Black Coaches Are the Ghosts of the National Football League
You could hear it in Mike Tomlin's voice and tone. The 14-year veteran and the leagues most successful African American head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers was unamused, rightfully upset, hurt and angered by Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy not receiving a head coaching job and the overarching baffling statistics that show only three Black men currently hold head coaching jobs in the National Football League where Black players make up nearly 70 percent of the player population. Every year, there are many new openings, and surely enough, at every turn, quality black coaches are questioned, overlooked, and often avoided.
“Bieniemy is a real head-scratcher for me,” Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Every offensive coordinator Andy Reid has had in the last 20 years got a head job. One of those guys, Brad Childress, hired me in Minnesota in 2006. Now, Andy has the best offense he’s ever had and [Bieniemy] can’t get a job?”
Where are all the black coaches? They are being treated like ghosts.
When we think about ghosts in a fictional sense, we think of something people are afraid of and run away from — in the NFL's case — Black coaches are far too often avoided and hardly mentioned for prominent head coaching vacancies. Teams run away from the idea of a Black coach leading their organization.
While Tomlin's sentiments deserve applause, the NFL's questionable way of doing business may have even subconsciously affected the league's most successful African American head coach, who hasn't hired a Black American as one of his lead coordinators in his 14 years as head coach for the Steelers. Not only is that a gut punch, but Tomlin's reasoning didn't exactly add up either.
"I always do what is best for our organization," Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,". "I believe in hiring from within in most cases. … I'm highly sensitive to it, but I don't regret (not having a Black coordinator). I've had some good (Black) coaches leave for other jobs."
NFL Hall of Fame Tight-end and Fox Sports 1 host Shannon Sharpe swiftly responded to Tomlin's remarks on Twitter and in a lengthier segment on his show.
"Mike Tomlin is in position to hire black coordinators and he hasn't in 14 years, so I'm not going to let him throw stones at everyone else," he wrote on Twitter.
Whether Tomlin is being honest or not can be interpreted by the masses in any way each individual sees fit. Still, it leaves a fan of the game such as myself with a sense of hopelessness when one of the game's most powerful Black figures hasn't created high-level opportunities for African Americans in an industry that is already difficult enough for minorities to break into.
When taking a look at what's transpiring in Miami with the Dolphins, it shows that when minorities are given a fair opportunity, we can not only break down doors but succeed as well. The Dolphin's owner Stephen M. Ross hired a Black general manager, Chris Grier, who then hired Brian Flores, a Black head coach. Grier and Flores have elevated the Dolphins from a 5-11 disaster to 10-6 in a single season.
See where I'm going here?
Tomlin is a head coach, so he can't pick the team owner or dictate general manager jobs, but he has full autonomy of the Steelers coaching staff. It is puzzling not to see him create a pipeline for black coaches in a league that hasn't fully opened the floodgates. Last off-season, Tomlin interviewed Pep Hamilton, an African American candidate for an open offensive coordinator job with the Steelers; he ultimately promoted Matt Canada, a white candidate. So while Tomlin's sentiments about the lack of black coaches are real, his moves have raised eyebrows.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians deserves praise for hiring three black coordinators to lead his offense, defense and special teams. The Buccaneers would ultimately go on to win the Super Bowl this past season, and much of the credit isn't being shown to Byron Leftwich (offense), Todd Bowles (defense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams) — none of which were hired or even strongly considered for head coach vacancies this off-season.
So how do we tackle this issue at hand? The Rooney Rule is a policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. But the rule is flawed. African Americans are more often never hired — or end up in a situation like Vance Joseph with the Denver Broncos — a coach forced into a bad environment being met with unrealistic expectations with a dwindling roster before ultimately being fired after two seasons. The Rooney Rules ineffectiveness is no myth as the Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, has even urged a different approach last year that led to some changes to the formula, including more interviews for black coaches and executives during a teams interview process.
"Clearly, we are not where we want to be on this level," Goodell told reporters last January. "We have a lot of work that's gone into not only the Rooney Rule but our policies overall. It's clear we need to change and do something different.”
Just how long a new approach is developed that will allow more Black coaches to become head coaches remains to be seen. For now, it's been more of the same, and that is a sad reality. Like in old folk stories and Halloween tales where ghosts are depicted as spooky figures that you avoid and stay away from, Black coaches get the same treatment in the real world. Through sports debate shows and many football publications, you'll see hardly any real conversation about Black coaches and why they are disproportionately misrepresented.
It's almost like they are forbidden.
It's like they are ghosts.