BALTIMORE — When former Ravens defensive coordinator and Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was asked what’s next in getting more people of color hired as general managers or coaches in the NFL, there was silence.
Then the question was asked again, only followed by more silence.
Then came the answer.
“They have said in the past that others were chosen because ‘You couldn’t do X, Y, or Z, you didn’t call plays, you didn’t call defense or you didn’t do this or that,’” said Lewis, 62, who is Black. “Now, they are hiring head coaches who haven’t done that and have less experience. That is a frustrating thing for African American coaches.”
Lewis, now a defensive consultant at Arizona State, and other coaches of color have to grind for these jobs. It’s like the civil rights fight. Once the leaders of the movement become comfortable, complacency becomes the norm.
That’s when the “Good Old Boys” network takes over. It’s still in existence, especially within the ownership of the 32 NFL teams.
“I have to encourage young Black coaches to work harder, coach better, do whatever you have to do because there are going to be five or six head coaching changes every year,” Lewis said. “I guess we have to wait until the cycle plays out in another year or two and these guys fail. It’s crazy out here, it really is.”
There were seven NFL coaching vacancies shortly after the season ended, and only two have been filled by a person of color. The New York Jets hired San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, the son of Lebanese parents, and the Houston Texans reportedly hired Ravens assistant head coach and passing-game coordinator David Culley, who is Black.
With Culley, the first Black coach hired in this cycle, the NFL now has five teams with a coach of color, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores and Washington’s Ron Rivera. Three Black general managers were recently hired — Brad Holmes (Detroit Lions), Terry Fontenot (Atlanta Falcons) and Martin Mayhew (Washington) — bringing the number to five throughout the league.
The NFL has worked hard to promote minority hiring with workshops, seminars and amendments to the Rooney Rule, but owners aren’t listening. If they are, then they just don’t care.
“There are many outstanding Black men and other men and women of color in the NFL,” said Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which seeks to champion diversity in the NFL through education, networking, mentoring and advocacy. “The pipeline is as strong as it has ever been. The issue is not in the sufficiency of numbers; the problem is in the limited number of leadership opportunities given.”
Many NFL owners just provide lip service when it comes to hiring minorities as general managers, coaches and coordinators. They say one thing in public and do whatever they want in private. In other words, some will hire who they want as long as they aren’t people of color.
Hiring situations vary from team to team, but the owner always has the final say. In Baltimore, the Ravens have had only two Black coordinators in their 25-year history. Coincidentally, both called plays in the years the Ravens won the Super Bowl; Lewis as the defensive coordinator in 2000 and Jim Caldwell as the offensive coordinator in 2012.
Ravens executive Ozzie Newsome, the first Black general manager in the NFL, always allowed his coach to pick coordinators, except in 2014 when coach John Harbaugh was forced to hire Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator.
Regardless, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti probably has to sign off on those positions. In Dallas, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones strongly influences his coaches about which coordinators to hire, and so does Washington Football Team owner Dan Snyder.
“It just depends on how much the owners are involved,” Lewis said. “In some cases, they get involved and don’t have a clue. Regardless, as a candidate, you have to get involved in the process and see how it plays out.”
Since the regular season ended, Lewis has interviewed with the Jets, Texans and Lions. While he was the coach in Cincinnati, he finished with a 131-129-3 record in 16 years, which is impressive considering the Bengals were one of NFL’s worst franchises before his arrival.
When Lewis was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the criticism of Black assistant coaches was that they weren’t coordinators and needed to work their way up before they could become coaches.
Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs offensive coordinator, has done five interviews this offseason and 12 in the past three years. The 51-year-old still hasn’t gotten a job despite Kansas City having the best offense in the NFL each of those seasons. Leslie Frazier, the Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator, is finally a serious candidate at age 61, while Byron Leftwich, the 41-year-old offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, might finally be getting some attention after helping lead the team back to the Super Bowl.
Todd Bowles, 57, the Buccaneers defensive coordinator, is also available. He failed as coach of the Jets from 2015 to 2018 but deserves another opportunity, just like Bill Belichick received in New England after his failed coaching stint in Cleveland.
The resumes of Bowles, Bieniemy and Frazier are just as impressive as those of white coaches Arthur Smith, 38, and Nick Sirianni, 39, who were recently hired by the Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.
“These guys, we have to Google who they are,” Lewis said. “Hell, the white coaches have to Google who they are.”
“I’m not going to call it a conspiracy, but I think some owners are basically saying, ‘I’m going to run my team the way I want to run to, and you can’t force me to hire a minority,’ ” Larry Lee, a front office executive for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, recently told The Houston Chronicle. “I think that’s the elephant in the room. Until the relations and comfort levels gets better, that’s an issue.”
Owners just need to be fair. Minorities aren’t asking for an advantage, just to be treated equally and let their bodies of work speak for themselves. But in a lot of cases, some of the candidates aren’t even getting into the room to be interviewed. Once there, the parameters often change again.
Then the silence takes over.
“The younger African American coaches want to know what they can do, what they need to do,” Lewis said. “That is the discouraging part, but you always want to encourage. Then there is the fact that African American coaches have a hard time even getting back to being coordinators [after being fired as coaches] when our counterparts get back to being coordinators immediately.
“You just hope the next coaching position breaks the right way and he becomes successful.”