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Ben Volin | On Football

Five African-American NFL coaches were fired, but advocacy group doesn’t see a problem

Hue Jackson was one of five African-American head coaches who were fired.
Hue Jackson was one of five African-American head coaches who were fired. (file/David Richard/Associated Press)

The aftermath of the NFL’s annual “Black Monday” didn’t just leave eight of 32 teams without a head coach.

It also significantly reduced the number of minority head coaches across the league. Of the eight head coaches from 2018 who were fired, five were African-American — Hue Jackson, Steve Wilks, Marvin Lewis, Vance Joseph, and Todd Bowles.

In a league in which approximately 70 percent of the players are black, the NFL currently has only three minority head coaches — the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, and the Panthers’ Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic.

And the NFL also is down to just one minority general manager — Dolphins GM Chris Grier, who earned a promotion on Monday to oversee the team’s entire football operation. Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie was fired last month, and Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome is retiring at the end of the season.

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Interestingly, the founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates for diversity and equality in NFL coaching and helped establish the league’s Rooney Rule in 2003, doesn’t believe the system is broken. Cyrus Mehri believes that the Rooney Rule is working well, and that the NFL continues to make strides in hiring minority candidates. The rule requires teams to interview at least one member of a minority group for its head coaching or general manager vacancies.

“We see what happened this time as primarily the regular, rough-and-tumble part of the NFL business — win or go home,” Mehri, the founder and general counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “But we remain very optimistic about where things are going forward.”

And minority coaches are certainly being included in this year’s interview cycle. Patriots defensive play caller Brian Flores has gotten requests from five teams to interview for head coaching jobs. Jim Caldwell, George Edwards, Kris Richard, and Eric Bieniemy have gotten requests, as well, and Lewis, Bowles, and Jackson should get interviews, too. The NFL probably won’t have eight minority head coaches again in 2019, but there should be at least four or five, and hopefully seven or eight again by 2020.

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“You have owners interviewing minority candidates for head coach and GM for every opening,” Mehri said. “So all we’ve ever asked for was a fair chance to compete, and let the best candidate be hired.”

But that doesn’t mean that minority hiring in the NFL is all peachy. The lack of minority offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches is glaring, and remains a significant obstacle for minorities to get head coaching jobs.

Of the 20 head coaches hired over the last three seasons, 15 had offensive backgrounds. Yet members of minority groups are significantly underrepresented as offensive coordinators. The NFL had 14 minority coordinators last year, but only two were offensive coordinators. The NFL also had just two minority quarterbacks coaches. One from each list was the same person — Cardinals offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich.

“Our biggest challenge is that there are too few minority coaches who are play callers as offensive coordinators, or quarterback coaches, and that pipeline needs to get strengthened,” Mehri said. “Even though defense wins championships, the owners seem to be fascinated by offensive coordinators, and so few of them are minority coaches.”

NFL owners want excitement when they hire a new coach, and that usually means hiring an offensive guy.

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At the start of the 2018 NFL season, 18 of the 32 head coaches had an offensive background. Of those, 16 were either quarterback coaches or played the position in college and the pros. Lynn (running backs) and the Jaguars’ Doug Marrone (offensive line) were the two that didn’t have a quarterback background.

The NFL has a significant number of minority coaches for running backs, wide receivers, and every defensive position. But quarterbacks coaches are far and away the most heavily represented among head coaches.

“One [goal] is to open up the minds that a running backs coach can be an offensive coordinator,” Mehri said. “There’s this thought, ‘Well, a running backs coach can’t be ultimately a head coach.’ Anthony Lynn shows you that’s wrong.”

Leftwich, the former Jaguars quarterback, got his coaching start as part of a minority internship that the Cardinals created four years ago, which Mehri hopes other teams will adopt.

The NFL has a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship that places coaches with teams during the offseason and training camp, but the Cardinals’ program keeps coaches on staff all season long.

“Those kind of opportunities where we can get more former players into coaching, and in particular on the offensive side, that’s the kind of movement we need to strengthen opportunities going forward,” Mehri said.

But Mehri and the Fritz Pollard Alliance don’t view the system as broken, even with five minority head coaches getting fired this year.

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Wilks was fired after just one year as the Cardinals’ head coach, and Joseph got just two years with the Broncos. But Mehri points out that white coaches can get the quick hook, too. The Titans fired Mike Mularkey even after he won a playoff game last year, and Cam Cameron was once one-and-done with the Dolphins. Impatience rules in the NFL.

“It’s just the way the business is run,” Mehri said. “There is a phenomenon that goes across the business of being impatient with coaches — which you could argue is not a good thing, regardless of race, that people are just too quick.”

And the NFL actually adopted several meaningful changes to the Rooney Rule in December, at the urging of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.

Whoever is a team’s final decision-maker — usually the owner — now must sit in on all head coaching interviews. This came in response to Oakland’s Mark Davis skipping some interviews last year, as he was set on hiring Jon Gruden.

And teams are now required to interview at least one minority candidate from outside the team, or from a list provided by the NFL’s Career Development Advisory List. This should prevent teams from doing sham interviews with an in-house minority coach who has no realistic shot of getting the head coaching job.

“We feel that there were some end runs around the Rooney Rule in the past that are not going to happen going forward,” Mehri said. “So that adds to our optimism that over time, this is going to continue to be a really successful effort.”

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Mehri is also optimistic because Roger Goodell was overwhelmingly in favor of strengthening the Rooney Rule. Another change adopted in December now requires teams to document which minorities were interviewed, when each interview occurred, and who was present in the room.

“Goodell showed leadership on this issue, getting behind the reforms we were asking for,” Mehri said. “This is one of those things where he gets such a bad rap, but he did leadership here that no one even knows about.”

The NFL almost certainly won’t have as many minority head coaches in 2019 as in the past, but Mehri and the Fritz Pollard Alliance are at least encouraged by the league’s progress.

“There may be ups and downs along the way in terms of the representation numbers, but all we can ask for is a fair chance to compete,” he said. “We are very optimistic about where things are going, and over time we’re going to continue to succeed and create opportunities for people.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin