When the great Civil Rights leader and humanitarian Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, Fritz Pollard was still the only minority head coach in NFL history and that was in the 1920s, in the early years of pro football. In fact, Pollard along with Bobby Marshall, were the first two African American players in the NFL in 1920.
The NFL’s coaching ranks was once a glaring example of the racism, oppression and discrimination rampant in America and that Dr. Martin Luther King gave his life trying to change. With the current testy climate of todays race relations and a President who is known to cohort with white supremacists and share their philosophies, people often ask what King would think of the progress or lack thereof that people of color have made in this country since his assassination?
Sports has always been a microcosm of the world at play. Throughout the history of America, sports has been a powerful tool for gauging the success and impact of people of color and is often used as an agent of political change, as it provides a platform to get social messages out to a broader audience.
King would undoubtedly be bittersweet about the progress black coaches have made in the NFL. While hiring an African-American coach is no longer taboo, NFL owners still have a long way to go before the hiring practices are authentically equal and the confidence that black coaches can do the same job as well as their white counterparts is the prevailing thought by owners.
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It wasnt until 1979 when Tom Flores was hired by the Raiders that an NFL head coach of color was brought into the fold, but it wasnt until 10 years later that Art Shell became the NFLs first Black head coach in the modern era. At the time that Shell was coach, the NFL was still a league run almost exclusively by white men. In 1980, nine years before Shell, there were only 14 black assistants out of 262. That number only slightly increased a short time later.
Oakland Raiders head coach Art Shell was the first African American head coach in the NFL’s modern era, and on this day, in 1989, led his team to victory beating the Jets 14-7. Subscribe to the NFL YouTube channel to see immediate in-game highlights from your favorite teams and players, daily fantasy football updates, all your favorite NFL Network podcasts, and more!
In 2002, the firings of head coaches Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings – at a time when Dungy was on the cusp of winning a Super Bowl and Green suffered his first losing season of his career which spanned nine very successful seasons with Minnesota – sparked outrage and pressure from players and legal advocates to do something about hiring practices concerning people of color. A study released by civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran, showed that black coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts.
HEADLINE: Black coaches could make NFL history CAPTION: Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith and Colts head coach Tony Dungy could each make NFL history. If either or both win their conference championships, it will mark the first time a black head coach has led his team to the Super Bowl.
While the number of black coaches has incrementally increased over the decades, the quick hook for brothers still remains, but we have seen a slight change in that philosophy this season as several minority coaches were on the hot seat but were retained with an opportunity for improvement.
Todd Bowles is on the hot seat in New York after two seasons, and Rob Parker argues this might show how black coaches in the NFL don’t get the same number of chances as white coaches. Do Skip and Shannon agree?
In response to the public and internal outrage expressed by Dungy and Green’s firings, in 2003, the NFL instituted the “Rooney Rule,” requiring NFL teams to interview minority candidates for vacant head coaching positions. Mike Tomlin was the first beneficiary of that philosophy and has rewarded Pittsburgh with 11 years of stability and winning seasons which include nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship.
At the time, there was one minority head coach. Over the next eight years, that number grew and peaked in 2011 at eight. In recent years the number had been dropping again and there was a concern that the pipeline was drying up with the retirement of Tony Dungy (who had nurtured and mentored a group of minority coaching disciples) and with so few minority coordinators in the NFL, especially on the offensive side of the ball, which is the quickest and most effective way to elevate to a head coaching job.
After dropping to just four minority coaches in 2013, the number was back up to eight at the start of the 2017 season with the hirings of rookie coaches Vance Joseph (Denver Broncos) and Anthony Lynn (Chargers). After the firing of Jim Caldwell, the number remains at seven with six African-American head coaches and one Hispanic in Carolina Panthers HC Ron Rivera.
Black @NFL head coaching candidates are literally coming out of the woodwork https://t.co/DC2dvX6jH5
The NFL had six openings following its Black Monday firings, two have already been filled by white coaches.
With five vacant head coaching positions still up for grabs (Giants, Cardinals, Colts, Lions and today the Titans made the list) and a rich pipeline of qualified coaches interviewing and ready to take that next step, King would definitely be pleased with the progress the NFL has made in hiring African-American coaches (regardless of how long they are allowed to hold their positions). He would also be in favor of the blatant efforts by groups such as Fritz Pollard Alliance and programs geared towards developing minority coaching candidates, to develop a pipeline of black coaches that can be identified and are qualified to get a real opportunity at one of the NFLs 32 coveted leadership gigs.
Fritz Pollard Alliance President John Wooten once told me that , Its not just about how many coaches get hired. The fact that they are in the room, being interviewed with a chance to convince someone to take a chance on them, is tremendous progress.”
African-American NFL coaching candidates can be found in abundance. This offseason guys such as George Edwards, defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings, Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions, Steve Wilks, defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers, Kris Richardson, defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks and Harold Goodwin, offensive coordinator, Arizona Cardinals, once again received interviews with NFL teams searching for a head coach.
5 things to know about Steve Wilks and his #Giants head coaching candidacy https://t.co/HtgRaglHVC via @northjersey
No African-American coaches have been hired yet and there may not be any new hires for 2018, but its an indisputable fact that the NFL’s African-American coaching pipelines are oozing with talent and the number of brothers leading NFL franchises should hit double digits in the next five years. The NFL is still being urged to examine ways to further increase diversity and opportunities for minority coaches and in front office positions, but the progress is evident.
The brothers are in the building and MLK would be cool with that.