The Black NFL Coach Can Be A Clean-up Man, But He Won’t Be Recycled

They wouldnt want me. I talk too much. Im not their type. Jackie Robinson, 1966.

There were some Sundays that I wanted Jim Caldwell, ex-head coach of the Detroit Lions, to scream, to go off, to show some emotions. I wanted him to be free. Black men in leadership, however, rarely get the privilege to act like that, especially in football. 

They have to be stoic or theyre deemed out of control, unfit for the job. Detroits coach was deadpan like Joe Louis, the citys favorite son, rarely giving a hint that he meant anything but business. After forty years of coaching, he knew the drill. In a business where black men in power are rare, one cant afford to show any signs of being out of control, or thinking theyre bigger than the team. 

They cant be the show. Black coaches barely get first chances, they hardly get second chances, and they never get recycled from the scrap heap. Thats a privilege they do not have. 

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Black NFL head coaches get shown the door much more quickly than their white counterparts:

Of all the coaches in professional sports, historically, none have been more revered than the football coach. The white football coach. Society idolizes them. We celebrate their toughness, their discipline, their leadership, their character, and their intellect. Men like Lombardi, Landry, Parcells, Ditka, and Belichick are celebrated as no-nonsense tacticians that represent the best of so-called American values. 

We embrace their anger and histrionics as passion. Its their key to success. A black coach has never been allowed to be that way. Dennis Green got visibly upset in a press conference once, and he turned into a running joke. 

Dennis Green “They are what we thought they were, and we let them off the hook!”

Dennis Green press conference as Arizona Cardinals Head Coach after their loss to the Chicago Bears

And the great Tony Dungy? He gets to be quiet strength. This all matters. 

By the mid 1960s, there was no more important battle in the black sports press than getting a black coach or manager in the professional ranks. Sportswriters frequently asked who would be the first. 

When would Earl Lloyd receive his shot in the NBA? What about Jackie Robinson? Why did these football teams pass over Jake Gaither? These writers understood that black leadership equated to a belief in black intelligence. Seeing a black man in leadership served as proof that a just system of merit existed, and that a position of power could be theirs.  

It signified that off the field, white Americans would give a black worker an opportunity to climb up the ladder, a chance very few received. Thus, the lack of black coaches signaled two things. One, owners did not believe blacks had the intellect or fortified character to lead white men. Two, owners spent too much time worrying about how white fans would react. 

As the Philadelphia Tribunes Claude Harrison Jr., once argued, the same people who voted for Goldwater, would rebuke a black manager. The Goldwater supporters, he predicted, will not have to start yelling for some years. Very few clubsif anyare ready for a Negro manager. Facing these long odds, each time a black coach broke the barrier, the press weighed in, giving the temperature of the black community. 

First came Bill Russell in 1966 with the Boston Celtics. As Harrison Jr., put it, Russell is the first Negro to head a major sports team and the eyes of the world will be upon him, some wishing him well and others wishing him ill. 

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Then came Frank Robinson in 1974. When the Cleveland Indians hired the all-time great, a Chicago Defender writer noted, the appointment transcends the haunting racial equation. It is a victory for Americans who believe not only in racial equality but also in principle of qualifications and relevant competence as measuring yearsticks [sic] for positions of responsible leadership. 

Fifteen years to the day that the Indians signed Robinson, the Raiders tapped Art Shell to lead their franchise, making him the first black head coach in modern pro football. While some in the press compared Shell to Jackie Robinson, the black football coach had to down play race. 

It is a historic event; I understand the significance of it, Shell said. Im proud of it, but Im also a Raider. He added, I don’t believe the color of my skin entered into this decision. I was chosen because [Davis] felt I was the right person at the right time. This was football. 

Shells new status, however, revealed what would be an all too often reality for black football coaches. Shell inherited a mess. The Raiders were 1-3 when they fired Mike Shanahan. In short, the black coach became the clean-up man, all but assuring that that same man that was the last hired, would eventually be the first fired. 

It took Jim Caldwell sixteen years in coaching before he earned his first head coaching job. 

