Why this matters
The media has had mixed reviews of race in the NFL since the implementation of the Rooney Rule. In a Business Insider article written in 2017, Gaines touted the success of the Rooney Rule by examining total numbers of minority head coaches. However, he did not examine year-to-year hiring patterns. In a 2014 Washington Post article, Mark Maske offered “praise” for the NFL when two minority head coaches were hired, because none had been hired the year before.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re the owner of one of the NFL’s 32 franchises.
The previous couple of seasons haven’t gone the way you’d hoped, and even though you have a young, ascending quarterback, you worry about wasting his prime years. After missing the playoffs again, you and the general manager make the decision to fire the head coach and now begin searching for a new one.
Everyone has an opinion on the “hot” candidates for the hiring cycle, from media to former players and pundits, some of them earnest in their opinions, others pushing the client of an agent who feeds them information or helped with their own contract at some point. Chances are you’re one of five teams, maybe more, looking to replace its head coach, so there’s a bit of competition for the perceived best prospects.
As you and the GM are discussing possibilities one afternoon, you peruse one resume:
- Five seasons as an NCAA offensive coordinator
- Seven seasons as an NFL quarterbacks coach
- Two-plus seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator and play-caller
- Coached No. 1 pick in 2012 draft to two Pro Bowl seasons in three years
- Coached No. 6 pick in 2020 draft to one of best seasons ever for rookie quarterback
You look at the general manager and tell him to add this man to the shortlist of interviewees immediately.
After all, the resume ticks all of the boxes for what the majority of teams have sought in new head coaches in recent years: he’s on the younger side in terms of age, and from the offensive side of the ball in terms of coaching, particularly time spent with quarterbacks, which has become the most important position in the game.
From 2016-2020, there were 33 head coaching hires in the NFL, with 24 of them considered offensive coaches, and their average age was 45.9 years old.
But in the opening weeks of 2021, as seven teams -- the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars -- began interviewing and hiring new head coaches, the man to whom that resume belongs not only didn’t get hired for one of those vacancies, he didn’t get a single interview.
Making matters worse, no one has yet to offer a valid reason why someone with the depth of experience and wealth of respect that this coach has built over his career was so grossly overlooked.
Given the NFL’s history, there is only one reason that can be pointed to as to why this coach was ignored once again.
That resume belongs to Pep Hamilton.
Pep Hamilton is Black.
With the 2021 round of hires complete, five of the seven new head coaches are from offensive backgrounds, and two are not White: the Jets’ Robert Saleh, a first-time head coach who most recently was the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator and is the NFL’s first Arab-American and Muslim head coach, and Houston’s David Culley, most recently the Baltimore Ravens’ passing game coordinator and the oldest first-time head coach ever at 65.
Culley is just the third Black man hired to be a head coach since 2018, and there are already reports that after getting his first chance to run a team after decades as a trusted assistant, he may be just holding the seat warm in Houston for a couple of years, until journeyman backup quarterback Josh McCown, who has never coached above the high school level, gets a modicum of experience.
“If you put [Hamilton’s] resume down next to a number of head coaches that have been hired in recent years, not just in this cycle but in the past couple of cycles, he would absolutely measure up on paper and production with several of the other candidates,” said Scott Pioli, longtime personnel executive with the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Falcons. “Measure up and even maybe exceed on paper.”
Hamilton was the Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach in 2020, and after a freak medical accident with Week 1 starter Tyrod Taylor -- a team doctor punctured his lung while administering a pain injection -- it was Hamilton’s job to get the team’s first-round pick that year, Justin Herbert, ready to play.
Herbert started the remaining 15 games of the season and statistically had one of the best seasons ever for a rookie quarterback, finishing with 4,336 yards while completing 66.6 percent of his attempts with 31 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions, all good for a 98.3 quarterback rating. His passing yards and touchdowns were most ever for a rookie QB in the Super Bowl era, his completion percentage was second-best and his quarterback rating was fourth-best.
That, his history with Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in 2012 whom Hamilton coached at Stanford and then as Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator from 2013-15 (the Colts had the No. 1 passing offense in the league in 2014, with Luck making the Pro Bowl for the second straight year), as well as the clear tendency for teams to hire head coaches from the offensive side, should have made Hamilton a hot candidate this year.
