Will the NFL Get More Black Head Coaches? Don’t Bet on It

This story was originally published on Word In Black

By: Tony Pierce

As all eyes turn to Las Vegas to watch Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, viewers will hear that Allegiant Stadium is the regular season home of the Vegas Raiders. What probably won’t be said by the game’s announcers is that the Raiders are one of just six teams — out of 32 in the NFL — with a Black head coach.

If that number seems shockingly low, it’s because it is. Even though the majority of players in the league have been Black for quite a while, there have never been more than 22% Black head coaches in the NFL at one time.

2006 was a milestone year: seven Black men were running teams; two Black head coaches — Chicago’s Lovie Smith and Indiannapolis’ Tony Dungy — met in the Super Bowl, a historic first; Prince was the halftime performer. The following season, the number of Black head coaches shrank to just three, the same number as the beginning of the 2023-24 season.

What’s interesting is despite the fact that Black head coaches typically inherit terrible teams with bad quarterbacks, they have historically outperformed their white counterparts. But unlike white head coaches, Black ones are generally given less time to get their program in order and are released quicker.

Former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is the poster child for this disturbing pattern. Bieniemy had a long tenure with the Chiefs, first as their running backs coach from 2013 to 2017 (a typical assistant coaching job Blacks are hired for) and then as offensive coordinator from 2018-2022. It is rare for Black coaches to get to run the entire offense.

After experiencing a 50-year Super Bowl drought, the Chiefs — fueled in part by Bieniemy’s offense — made the Big Game three times in the last five years, winning twice.

Beinemy left the Chiefs before the 2023 season to run the Washington Commanders’ struggling offense under head coach Ron Rivera, but the job didn’t last long. After the team posted a dismal 4-13 record this year, the Commanders fired Rivera and his entire coaching staff, including Bienemy.

And even though there were as many as seven head-coaching vacancies in the NFL by the end of the season, no one hired Bienemy. Usually, when NFL teams pass on promoting Black folks from the assistant coaching ranks to head coach, they claim the best candidates are offensive coordinators.

Yet despite being a two-time Super Bowl champion, helping establish Kansas City as one of the consistently best offenses in the NFL, and molding Patrick Mahomes into an elite-level quarterback, team owners looked past Bieniemy when searching for their next head coach.

There is no question the league has made progress: of the eight head coaching vacancies in the NFL at the end of this season, three went to Black coaches, raising the total to six.

Not quite a grand leap in equality.

The Rooney Rule has led to some guys getting interviews and then getting hired who otherwise might not have been considered.

The league knows there’s a problem, which is why, 21 years ago, it implemented the Rooney Rule that required teams to interview at least two Black head coaching candidates. Since then, other incentives have been offered to teams who hire and retain Black head coaches, but the needle has barely moved.

In 2022, Brian Flores, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, sued the league for racist hiring policies and three teams for racial discrimination in hiring. In another lawsuit against the NFL, one former coach claims the Rooney Rule is a sham.

“I know there are (Black coaching candidates) that decline interviews because they feel like they are a token interview,” NFL expert Ben Allbright, who hosts Broncos Country Tonight on Denver’s KOA AM & FM, tells me. “That said, the Rooney Rule has led to some guys getting interviews and then getting hired who otherwise might not have been considered. Vance Joseph, for instance.”

Johnson was the Broncos’ first non-interim Black head coach when he was given a four-year contract in 2017. After two losing seasons with terrible teams, he was fired. He was replaced by a white head coach who also had bad teams, but he was given three losing seasons before being shown the door.

When the Chicago Bears, one of the league’s original franchises, hired Smith in 2004, he became the first Black head coach in the team’s 103-year history. Under his leadership, the Bears made the 2007 Super Bowl for only the second time in team history. But the team fired him in 2012 after a 10-6 season; the Bears haven’t won a playoff game since.

The Bears’ current head coach, Matt Eberflus, previously the defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, has won 10 games — total — over his two years in Chicago. He has the third-worst record in the history of the club. But recently, when ownership fired five of his assistant coaches, two of whom were Black, they let Eberflus keep his job.

Could we see a 2025 NFL season with a record-breaking eight Black head coaches?

Here’s a crazy idea for Virginia McCaskey, the 101-year-old principal owner of the Bears: if the Chiefs win on Sunday with an offense Bieniemy built, hire him and replace Eberflus. Do it before the draft so the team can be a reflection of his vision and not that of the third-worst coach Da Bears ever had.

And if not him, Allbright has some other Black head coaches he feels will get a chance soon.

“Jim Caldwell and Pep Hamilton are two names to keep an eye on,” Allbright says, “specifically because Caldwell got a raw deal in Detroit. Both of those guys come from the offensive side of the ball, which is a rarity for African American coaches.”

“Steve Wilks and Vance Joseph will get second shots soon,” he says, adding that Anthony Weaver is another Black coach who may get the promotion soon.

Could we see a 2025 NFL season with a record-breaking eight Black head coaches? Based on the league’s history, you shouldn’t bet on it.

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