At town hall for African American coaches and front-office executives, lack of diversity blamed on team owners

African American assistant coaches and front-office executives sounded off at a town hall on Tuesday, wondering aloud why so many men who look like them get passed up for bigger opportunities.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group dedicated to pushing for more diversity (in positions other than “player”) in the NFL, hosted the event in Mobile, Alabama, where dozens of coaches and scouts are gathered for the Senior Bowl.

Team owners must be persuaded

The Undefeated’s Jason Reid was at the town hall and wrote that “the anger in the room was almost palpable” at certain points.

It’s easy to see why: while African Americans make up over two-thirds of NFL players, there are precious few men who look like them in the highest levels of football operations. Currently there is just one black general manager, Miami’s Chris Grier, and last year he hired the only black coach for seven head coaching vacancies in the league, Brian Flores.

This year, there were five head coaching hires with one minority among them — Ron Rivera, who was hired by Washington after being fired by the Carolina Panthers after eight-plus seasons.

African American coaching colleagues wonder why Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier doesn't get attention as a head coaching candidate. (Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
African American coaching colleagues wonder why Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier doesn't get attention as a head coaching candidate. (Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)

The lack of opportunity that persists, in spite of the well-intentioned Rooney Rule and highlighted by the abysmal hiring record of the past four cycles: of the 22 head-coaching opportunities that came available from 2017-20, only two were filled by black men, Flores and Anthony Lynn with the Los Angeles Chargers in ’17.

The Alliance’s top officials told the men in attendance that team owners must be persuaded to believe that their failure to be more inclusive in their hiring practices could eventually hurt their bottom line.

Ah, yes ... doing the right thing because it will benefit you financially, not because it’s just the right thing to do. Just like Dr. Martin Luther King taught us.

(I don’t disagree with the Fritz Pollard officials, it just serves as another stark reminder that the only thing franchise owners care about is money and accumulating more of it.)

Most in attendance agreed that it couldn’t hurt to push owners harder than they have been to this point. Alonzo Highsmith, the Cleveland Browns vice president of player personnel, told The Undefeated:

“This was good. It was good to hear the perspective of African Americans in this business, and it’s good to hear that there’s a lot of caring and a lot of passion about what’s going on. I’ve been in this business for 22 years, and diversity does need to change in the NFL.”

‘It’s the owners’

The team owners are where much of the anger was directed at, and where it’s deserved.

For many assistant coaches, there’s a fear that if coordinators like Eric Bieniemy and Leslie Frazier don’t get hired as head coaches, they stand no chance of advancing.

Bieniemy is the Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, leading a group that’s in the Super Bowl and helping to guide one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s gotten some interviews over the past two hiring cycles, but none have led to a head coaching job.

Some try to say that Bieniemy isn’t the play-caller on offense for the Chiefs, but neither was Doug Pederson when he was Andy Reid’s coordinator, and he got the Philadelphia job, or Frank Reich with the Eagles when he was hired by the Colts. Zac Taylor, hired last year by the Cincinnati Bengals, had all of five games of play-calling experience as interim OC with the Dolphins in 2015 before the Bengals tapped him.

Frazier has been the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator since 2017, and that group has been top-3 in scoring defense each of the past two years.

Frazier was a head coach from 2011-13 with the Minnesota Vikings, after finishing 2010 as interim head coach. His tenure wasn’t great, as the Vikings were 3-13 his first season and 5-11 in his last. The year in between they were 10-6 and went to the playoffs.

He hasn’t gotten another chance.

Cyrus Mehri, a co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, understands why the fear is there among African Americans that they’ll never achieve the highest reaches of NFL team leadership. But Mehri insists it’s not the league offices standing in the way — it’s those above commissioner Roger Goodell. Via The Undefeated, he said:

“The league office has been fighting with us. It’s the owners. We have … spectacular candidates, and we still have decision-making that’s irrational. I don’t want to pick on anybody, I really don’t, but it’s hard to justify [former Cleveland Browns head coach] Freddie Kitchens being hired and overlooking Eric Bieniemy.

“It’s hard to justify Zac Taylor, and not Eric Bieniemy. It’s hard to justify how [Miami Dolphins assistant head coach] Jim Caldwell didn’t get an interview this time. It’s hard to justify Leslie Frazier not getting an interview. Look at the job he did in Buffalo with that defense. Look at the job he did as a play-caller, getting the most out of that defense.”

Caldwell is another example of frustration. Though he took a leave of absence this past season to address health issues — he was hired by Flores to be assistant head coach formally, but also a mentor and sounding-board for the first-year head coach — he made it known that he was ready to return to coaching and didn’t get a single interview.

I’ve been critical of Caldwell in the past, but entirely for his public demeanor. NFL coaches don’t have to be entertainers behind a podium, but Caldwell is ... ahhh ... boring.

His results, however, are ones that pretty much any team owner should be happy to have. In four seasons with the generally woebegone Detroit Lions, Caldwell’s record was 36-28, including two of the three playoff appearances the Lions have made this century. With the Colts from 2009-11, Caldwell posted a 26-22 record, dragged down by the 2-14 “Suck for Luck” season when Peyton Manning missed the year with a neck injury. He led Indianapolis to Super Bowl XLIV.

‘How can you truly make things better?’

Frazier, like others, doesn’t want a Band-Aid. He wants to see systemic change. At the town hall, Frazier said, via The Undefeated:

“The bigger issue, what [the Alliance is] talking about, is how can you truly make things better in the future? How can minorities get legitimate opportunities?” Frazier asked. “What you don’t want is in the next hiring cycle, if somebody gets an opportunity, that [team owners say], ‘OK. We quieted them down now.’ So, yeah, then it’s quiet.

“But then the next cycle comes around, the next cycle begins, and we’re right back where we are today. That’s not what we want to happen, and we know that can happen. What we’re really talking about is the need for long-term solutions.”

The hopeful news is that there are a growing number of African Americans in coordinator roles. Hopeful, that is, if teams break from the current trend of hiring offensive coordinators as head coaches. Currently there are eight men of color holding defensive coordinator roles, including San Francisco’s Robert Saleh, whose mother immigrated from Lebanon, as well as Frazier, Vance Joseph with Arizona, Raheem Morris with Atlanta, Patrick Graham with the Giants, Ken Norton Jr. with the Seahawks, Todd Bowles with the Buccaneers, and Anthony Weaver, who was promoted by the Texans this week.

Bieniemy and Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich are the only black offensive coordinators.

These men are not looking for a handout. They deserve to have team owners line up to interview them even if they’re imperfect candidates; not experienced enough, not pedigreed enough, not a play-caller for five years, not the right hairstyle, whatever the moving goalpost du jour is.

The town hall was likely cathartic for men frustrated by a system that seems intent on shutting them out from advancement. But it will have been little more than that unless and until team owners start to hear them and truly see them when it comes time to fill the biggest positions on their teams.

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