“What else do you need, right?” wondered Marc Ross, a former New York Giants personnel executive and current NFL Network analyst. “Here’s a guy that coached Andrew Luck and Justin Herbert. What else do you need? The standard, the rationale always changes for us [as Black men].”
“It’s, ‘we want the hot young coordinator.’ Well, here’s this guy that coached the hottest rookie.”
Among the new crop of head coaches, 38-year-old Brandon Staley was hired by the Los Angeles Chargers; Staley had no significant major-college or NFL experience until just four years ago -- prior to joining the Chicago Bears in 2017 as outside linebackers coach, he was coaching at the NCAA’s lowest level, Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships and fewer than a dozen players a year even get a chance to be on an NFL roster.
Yet in just four years’ time Staley moved from position coach to defensive coordinator to head coach in the league, an ascension Black coaches and executives can’t even fathom occurring with one of their own.
The Philadelphia Eagles hired 39-year-old Nick Sirianni, who has spent the majority of his coaching career in the NFL and was the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator for the last three seasons, though he did not call plays on game day: that duty was for head coach Frank Reich.
And the Detroit Lions newest head coach, Dan Campbell, hadn’t even risen to coordinator level before getting the opportunity to run a team. The 44-year-old spent a decade as a tight ends coach, split between Miami and New Orleans, though he did serve as Miami’s interim head coach in 2015.
Staley, Sirianni and Campbell are White men.
Yet one of the frequent knocks on Eric Bieniemy, the African-American offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, widely considered the best offensive team in the NFL over the last three years, is that he does not call plays on gameday. However that’s not entirely true: Bieniemy, who is now 51-years-old, is heavily involved in game-planning, does call some plays, and is the last voice superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes hears in his helmet before the snap.
Campbell or 38-year-old Arthur Smith, hired by Atlanta, could very well enjoy great success despite resumes that are thinner than Hamilton’s but that wouldn’t justify the wrong that’s been done, that they’ve gotten their respective opportunity, leapfrogging over numerous other qualified coaches, African-American and not, who have been toiling for years.
Bieniemy was once again shut out in 2021. He has now interviewed for head coach openings more than a dozen times over the last three hiring cycles and inexplicably no owner and GM have seen fit to hand over the reins of the team to him despite stellar credentials, and huge votes of confidence from both Andy Reid, the Chiefs head coach, and Mahomes, who has won both an NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl MVP award under Bieniemy’s tutelage.
Bieniemy is at least getting the chance to interview, though at this point it’s embarrassing for the NFL that he hasn’t gotten a head coaching job. Hamilton isn’t even getting the interviews.
Retired cornerback Darius Butler spent nine seasons in the NFL, the final six with the Colts. Though he wasn’t coached directly by Hamilton, he saw enough to get a sense of his ability.
“...at the end of the day, it really comes down to the shot callers, who they’re more comfortable with, not only on the football field running their team, but who they would have a beer with, who they would want to go hang out with on the golf course or dinner with the families, et cetera.”
“He should’ve definitely been on the radar, definitely been in some of those buildings to at least get an interview,” Butler said. “He’s a solid guy around the building; I saw head coaching qualities, but you know how it goes -- at the end of the day, it really comes down to the shot callers, who they’re more comfortable with, not only on the football field running their team, but who they would have a beer with, who they would want to go hang out with on the golf course or dinner with the families, et cetera.
“[Herbert] wasn’t expected to be the guy this year; it was Taylor’s team and he was going to be the guy in the future, but he got called to action because of what happened to Taylor and then went and had the year he had under Pep’s coaching. You can’t say enough about that. He definitely deserved an opportunity.”
Mike Locksley, the head coach at the University of Maryland and founder of the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, is a longtime friend of Hamilton. They met over 20 years ago, when Hamilton was wrapping up his playing career at Howard University and transitioning into coaching at his alma mater, and Locksley was a young assistant coach at Maryland.
Locksley said Hamilton’s strength as a coach is “making the complex simple” and that his track record of developing Luck and Herbert should make him an ideal candidate to lead a team.
