Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy wonders and worries about how much things have really changed since he was a young, Black, up-and-coming defensive coordinator desperately trying to get his first head coaching job in the NFL.
Dungy sometimes flashes back to 30 years ago when during one interview, an NFL executive told him that if he expected to get a head coaching job, he would first and foremost need to shave his beard because it made him look like a Black power radical.
Or the time when another NFL executive wanted to know how many Black assistant coaches would be on his staff if he were hired as the head coach.
Or all those times when he didn’t get the job because the good ol’ boy network of NFL owners let it be known that Dungy “didn’t interview well.”
“The ‘doesn’t interview well’ issue was a cop-out then and it’s a cop-out now,” Dungy told me earlier this week shortly after writing an open letter to NFL owners urging them to do a better job in hiring minority head coaches. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard over the years that I didn’t get the job because my interview was bad. They said I was too quiet, too passive or that I wasn’t tough enough and couldn’t command the room. It was always I wasn’t this or I wasn’t that.”
Let’s be honest, shall we?
It was mainly because he wasn’t white.
Decades later, you’d think we would have moved past the issue of NFL owners and their minority hiring practices, but it has become one of the major topics this week. Why? Because the Black coordinators of the two participating Super Bowl teams — the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — didn’t get a sniff of any of the NFL’s seven head-coaching vacancies.
Eric Bieniemy, the coordinator of the Chiefs’ high-powered offense, interviewed for six head-coaching jobs and got none of them. The whispers he hears are the same whispers Dungy used to hear: “Psst, he doesn’t interview well.”
Then again, at least Bieniemy got an interview, which is more than you can say for Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who didn’t even get a call.
“I was very, very pissed that Byron didn’t at least get an interview,” says Bucs head coach Bruce Arians, who has the most diverse coaching staff in the NFL — a staff that includes four Black coordinators and two women assistants. “I think I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady for the job Byron has done. Hopefully, next year people will see that he took Jameis Winston and broke every single record here, scoring and passing, and now Tom has broken both. Byron has done a fantastic job, and he’s everything supposedly that teams are looking for.”
This is why Dungy wrote the open letter to NFL owners; because he and others are putting the onus directly on them. As a league, the NFL has tried to do its part. Commissioner Roger Goodell said this earlier in the week when asked about the paucity of Black head coaches in the NFL: “I’m not sure there’s an issue we’ve spent more time with our ownership on.”
It’s true. The NFL has pushed and prodded owners to hire more minority head coaches. Nearly two decades ago, the league implemented the Rooney Rule — a mandate requiring teams with a head-coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. The NFL has even strengthened the Rooney Rule in recent years, but still there are only three Black head coaches among the 32 teams in a league where 70% of the players are Black.
“The NFL has put programs in place to increase opportunities for Black assistant head coaches, but it’s very discouraging the league hasn’t made any visible progress when it comes to head coaching hires,” says internationally renowned civil rights activist Richard Lapchick, who heads UCF’s DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program and is the director of The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport. “This has to come from the team level, where ownership is overwhelmingly white, wealthy men.”
In his open letter, Dungy, the first Black head coach to ever win a Super Bowl, told ownership: “I believe our league has a problem that only you can fix. … That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. Because ultimately you are the decision-makers that determine the direction of the NFL ... I’m asking you to keep the legacy moving forward and make the NFL the best league we can be. And I’m believing that you’re going to do that. Please show me that my faith in you is justified.”
In a conversation with the Orlando Sentinel, Dungy said owners need to make a conscious effort to step outside their comfort zone. He pointed to the late, great Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the man for whom the Rooney Rule is named after.
“Owners need to be intentional about the coaching-search process,” Dungy said. “If owners really, really search and make an effort to pick the best coaches, we can solve this issue. The problem is, owners don’t really have to make that effort. There are a ton of good [white] candidates out there and owners can hire the people they’re familiar with and still get good coaches. They may not get the very best coaches and they certainly won’t get the most diverse coaches, but they’ll get good coaches without really even looking hard.
“That’s why I always go back to Dan Rooney,” Dungy added. “When he was looking for a coach after Bill Cowher retired [in 2006,] he already had some really good [white] assistant coaches on the Steelers’ staff. He had guys like Ken Whisenhunt, who would go on to be the head coach that took the Arizona Cardinals to their first Super Bowl. Bruce Arians was on the staff, and he’s taken the Bucs to the Super Bowl this year. Dick LeBeau was on the staff, and he is in the Hall of Fame [as one of the great defensive coordinators of all-time.]
“It would have been very easy for Dan Rooney to say, ‘I’ve got great people already here; I don’t really need to look any further.’ But that wasn’t Dan Rooney’s style. He kept searching and interviewing and found a young [and Black assistant] Mike Tomlin, who’s been in Pittsburgh for 14 years as a head coach and has won a Super Bowl. You have to look beyond the people you know to find the nuggets.”
If the owners can’t do it on their own and the league can’t mandate it then, Lapchick says, it may be up to the players themselves. We’ve seen it in the NBA, where superstars like LeBron James aren’t afraid to wield their power and share their views on racial issues. We’ve seen it in college football, where athletes are speaking out on critical social and political topics. Perhaps we are starting to see it, too, in the NFL where the Houston Texans just hired a Black head coach, David Culley, perhaps to appease disgruntled star quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“We’ve never seen athlete empowerment and activism like we’re seeing right now,” Lapchick says. “When more NFL players start putting on the pressure, taking a stand and saying we want to have more head coaches who look like us; that’s going to be the game changer.”
Dungy sure hopes so.
For decades he’s been waiting for that game changer, but instead it’s the same old shell game.
“It hurt in 1993 to have coordinated the number one defense in the NFL and not get an interview for one of the five head coaching openings that year,” Dungy wrote to the owners. “But I have to tell you, it hurts even more to see African American coaches going through the same thing almost 30 years later.”
You would think amid the Black Lives Matter movement in this country, NFL owners would wake up and realize that Black coaches matter now more than ever.