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In many ways, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on America. It has disrupted the economy and thrown sports into uncertainty, but one thing it did not do was disrupt the third annual NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit on Monday and Tuesday.
Given the country’s social unrest, not to mention the sorry state of diversity in the NFL’s leadership levels, neither the league nor its partner, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, could allow the event to be upended. The stakes were too high.
“We hear it all the time, about how nobody’s in the pipeline,” Washington Redskins executive Doug Williams, who co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame, said Tuesday afternoon. “I hope after today … that we get away from [saying that] and realize we’ve got a bunch of guys inline, and they’re looking for an opportunity.”
The eight-hour, invitation-only symposium was designed to give dozens of minority assistant coaches from the NFL and NCAA an opportunity to develop professionally and explore networking opportunities with NFL club executives.
In past years, the event has been held in Atlanta, giving minority assistants face time with NFL decision makers. Even though the valuable in-person component of this year’s event was squashed due to the pandemic, the result of it — the decision to shift this year’s conference to a virtual one, held over Zoom conference calls — had a positive side effect.
“There’s nothing like doing it in person, but this virtual event opened it up for a whole [new group],” Williams said. “We had over a hundred and something people [attend], and we wouldn’t have had that many people if we weren’t having it virtually. Last year, with the presenters and attendees, we probably had about 35 guys, plus some media guys. Last year, we had under 60 people for sure.”
Summit included team owners and Roger Goodell
NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said last year only two clubs — the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings — sent representatives to Atlanta to the conference. This year, coaches, general managers and team owners from approximately 22 NFL teams attended virtually.
And coaches, like Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, offered up stories, tips and tricks of the trade, all in the name of helping the participants become better coaches. Vrabel gave a presentation on how to build a coaching staff and how to interview for jobs, while Bieniemy explained his team-building and leadership philosophy.
Several executives from multiple teams attended, including Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula and New York Giants co-owner John Mara, not to mention NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Their presence was appreciated, says University of Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, who also attended last year’s event.
“One of the privileges of being virtual, we had Roger Goodell be able to address the crowd and be a part of this summit, compared to last year where Mr. Goodell wasn’t a part of it,” Gattis told Yahoo Sports. “You see the numerous owners, from Kim Pegula to the Rooneys, [and] just the great impact we were able to reach so many people.
“It wasn’t just all minority coaches getting together complaining about issues; we had support from our counterparts across the NFL and college. You saw multiple media members who weren’t just minorities, other coaches that weren’t just minorities. I think it’s given everyone an opportunity to learn and listen.”
The hope is that events like this summit will give minority coaches the face time they need with team owners and general managers to land front-facing NFL jobs, though the responsibility for the league’s lack of diversity ultimately falls on the NFL’s 32 team owners.
“What has to happen, I think, from an ownership standpoint is, they’ve got to look a little deeper,” Williams said. “I think the head coaches have to look deeper, the general managers [too], and see these guys.”
Onus remains on team owners
Last month, the NFL strengthened the Rooney Rule to encourage more diverse hiring, and on Tuesday, Vincent noted that the league is also working on creating networking opportunities between minority coaches and team decision makers at multiple events, including the scouting combine, Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl.
Fixing the NFL’s dearth of minority offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches — across the league only four African Americans currently hold these jobs, which are considered gateway positions to head coaching jobs — will require more effort. And to that end, former NFL front-office executive James “Shack” Harris, who co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame with Williams, noted Tuesday that NFL teams must do a better job of hiring minorities for entry-level quality control positions.
“You hire guys to be quality control guys, and in three years, he’s a quarterback coach and in five years, he may be the offensive coordinator,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of players who played the game, who are coaching in college, who have the ability to be quality control [guys].”
And it’s here, Williams insisted, that team owners must also step up.
“The owner has to play a part in this and make the head coaches realize you can’t have all your buddies just because you know them,” Williams said. “You have to look outside sometimes because there’s some talent out there you might be overlooking, and a lot of that talent is in this minority pool we have here. We all know that this league is a family league, and most of the minorities are not in the clique with most of the coaches that are hiring, so it’s kinda hard to get in there if you’re not in there.
“I think that’s our biggest problem; that the coaches are usually hiring folks they hang around with, play golf with, hang out with, drink with, eat with or what have you, so we get left out a lot in those cases. That’s what we’ve got to try to prevent from happening and look at it from a different perspective. But the owners actually have to take the lead.”
Vincent is hopeful that the tides are turning. In 2019, he said, the NFL had four clubs participate in the league’s minority offensive assistant coaching fellowship program.
“This year,” Vincent said, “we have all 32.”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for team participation in the Summit. While it’s fair to appreciate that 22 teams participated this year, it’s also fair to wonder why all 32 teams didn’t have a representative there, especially given the strife in America at the moment. After all, there are only two minority general managers and four minority head coaches in the NFL, embarrassing numbers considering the league’s workforce is 70 percent Black.
Vincent acknowledged this, but characterized the journey as a work in progress, one with an end goal that won’t “happen overnight.”
“The changes we’ve seen just to get here, frankly, it was led through owner leadership,” Vincent said. “It’s difficult; we don’t have a consensus around rule changes and we’re starting to talk about one of the most divisive topics in our country — race. But to see the commitment of the workplace committee and others ... I look at it as progress. Would we love to have all 32? Absolutely. But we went from two clubs to 22.”
In the meantime, Vincent said, minority coaches need to continue to make sure they’re ready in case opportunity knocks in the form of an interview. That means having coaching philosophy laid out, doing research so they know exactly what teams are seeking, and continuing to thrive in their current jobs.
“They’ve got to nail it,” Vincent said. “They’ve got to be ready.”
Williams thinks the increased attendance at this year’s conference helped prepare the minority coaches in attendance to do just that, making it a resounding success. So much so that he wouldn’t chafe if they ever had to hold the summit virtually again.
“If we can get owners and the diversity committee, all of them in one place where they can see each other, where they can put their hands on somebody and have a regular conversation with them, that’s hard to beat,” Williams said. “You’d like to have it under those circumstances, and hopefully, COVID-19 will allow us to do this the next time we do it. But it’s hard to downplay what we were able to do the last few days.”
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