After a recent spate of hirings and firings, the NFL is in the midst of a coaching diversity crisis. Fewer than 10 percent of the NFL’s head coaches are black — even though about 60 percent of the league’s players are. Not one of the five new head coaches hired after the 2019 NFL regular season is black. The NFL has the same number of black head coaches going into the 2020 season — three — that it had in 2003, when anger about the lack of diversity resulted in the league adopting the so-called Rooney Rule, which requires at least one person of color to be interviewed for all head coaching openings.
So why isn’t the NFL hiring more black head coaches? We think it’s safe to assume that the league doesn’t have a secret policy to employ as few black coaches as possible. It’s more likely that there is something systemic within the NFL that results in the whiteness of the coaching hires. (Saying the issues are systemic doesn’t rule out the role of unconscious racial biases.)
To explore this issue, we looked closely at the resumes of the 32 current NFL head coaches, a group that includes 28 white coaches; Washington’s Ron Rivera, who is Latino; and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, all of whom are black. A big part of that research involved measuring what the head coaches tended to do in any given year of their life — finding patterns along the path to the top that might explain the whiteness of the current group of coaches, and give us ideas about how to increase its racial diversity. Using data from Pro-Football-Reference.com and a little of our own research, here’s a breakdown for what share of current NFL coaches were doing what job, at what age:1
Generally speaking, the climb up the coaching ladder often goes like this:
Early 20s: Your playing career comes to an end. (Most head coaches played in college, but few played beyond that.) At this point, many coaches latch on in college as an entry-level graduate assistant.
Mid-20s: You move up to become a higher-level assistant in college football.
Late 20s: Either stay in college and advance toward the coordinator level, or (more likely) become a lower-level assistant — such as a “quality control” coach — on an NFL team.
Early 30s: Become an NFL position coach (say, wide receivers or defensive line).
Late 30s/Early 40s: You are promoted to an NFL coordinator.
Mid-40s: Become an NFL head coach.
At each step of the way, we found places where there isn’t a truly level playing field between either current or prospective black coaches and their white counterparts. So here are our five ways the NFL could create a process that is likely to result in more black coaches being hired.2 We have ordered these steps from those we are most confident in to those that hit the issues more indirectly:
1. Diversify the ranks of offensive and defensive coordinators.
Of the 32 current head coaches, the vast majority previously served as either the offensive coordinator (15) or defensive coordinator (10) of an NFL team. That makes intuitive sense — the coordinators are generally the top coaches on a team below the head coach, often responsible for calling the plays for the team’s offense or defense. NFL teams generally don’t hire the head coaches of college teams — unless they’ve already served as an NFL coordinator. Among head coaches from the 2019 season, only six3 were ever a head coach in college at all, and only one of those (Kliff Kingsbury) got his first NFL head coaching job without any previous pro coordinating experience.4
So the hiring pool is usually just offensive and defensive coordinators. Of course, the frustration among critics of the NFL’s hiring approaches was probably heightened by the fact that two of the five newly hired coaches, Carolina’s Matt Rhule and the New York Giants’s Joe Judge, had not served as offensive or defensive coordinators at the pro level. Judge was the special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach for the New England Patriots, while Rhule was the head coach at Baylor University.
That line-cutting by coaches like Ruhle and Judge is one problem, and here’s another: Even among the NFL’s coordinator ranks, there aren’t a lot of black coaches.5 Some teams are still finalizing their coaching staffs for 2020, but as of right now, of the 61 offensive and defensive coordinator positions,6 there are two black offensive coordinators, nine black defensive coordinators and one Arab American defensive coordinator. So if the coordinator group is 80 percent white, and it’s the group head coaches are almost entirely pulled from, then it is inevitably going to lead to mostly white head-coaching hires.
And even when a coordinator checks all the boxes as a potential head coach, he can’t always land the job. Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is black, leads one of the NFL’s best offenses, so he seems like a logical hire for a head coaching position. But the knock on him, according to some in the league, is that head coach Andy Reid calls the plays for the Chiefs — so Bieniemy is essentially an offensive coordinator in name only. Reid himself emphasizes that Bienemy plays a huge role in Kansas City’s offense. The Rooney Rule may help get Bieniemy in the room with the people (read: white men) who will decide if he becomes a head coach — but it’s not enough to get him the job.