“Obviously they have the ability to hire who they want to as owners, that’s their prerogative,” Locksley said. “But there’s no transparency into why guys don’t get jobs. And that’s the frustrating piece.”
The story of Hamilton only seems to underscore the NFL’s significant race problem when it comes to head coaches and top-level executives, and just how little the Rooney Rule, instituted in 2003 initially to diversify the head coaching ranks but since expanded to include coordinator and general manager or GM-equivalent positions, has impacted the hiring practices of billionaire team owners, all but one of them White.
The only ethnic minority who is a majority owner, Jacksonville’s Shad Khan, born in Pakistan but an American citizen since 1991, bought that team in 2011 and in the decade since hasn’t had a Black general manager, head coach or offensive coordinator; when Khan bought the team, there was a Black man as defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, and Tucker would serve as the team’s interim head coach for the final five games of the ‘11 season after Jack Del Rio was fired.
Researchers at the Global Sport Institute have reviewed all of the head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator hirings in the NFL since the 2003 season , the year the Rooney Rule went into effect, and through the hirings made in 2020 (the new hires in 2021 were not included).
The numbers are grim : of the 115 head coaches selected in those 18 years, just 21, or 18.3 percent, were African-American. Two were Latino, and that was the same man: Ron Rivera, hired by the Carolina Panthers in 2011 and the Washington Football Team in 2020.
Of the 208 defensive coordinators hired in that time frame, 56 (26.9 percent) were Black, and four another ethnic minority (1.9 percent).
At offensive coordinator, the job most head coaches are now elevated from, it’s appalling -- just 21 of 242, or 8.7 percent, have been African-American men. In 2017 and 2018, a combined 33 offensive coordinators were appointed, and every one was White.
We have seen slivers of hope, and that the alleged pipeline so often cited as the path to head coaching jobs is filling a bit: both of the offensive coordinators in Super Bowl LV, Kansas City’s Bieniemy and Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich, are Black, and after Sirianni left for Philadelphia, the Colts promoted Marcus Brady, an African-American who had been the quarterbacks coach, to run the offense. Anthony Lynn, fired as the Chargers head coach, will be the Lions’ offensive coordinator.
But even in those names, and the data, we see more hypocrisy: Black coaches who do move up the ladder have more playing experience and are older at their time of promotion than White counterparts. Bieniemy, Leftwich and Lynn all played in the NFL for at least seven years; Leftwich, named the Buccaneers’ coordinator in 2019 at 39-years-old and four years into his coaching career, is certainly an outlier, but he played in the league for nine seasons.
For decades, college programs and NFL teams dissuaded Black players from continuing to play quarterback, under the racist idea that they weren’t good leaders or smart enough to run the offense. At the start of the 2020 season, there were a record 10 starting quarterbacks who were African-American, and nearly all of them are considered to be among the best in the game currently.
More Black quarterbacks could mean more Black coordinators in the future, but as Ross noted, why is that the standard? Adam Gase never played football beyond high school and he’s gotten two chances to be a head coach on the strength of being Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos -- when Manning had long since established that he was a Hall of Fame caliber player.
Yet even for those that do meet the standard, like Bieniemy, it’s still not enough.
Empty pipeline or full pipeline, it won’t matter if owners don’t open that pipeline and start hiring more non-White head coaches.
A perusal of team rosters in the league will show that around 70 percent of players are African-American, which makes it easy to conclude that owners are fine with Black men as entertainment, putting their bodies and brains on the line to play a brutal sport that pulls in billions in television rights and other revenues annually, with 52 percent of those revenues going to the owners.
But when it comes to the face of the franchise, it’s clear many of them don’t see Black men as a fit for the role.
“At this point, it’s not even frustration, it’s just…what is the feeling now? Just the way it is,” said Ross. “The game is rigged, you know it’s rigged, you keep watching it get rigged and unfold, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“We’ve tried, the NFL league office has tried, the Fritz Pollard Alliance has tried, the Rooney Rule was implemented...If you coached the hottest rookie quarterback of all time, with the best stats and who looks like he’ll be a perennial Pro Bowl player, you’d say, ‘I want that guy to coach my team’ if he was White. But if you’re Black, that means nothing.”
