The NFL’s hopes to increase the number of minority head coaches has gotten off to a rocky start this week with the firings of Brian Flores and David Culley.
Their shocking dismissals leave the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin as the one and only Black head coach in the league right now.
Culley, 66, who spent more than 40 years as a college and NFL assistant before finally getting a chance to run his own show, was fired Thursday by the Houston Texans after just one season.
Flores got the boot earlier this week by Miami Dolphins owner Steven Ross despite guiding the team to back-to-back winning seasons.
Last year, seven teams hired new general managers and three of them – the Lions’ Brad Holmes, the Falcons’ Terry Fontenot and Washington’s Martin Mayhew – were Black.
But just one of the seven head-coaching jobs that turned over last year went to a Black candidate – Culley – and now he’s out of a job following a 4-13 season.
Seven NFL teams currently have head-coaching vacancies. Three teams – Chicago, Minnesota and the Giants -- also have general manager openings. All eyes will be on the league as it fills those vacancies, particularly in light of what’s happened this week.
Joe Banner has been a long-time advocate for minority hiring in the league. In the mid-90s, shortly after Jeffrey Lurie hired him as the president of the Philadelphia Eagles, they became the first team in league history to have both a Black head coach (Ray Rhodes) and football operations chief (Dick Daniels).
“We didn’t set out to do that,” he said. “We weren’t trying to be groundbreakers. We were just trying to be fair. We thought they were the best candidates we came across.”
But here we are, more than a quarter-century later, and you can pretty much count the number of minority head coaches and general managers in the league on the fingers of your two hands.
Banner, though, insists that the current numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“I care deeply about this issue and I’m frustrated with where we’re at,” Banner told me last January. “But for the very first time, from talking to people around the league, I feel that we’re finally on the right track. People in the league finally realize how important it is to fix this.”
The NFL is taking a layered approach to the minority-hiring problem. While it wants to see the minority head coach/GM numbers improve as quickly as possible, it also is trying to bring in minorities at entry-level positions, with the hope that they will rise through the ranks and increase the pool of candidates for head coach and GM positions in the future.
“Today’s quality control coach is tomorrow’s wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator and head coach,” Banner said. “We haven’t had that in consequential numbers before. They realize now that a real solution would come from developing and exposing quality candidates, which is starting to happen.”
Banner said the biggest difference now is the mindset of both the league and the 32 owners, though the firings this week of Flores and Culley raise questions about that.
“They understand this is a real priority,” he said. “Both the ownership and the league seem to be focused on this, caring about this and recognizing that it hasn’t been right. That’s a big step. Because all sides haven’t been there before when we’ve heard all of this (diversity) chatter. But they are now.
“And they’re actually taking action. They’re on the phone with every team that’s doing searches, even at the lowest levels of internships and quality control coaches and encouraging people to hire minorities where they can and make sure the search doesn’t just involve people they know.”
NFL executive vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent has spearheaded the league’s attempt to identify candidates at all levels and recommend them to teams. Vincent, a five-time Pro Bowl defensive back, did not respond to a request for an interview. Neither did Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which champions diversity in the league.
It’s likely that neither of them wanted to comment until they see what happens with the latest round of head-coaching and GM hirings.
Banner said there’s been “a strong filling in of the holes” from the lowest levels of organizations all the way through to deserving head-coaching candidates.
Yet, the numbers still aren’t great. This season, just 12 teams had a minority offensive or defensive coordinator on their coaching staff. Another four teams had a minority co-coordinator or a pass- or run-game coordinator.
This week’s firings of Flores and Culley have critics questioning once again whether the league truly cares about improving its minority numbers.
“I think the firing of Flores was a mistake,” Banner said. “And anybody looking for a coach should have him as somebody they want to talk to. I can’t imagine based on what he’s done in Miami that he won’t be hired by someone else sooner rather than later.”
Maybe, maybe not.
In October, the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview two minority candidates for all GM/executive of football operations and coordinator openings. It already had required multiple minority interviews for head-coaching vacancies.
But the bottom line is the league can’t make owners hire somebody they don’t want to hire.
“I do think that the accusation that (minorities) have been held to a higher standard is true,” Banner said. “But I feel like that’s been at least diminished if not eliminated. Going forward, I think they’re going to get a fairer shot when they get opportunities to get in front of people.
“For the first time, we have owners who are looking at this, and as they make their list of preferences and what they’re looking for, they’re actually including this on their list now. Before it was kind of a ‘I’m just looking for the best guy’ kind of thing. Which, of course, they should be doing. But that was almost an excuse as opposed to a legitimate description. Now, I think you finally have a lot of owners who are open to it.”
That said, Banner said there needs to be a degree of patience rather than rushes to judgment.
“From where I sit, I think we’re actually really seeing progress,” he said. “I hope it translates into at least a couple of additional minority candidates because I think showing that we’re moving in the right direction is helpful. But whether that’s going to be the case this year, it’s hard to know right now.
“I think in two or three years, we’re going to see a significant difference in where we’ve been and where we are. And I’m not just talking about head coaches. But I mean absolutely including head coaches.”