This coordinator problem is well-known within NFL circles. But it may be hard to fix easily, for two reasons. NFL head coaches regularly get fired after two to four seasons — and many aren’t immediately hired back into head-coaching roles. So a lot of newly hired head coaches play it safe and pick people who have already worked as coordinators. That’s how you end up with a bloc of mostly white men who seem to be in the running for every open coordinator job, as opposed to new people getting these posts.
2. Make sure the path to becoming coordinator or a head coach isn’t about connections and nepotism.
As we mentioned earlier, there is a commonly tread path to the top among the 32 current head coaches. But there are also several places where a potential coach can stop advancing. We don’t have any real data on this group, but there are hundreds of people working for various college football programs across the country. The big question is: Who gets to make that initial jump to the NFL — and how? And then, who moves from lower-level assistant roles to become a position coach, which usually feeds into coordinator slots? At each of those junctures in a coaching career, special connections can have an outsize role in whether you are allowed to move up, or how quickly you do so.
For instance, several of the young, white, male head coaches had family connections to the NFL coaching world, likely helping them make their entrance into the league. The grandfather of Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay had been a head coach and executive in the NFL. McVay’s first job came in part through family connections. Then-Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, who had long known the McVay family, hired Sean as a low-level assistant. McVay didn’t work as a college coach at all.
The benefits of connections are most obvious in the case of San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose father, Mike, was a longtime head coach in the NFL. Shanahan became the wide receivers coach for the Houston Texans at age 26, just four seasons after his playing career ended at the University of Texas. Houston’s head coach at the time, Gary Kubiak, had been a longtime offensive coordinator for Mike Shanahan.
Speaking of the elder Shanahan, four current NFL coaches, including his son Kyle, worked as assistants to Mike during his 20 seasons as a head coach. Eight of the NFL’s other 30 coaches were one-time assistants to either New England’s Bill Belichick or Kansas City’s Andy Reid, who are generally considered among the league’s best coaches. It’s not that Belichick, Reid or Shanahan’s networks don’t include black coaches — Flores worked for Belichick, Lynn for Shanahan. But the fact that about 40 percent of the league’s head coaches are connected by three men suggests that a fairly narrow network is being tapped.
In fact, this network issue may have given an overly rosy impression of the NFL’s coaching diversity in a previous era. Five of the most recent black head coaches had once worked for Tony Dungy, the longtime former coach of Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. Dungy is black. Perhaps one reason for the relative lack of black coaches is the absence of more feeder systems for them — but we would argue that more comprehensive diversity efforts should supplant connection-based systems.
3. Give a real first chance to black coaches — and perhaps a second one, too.
Black head coaches are over-represented7 on one list: head coaches who have fired after only a single season in the job. Since 2000, 11 coaches have been dismissed after a single season, and three of them are black. But black coaches are under-represented in a second group: NFL coaches given a second or third head coaching post. According to data from Arizona State’s Global Sport Education and Research Lab, 29.5 percent of newly hired white head coaches between the 2009 and 2018 seasons had been the head coach of another team, while just 8.3 percent of coaches of color fit the same description. Although no fan base is excited by the prospect of hiring another team’s castoff coach, recycling coaches is a fact of NFL life. And by virtue of seldom being hired to begin with, then rehired less often as well, black coaches have been excluded from that part of the coaching ecosystem.
Seven of the NFL’s current head coaches were previously head coaches for another team and were fired or forced out of that job. No black coaches are in that group, which includes six white coaches and Rivera.
We are dealing with a fairly small sample size (there have been only 25 black head coaches in NFL history, including interim coaches), so we are reluctant to suggest broadly that the NFL fires black coaches too quickly and is unwilling to give them a second chance. But we think this issue is worth raising. Some of the current NFL coaches generally perceived as the best (like Belichick and Reid) were fired from their first head coaching jobs. And it’s considered hard for an NFL head coach to turn a team around in a single year.
4. Be open to older coaches.
Only four of the league’s 32 coaches were older than 50 when they got their first NFL head-coaching jobs.8 (A few others got their first head coaching jobs pre-50 and then were hired at other places post-50.) What does that tell us? It’s hard to prove this, but we suspect that age dynamics common in other fields (basically the perception that younger people have fresher ideas and are more innovative) are playing out in the NFL as well. And the NFL’s pattern of hiring younger coaches has probably created a post-facto explanation for this — essentially, the unstated assumption may be that if a coach has not gotten a head-coaching gig by 50, he isn’t good enough for one.
