KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eric Bieniemy stood and smiled in front of the Kansas City Chiefs’ press corps last Wednesday. He spoke deliberately and passionately, with pauses in between as if he were a well-spoken professor or a preacher.
Days earlier, no fewer than five NFL teams expressed interest in interviewing the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for a head coaching job. He took many of those interviews, and given his upbeat weekly news conference, it seemed like he landed one of the three remaining jobs on the market (all of which he interviewed for).
Alas, one day later, the New York Jets hired former Miami head coach Adam Gase to be their new leader. And one day after that, news trickled out that the Cincinnati Bengals were leaning toward hiring Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor, while the Miami Dolphins were expected to hire New England Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores.
Assuming the Taylor and Flores hires will become official when their teams’ seasons end — both are coaching in the NFL’s final four — it will bring an end to another head coaching cycle that was surprisingly rough for Bieniemy and other top minority candidates, like Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Kris Richard and former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
Of the eight new head coaches hired by NFL teams over the past two weeks, only Flores — a Brooklyn-born son of Honduran immigrants — is a man of color.
“I would have put my house up on Bieniemy getting a job … and lost the bet,” said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that was created in 2003 to promote diversity and equality of job opportunities across the NFL.
A statistical step back
Flores will join Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers as the only minority head coaches in the league to start the 2019 season. That’s half the high-water mark of eight that was in place at the start of the 2018 season.
On the surface this is a step back, one that — along with the fact that five of the eight head coaches who were fired this season were men of color — isn’t a great look for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, who has made it a goal to increase front-office and coaching-staff diversity in a league of players that is approximately 70 percent black.
“I do feel that the group we had, starting with Jim Caldwell, Kris Richard, all these guys, we had guys we knew could be head coaches,” said Wooten, who regularly fields calls from NFL teams seeking the names of qualified minority coaching candidates. “We’re not talking about just quarterback whisperers. We’re talking about guys we know have ability to teach, develop and, above all, lead.”
That’s why Wooten is primarily interested in identifying how the NFL got to this moment — with all these qualified black coaches on the outside looking in — and rectifying the situation.
It’s clear the success of Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay — a brilliant 32-year-old strategist and quarterback guru who is white — contributed to at least five other teams (the Cardinals, Bengals, Jets, Browns and Packers) attempting to copy the formula by hiring young offensive coaches with quarterbacking backgrounds during this cycle. And given the fact a majority of the league’s quarterbacks coaches and offensive coordinators are white, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the McVay prototype also skewed toward a preponderance of white coaches hired during this cycle, too.
Plan of action: ‘We want to push this further’
Wooten and the Fritz Pollard Alliance have settled on a new proposal that they hope to pitch to the NFL at the scouting combine in late February, one they hope will increase the number of minority coaches in the mix for these jobs over the next several years.
“You’ve gotta get into the system, and the only way to get into the system is go back to what Bill Walsh did,” Wooten said.
Walsh, the legendary Hall of Fame coach for the San Francisco 49ers, was renowned for building a diverse coaching staff. During his 10-year tenure in San Francisco, he hired and trained minorities who went on to become head coaches or offensive coordinators, including Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes and Sherman Lewis.
And while the league has already adopted the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship — which has provided training camp coaching experience to over 2,000 minorities since it was established in 1987 — Wooten says the next step is to take that fellowship to the next level by establishing a pipeline that lasts during the regular season, too.
“We want to push this further and be more like Bill Walsh and put people on the [regular season] coaching staffs — that was his primary thing,” Wooten said. “We’ve got to ask the league that each team — [because] they’re going to hire quality control guys and assistants anyway — take one minority on offense and one on defense. That’s what we’ve got to ask them to do.”
Wooten added that ideally, the proposed minority coach on offense would have some quarterbacking expertise, which would in turn help the coach climb to the role of offensive coordinator, leading to a fully stocked background that would be more attractive in the head coaching market in an increasingly pass-happy league.
“We’ve been thinking and looking at this for quite a while,” Wooten said. “We’ve already talked about it, but we plan to make it a formal proposal at the combine because we have the support of the [NFL’s] diversity and inclusion committee.”
Wooten said they’ve been talking to committee members for quite a while, and will pitch the idea to two or three NFL committees at the combine.
“I think the committees realize there are times in which we need to do certain things,” Wooten said. “It’s just like [the recent] strengthening of the Rooney Rule, where the owner or decision maker now have to be in the interview.”
The current reality has left many quality minority head coaching candidates disappointed and wanting, yet Wooten is encouraging overlooked candidates like Bieniemy, Richard and Caldwell to focus on becoming better coaches and leaders while helping their teams win.
“They’re with good teams, and they know the road is long and it’s crooked,” Wooten said. “You have to endure. They’ll get another shot. This comes around every year. Just keep working.
“As the old folks say … get up, get your boots on and let’s get after it again. The race is not given to the swift, but the one that endures to the end.”
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