When Caldwell, a Joe Paterno disciple, took the head job at Wake Forest in 1993, only two other black men coached Division 1 football, Temples Ron Dickerson and Eastern Michigans Ron Cooper. The latter two were clean-up men. Temple was 3-19 the two years prior to Dickersons arrival and EMU was 6-26-1 over the prior three years. Thats the scraps black coaches get. While Caldwell walked into a better situation, Wake Forest was 8-4 in 1992, the team returned only 10 starters. After being fired, Dickerson and Cooper never received another full-time head coaching job in Division 1 football. They were one and done. 

Tony Dungy – White Chair Film – I Am Second A successful career in the NFL would seem to be a dream come true. Money, notoriety, and accolades. Tony Dungy was living that dream, coaching the perennially losing Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a regular spot in the playoffs. It seemed that everything was working out as planned, until he was fired for not winning the championship.

Caldwell, however, had a different trajectory. After losing his job, in 2001 he became the quarterbacks coach under Tony Dungy at Tampa Bay, and then he followed Dungy in the same position when Dungy moved to the Colts the following year. When Dungy retired in 2008, the Colts gave Caldwell the keys to the Corvette. He inherited an offense that starred Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. Caldwell became only the second black coach in the NFL history to have been a head coach in Division I (Denny Green was the other), and like Green, he is one of the few black coaches to ever be tagged as an offensive guru. 

The others, like Dungy, are known for their sound defenses. Dungys coaching tree, includes four other black defensive-minded coaches; Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Leslie Frazier, and Mike Tomlin. 

In Caldwells first year, he proved he was the right candidate, winning 14 games in a row and leading the team to the Super Bowl. The next year, he made the playoffs. Of course, he never got the credit other white football coaches would have received. According to pundits, it was all Mannings doing. And in Caldwells third year, when Manning was sidelined with a neck injury, and the team only won 2 games, Caldwell was gone. Suddenly, he wasnt the right man for the job. Still, one would think a man who took a team to the Super Bowl would be a hot coaching commodity. Nope. He had to work his way back up the coaching ladder. 

When a black coach gets a second chance, most have to wait longer than their record would suggest they should wait. And most still have to clean up a mess. Only Dungy and Ray Rhodes went from being fired to hired. Of all the black coaches who have received second chances, only Hue Jackson, who went 8-8 in his one year with the Raiders, did not to have at least a 10-win season under their belts. Jackson is cleaning up in Cleveland. 

Art Shell, who led the Raiders to a winning record in his six years, including making it to the AFC Championship, had to wait 12 years before he received another shot. His reward? A 4-12 Raiders team.

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@damienwoody And the irony that it’s the team of Al Davis – who gave Tom Flores, Art Shell and @AmyTrask the opportunity to be awesome – that would disrespect the Rooney Rule…just like they’ve disrespected Oakland.

Lovie Smith, who took the Bears to the Super Bowl and had a reputation as a top defensive mind, was fired after going 10-6, and had to wait two years to get back into the game. They handed him a 4-12 Buccaneers team. Dennis Green led one of the most explosive attacks in NFL history when he was in charge of the Vikings, took them to the NFC title game twice, and when he finally received his second chance, he took over the 4-12 Arizona Cardinals. After being fired, Green never got back into the league. They dont get picked from the scrap heap. They have the wrong paint job for that. 

What accounts for this? For one, black coaches are not part of the good ol boys club. Head coaching gigs are about networking, opportunities, and reputation. And most black men arent in the loop. The NFL had to implement the Rooney Rule, forcing teams to interview a minority candidate, for a reason. But this rule only applies to head coaching gigs. Very few get the chance to coach as an assistant on the offensive side of the ball. And in this NFL, where teams are looking for the next hot-young offensive mind, because of a history that has denied black intelligence and innovation, and because of lack of opportunities, they dont get tagged as the next thing. 

After being fired from the Colts, Caldwell caught on as the quarterbacks coach with the Ravens. But in December 2012, they promoted him to the offensive coordinator when Cam Cameron proved inept. Caldwell worked his magic with the inconsistent Joe Flacco and helped lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory. Caldwells reward? He didnt even get an interview for one of the eight coaching vacancies. He had to wait a whole season before the Lions signed him. And he was their second choice.

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But after producing multiple winning seasons, and making the lowly Lions relevant again, Caldwell is out of the job, pushed to the scrap heap. The black coach can be a clean-up man, but he wont be recycled. No team is desperately waiting in the wings to offer Tony Dungy a $100 million contract. The belief in black leadership in this country isnt that strong.

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