Here’s the thing — there is no evidence that older people don’t have the energy to coach or aren’t good at it. Thirteen of the league’s coaches are 55 or over, with six in their 60s, including Reid, whose team just made it to the Super Bowl. We haven’t done a comprehensive look at how many black assistants coaches are over 50. But this is an obvious place where the pool of potential coaching candidates is being limited in a way that doesn’t make much sense.
5. Make sure having played in the NFL isn’t a negative credential — and consider if it should be a positive one.
Underlying the entire discussion of coaching diversity in the NFL is the unstated but implied assumption that the majority-black NFL player base is not getting promoted upwards to management roles. But that’s not quite right — although most coaches played in college, only nine of the league’s 32 head coaches were in the NFL.9 So it’s not as if lots of white ex-NFL players are being chosen as coaches either. (The nine who played include seven white coaches — five of them quarterbacks — plus Lynn and Rivera.) So if the real coaching pool is not ex-NFL players, but just men in America, the percentage of black coaches in the NFL (9 percent) is basically on par with the percentage of black Americans (13 percent). And it’s not as if we have any evidence that ex-players are better coaches — Belichick and Reid never played a down in the NFL, nor did Shanahan, whose team also made it to this year’s Super Bowl. So perhaps we shouldn’t compare the demographics of the league’s coaches with its players.
But there’s also reason to be wary of this demographic breakdown, in part by looking at other sports. The NBA has a similar dynamic to the NFL — about 75 percent of NBA players are African American, compared with 20 percent of the league’s coaches. And like the NFL, a clear majority of NBA head coaches (20 of 30) did not play in the league.
But in the National Hockey League, 22 of 31 head coaches are former NHL players. In Major League Baseball, 22 of the 29 managers have played in the big leagues. Around 90 percent of hockey players are white, as are all 31 coaches. As of 2018, about 60 percent of baseball players are white, 30 percent Latino, 8 percent black, 2 percent Asian. The managers are about 75 percent white, 14 percent Latino.
So in America’s two major sports where white players are the majority and there are few black players, former players tend to become top coaches. In America’s two major sports where black players are clearly in the majority, former players tend not to become top coaches. There may be some differences between these sports that we can’t capture here. Perhaps baseball and hockey teams are making a mistake by apparently requiring their head coaches to have played in the league. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that owners and team executives in the NBA and the NFL, who are overwhelmingly white, have either consciously or unconsciously devalued coaches who played professionally. And in some ways, this devaluation of NFL and NBA playing experience frees up owners and executives to hire other white men as coaches, particularly white men within their professional circles.
The devaluing of players as potential coaches plays out in another important way. Remember that the typical NFL head coach gets his first posting before turning 50. If you make it to the NFL, though, you are playing football when nonplayers have already started their coaching careers. If you are a good player, you might be playing into your 30s, when other people your age are becoming coordinators. By the time you retire from the game, you could be approaching 40 years old, and perhaps you have a family. If you were a fairly good player, you might also have enough money to not really need to work again — and you might not be interested in spending more time paying your dues by working your way up from the bottom of the coaching world.
Longtime veteran players can expedite the process some; Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel essentially took this route over the course of just seven seasons, and former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was in charge of a team within six years of retiring as an NFL QB. But as a counter-example, Lynn toiled as an assistant and coordinator for 17 seasons between retiring as a player at age 32 in 2000 and getting hired as the Chargers’ coach at age 48 in 2017. (McVay, who didn’t play in the pros, was already a head coach by the time he reached the age at which Lynn retired as a player!) Clearly, the league needs to do more to allow playing experience to apply towards a post-retirement career in coaching.
Diversifying the ranks of coaches is not going to be easy for the NFL. The coaching world is an unmeritocratic system, with a lot of advantages going to white people who are tied into that system. But the mostly white people who control that system have probably convinced themselves that it is a meritocracy.
The story with candidates like Bieniemy is probably a bit more complicated than the NFL simply being biased against black coaches. Bieniemy isn’t from a family plugged into the NFL, is an ex-player, became an NFL offensive coordinator when he was 48 and is now 50. We’re not sure if Bieniemy would be a great head coach — it’s virtually impossible to predict that. But race aside, he’s different from the kinds of people who currently get hired as NFL coaches — and one way for the NFL to diversify its coaches will be for it to diversify its criteria, allowing more people who don’t fit the traditional mold of a head coach to have a legitimate chance at the job. Those changes can’t just start at the top — they need to happen every step of the way.