A little less than a year ago, when the firing portion of the NFL coaching carousel concluded, Mike Tomlin stood alone as the league’s only Black head coach.
While two Black coaches and one biracial coach were hired in subsequent weeks, it was arguably a low-water mark for NFL diversity efforts since the 2003 implementation of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for top positions.
Now, as the league’s coaching carousel starts to spin anew Monday, diversity advocates have mixed predictions about how coaches of color will fare during the 2023 hiring cycle. Some are pessimistic, citing NFL owners’ lackluster record of diverse hires in recent years. Others believe league initiatives and a brighter spotlight on the issue could lead to a shift.
‘What I am optimistic about and encouraged about is the level of attention that owners and Roger Goodell have given to this issue,’ Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a nonprofit organization that champions diversity in the NFL, said. ‘Owners are particularly conscious of where this issue stands. I think they pay more attention to it. But at the end of the day, it’s still about results.’
And since 2003, those results have varied.
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An issue that needs solving
The NFL has had as many as seven Black head coaches at the beginning of a season, most recently in 2018. But it has also had as few as three, including at the start of 2022. (A fourth Black coach, Steve Wilks, took over as the interim in Carolina in October and is expected to be in the running for the Panthers’ full-time job.)
A USA TODAY Sports analysis found in the 20-year span from 2003 to 2022 about four white coaches were hired for every coach of color — a notable disparity in a league where an estimated 70% of players identify as non-white.
Excluding succession arrangements and internal hires, there haven’t been multiple Black coaches hired in the same cycle since 2017.
‘Anytime you get a minority hire, that’s a win for us. Because there have been years where it just hasn’t been there,’ said University of Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, who founded the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches in 2020.
‘(But) to put a number on what makes it successful — to me, the success comes from the engagement and knowing that it’s something that not just minority coaches want, not just NFL executives want, but the 32 individual owners want.’
Locksley said he believes the league office has a genuine interest in figuring out ‘how to solve this issue’ and credited some of its recent diversity initiatives as positive steps.
For instance, the NFL expanded the Rooney Rule in 2021 to require two external minority interviews for head coaching jobs, rather than one. And owners voted last year to also require minority interviews for quarterback coach positions, which often serve as springboard positions to offensive coordinator and head coach.
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Will a Black coach be hired in 2023?
Advocates cautioned the outlook for Black coaches this year will be shaped in part by the number of jobs available. As of early Monday morning, only four teams had head coaching vacancies: Carolina, Denver, Houston and Indianapolis.
‘I’m not optimistic, based on the track record,’ NBC analyst Tony Dungy said when asked if he believes multiple minority candidates will be hired in 2023.
‘Jim Harbaugh’s now in the mix. Sean Payton. If there’s just a couple of openings, and you have these guys who have made it known that they want to have their hat in the ring, I don’t think there’s going to be that many real legitimate openings.’
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are among the familiar faces who could garner multiple interviews again this year, while DeMeco Ryans and Jerod Mayo are among the up-and-coming candidates to watch.
For Graves, the idea of progress in 2023 will not revolve solely around the number of non-white men who get head coaching jobs. He said he views each cycle through a long-term lens and will be looking for signs of sustainability — not just coaches being hired, but owners being more deliberate and inclusive in the hiring process.
‘It just comes back to a commitment to it,’ Graves said. ‘There’s a lack of commitment that has existed, even though the consciousness level has been raised, which I’m encouraged by. At the end of the day, final decisions are what count and what matters.’
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.