who want to lead NFL teams is so high even pole vault world record holder Mondo Duplantis couldn't clear it. The goal posts never stop moving for what a team owner or GM is supposedly looking for. No amount of Rooney Rule tinkering has changed much.

It's exhausting. It's enraging. It's heartbreaking.

But Wilks, who along with Ray Horton joined Brian Flores' lawsuit against the NFL in April, had no choice but to take the interim role. If he hadn't he'd have been painted as difficult or not serious about being a head coach again or whatever else the owner class says about Black men who dare to refuse to be a Rooney Rule box checker for yet another franchise with no intention of hiring someone who looks like them.

I wish Steve Wilks had told David Tepper no thanks. Really, I wish he'd said no thanks in much stronger language.

But I know he had little choice than to say yes.

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