At center of debate over diversity among NFL coaches, Eric Bieniemy takes conciliatory tone

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Bieniemy walked into his weekly news conference on Thursday with a grin and a message to deliver — just not the one some might have expected him to have. 

After missing out on head coaching jobs he interviewed for with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers, Bieniemy had spent much of the previous 48 hours in the news cycle as a hot topic. His inability to snare either job after two successful years as Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs has led many to question the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule and ponder ways to help a league that’s 70 percent black put more minorities in head coaching positions. 

Much of this discussion, driven by the plight of Bieniemy and other African American assistants in the NFL who want to be head coaches, has been accompanied by frustration and anger, the type that comes with historical disenfranchisement.

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Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has been on the head coach interview circuit over the past two years. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has been on the head coach interview circuit over the past two years. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

On Thursday, Bieniemy tried to reshape the conversation as his Chiefs prepare to face the Houston Texans in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs on Sunday. When asked about the Rooney Rule and whether African American coaches are getting deserved opportunities, he began a mantra he’d repeat for roughly 15 minutes.

“I had an opportunity to interview for three jobs [this year], and one thing I can say — I had a great process, a great discussion,” Bieniemy said. “Each and every interview is different. But at the end of the day, now, all of my focus has turned on to the Houston Texans. It’s time to make sure that our guys are ready to go to work, and also understanding the importance of what’s in front of us. 

“Yes, it’s a blessing, it’s always great to be mentioned, it’s always great to have that opportunity to be considered in those roles. But when it’s all said and done with, I work for a great organization, I work for a great boss, I work for a great owner and on top of that, we’ve got some great people in this building and we’re going to go out there and play these Texans with.”

It’s not hard to take the “I had an opportunity to interview, that should say it all” as a nod to the fact that since the Rooney Rule was instituted in 2003, the number of minority head coaches who got an opportunity to interview for these positions has increased. That’s important because these interviews are valuable for coaches who seek self-improvement.

And while Bieniemy will be 0-for-7 on NFL head coaching opportunities if he misses out on the Cleveland gig, his agent, Brian Levy, noted that his client has used the feedback he’s gotten from them to improve his presentation and refine his plan for leading an organization.

“I didn’t find the process to be unfair to him — again I do feel like it gave him exposure to people,” Levy said. “Because you never know; three or four years from now, or two years with the way this league is going, a team might get rid of a guy and remember his interview and say, ‘Hey, let’s get Eric back in here.’”

It might be one of the reasons Bieniemy wore a big smile Thursday and attempted to shift the conversation. He reminded reporters that while he appreciates being a part of the larger discussion, his only focus is on beating the Texans, not on what he’s interviewed for or what jobs he didn’t get.

In summation: We’re on to Houston.

For Bieniemy and minority coaches like him, the only way to break through is to keep pushing forward and to keep winning games. This often requires a laser focus, a path that Bieniemy has embraced.

“I have a way of ignoring everyone — I turn my phones off,” Bieniemy said with a laugh. “I just turn everything off, and at the end of the day, I just work. That’s who I am. And you learn as a player, in order for you to obtain the goals you want to obtain, you gotta remain focused and live in the now. So that’s what this is about.”

A nine-year NFL veteran, he was a member of the 1994 San Diego Chargers, who went to the Super Bowl in Miami and lost to the San Francisco 49ers.

“Lo and behold, it’s been what — 24 years later? And I haven’t been back,” said Bieniemy, a running back who played through the 1999 season and has coached at the college and pro levels since then. “I want these guys to understand that the friendships and bonds that are made throughout this journey that we’ve encompassed together become very, very important and very, very lasting. The dynamics are special.”

His players seem to understand this, which is why receiver Sammy Watkins says he can think of at least one positive if Bieniemy doesn’t get hired elsewhere this cycle.

“I think he might be too valuable to let go,” Watkins told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “I wish him the best, but right now he’s a little bit too valuable for everyone around here. I’m pretty sure later on in his life or career, he’ll definitely get the opportunity to be a head coach somewhere. But right now we need him.”

Bieniemy is a stickler for detail, and he is not shy about prodding and cajoling players to play to a championship standard. 

“I came here [in 2018] and I’ve been well-coached many places, but he’s a guy that literally made me be a professional all the way around the board,” Watkins said. “This guy is serious, this guy is like this everyday, with every individual — I don’t care if it’s a coach, Pat [Mahomes], or me or Travis [Kelce] or 10 [Tyreek Hill]. He’s a guy that’s going to instill his leadership and discipline and is a great coach to have on any team.” 

This type of feedback from players who appreciate his tough love matters.

“I always tell guys, I coach hard but I coach fair — I’m gonna be your biggest fan, but I’m also gonna be your harshest critic,” Bieniemy said. “Why? I expect you to be at your best, I expect you to know what I know, inside and out, because of all the time we spend in this.”

All of which, of course, demands an intense focus on the now. Yes, he wants to be a head coach, and yes, he has some thoughts on the NFL’s hiring practices. But Bieniemy knows the only way to break through is to continue to be excellent at his job and help the Chiefs excel. There’s no time for wallowing, no time to let professional disappointments affect his effort.

He will be a head coach, somewhere, someday. But today, he is the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, and after five months of working toward making it back to the Super Bowl, Bieniemy and his players have come too far to be sidetracked now.

“The only thing that matters is the opportunity that we have at hand today — 365 days from now, I can’t control that at all,” Bieniemy said, shortly before wrapping up his presser. “The only thing I can control is when I’m done [with this], I’m going upstairs and getting ready for practice. That’s important.”

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