Locksley, who began the Coalition less than a year ago, said that in that short time of working with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, those men seem committed to increasing diversity in the head coaching and front-office ranks.
"I know they want what we want. But do they have the power to make an owner hire a minority?” Locksley said. “No, they don’t. They work for the owners.”
Locksley said it feels like new coaches are being “elected”: they have a largely-White NFL media contingent backing their candidacies, a luxury African-American candidates don’t often receive. As Butler mentioned, there’s also a feeling that owners believe they can’t relate to Black coaches the way they can with White coaches.
It is the same ingrained bias so many Americans have because of the stereotypes and myths that have been propagated about Black people for centuries. They had to be told, to explain away keeping hundreds of thousands enslaved, their labor, free and under constant threat of violence, developing the land that would make owners wealthy and provide them nothing; or to explain away lynchings on Sunday afternoon, stories made up to justify killing men and women in the town square, everyone gathered to watch like a macabre county fair.
Those lies and stories continue today, rules and laws constantly being stretched or changed or ignored in the effort to keep African-Americans as second-class citizens.
To be clear, no one is being physically harmed by NFL teams often ignoring the Rooney Rule. But it is mentally taxing for those men who work their entire professional lives toward a goal, only to see the unwritten rules change every year on who does and does not make the cut.
It’s also keeping them from the salaries that can create generational wealth: the highest-paid coordinators can make over $1 million per season, but even first-time head coaches earn well over $5 million a year. Unlike NFL player contracts, head coaches’ contracts are fully guaranteed, so even if a coach is fired three years into a five-year deal, he’ll get the full amount of what he signed for.
“The Rooney Rule was very well-intentioned and I think initially it had some bite,” Scott Pioli said. “Until white people, with white privilege, chose to exercise their privilege to circumvent the process, to make a mockery of the process and do what they were going to do -- what they’ve always done historically -- and then just find a way to pacify through optics [as with] interviews that were charades.”
Currently, the Rooney Rule dictates that a team must interview two non-White candidates for a head coach opening.
Reportedly, Khan reached out to Urban Meyer weeks before his hiring was official, and after some back and forth made it clear to Meyer that the Jaguars’ job was his if he wanted it. Yet as Jacksonville made public, it interviewed Bieniemy, Saleh and Raheem Morris, all minority candidates. But if Khan had already decided the job was Meyer’s, he followed the letter of the rule and emphatically thumbed his nose at the spirit.
There was a similar situation in 2018, when the owner of the now-Las Vegas Raiders, Mark Davis, had essentially hired Jon Gruden to be head coach before he’d even fired the existing coach, which was Del Rio.
Davis hastily got two Black men to interview after the fact, and the NFL did nothing to punish the Raiders for blatantly flouting the Rooney Rule.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” Ross said. “You just shake your head at what’s going on. Whenever I talk about this, I never want to come from a place of anger or animosity or bitterness because they’re not going to listen. They don’t want to hear that.”
If White coaches get elected in part because of campaigns to push them to the top, then Locksley thinks his Coalition should follow the lead of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and start with grassroots campaigns to promote them in the media and by extension with owners and GMs.
Butler, the retired cornerback, believes a good head coach is confident, can command the respect of the locker room, is the same person every day regardless of whether the team is winning or trying to stop a losing streak, and is a direct communicator.
Those aren’t Black or White qualities.
“I want to see Black coaches move up the ladder and be in positions of power,” Butler said. “It’s not like anybody is asking for that to happen just because they’re Black, it’s because they’re good coaches.”
Shalise Manza Young joined Yahoo Sports in 2015 after almost a decade covering the New England Patriots for the Boston Globe and Providence Journal. A husband, three daughters, grown son, hyperactive Rottweiler, coaching track and field and teaching sports journalism also keep her busy.
How the NFL Moves Forward
18 years after the inception of the Rooney Rule, data shows a lack of forward progress when it comes to diversity at the highest levels of leadership in the NFL.
What actions are necessary to move the chains on safety, equity, and inclusion in the league?