March 7, 2021

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Opinion: Historic presence of Black coordinators at Super Bowl 55 is bittersweet against backdrop of NFL hiring patterns

5 min read

TAMPA, Fla. — There’s history in the mix for Super Bowl 55 that surely fuels some pride as a sign of progress. For the first time, both offenses  — ignited by star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes — will be coordinated by Black men as Eric Bieniemy roams the sideline for the Kansas City Chiefs and Byron Leftwich calls the plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Same for the Bucs defense and special teams, with Todd Bowles and Keith Armstrong, respectively, leading the units.

Yet given the sorry track record of NFL teams for hiring minorities as head coaches, the progress is in some respects bittersweet.

 “It’s heart-breaking that not one of these guys got a commitment to be a head coach,” John Wooten, former chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told USA TODAY Sports during a phone interview.

Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich talks with QB Tom Brady during a timeout in December in a game at Atlanta.

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As has been the case for weeks, months and years across the NFL landscape, the question of equal opportunity is one of prevailing subplots during the build-up to Super Bowl 55. Sure, Brady’s quest for another ring, the Chiefs’ mission to repeat and the NFL’s ability to pull off a complete season despite the COVID-19 pandemic are hot topics. But the league should be ashamed that the buzz about hiring practices is on the same stage.

You’d hope it’s not a distraction for the participants. Bieniemy, who again this week reminded people that he didn’t ask to be the face of the issue, repeated the theme that he’s focused on helping the Chiefs win another Lombardi Trophy. But the topic won’t go away. Especially when Bieniemy, with fingerprints on such a prolific offense, keeps getting turned down for head coaching jobs. While he must be doing something right to help the Chiefs get back to the Super Bowl, he was shut out again for the third consecutive year after interviewing for six of the seven vacancies during the most recent hiring cycle.

 “Look at his body of work,” Dennis Thurman, a former NFL defensive coordinator now on Deion Sanders’ new staff at Jackson State, told USA TODAY Sports of Bieniemy’s saga. “Then look at some of the guys who got hired. It’s very difficult for a lot of us to stomach.”

Count Chiefs coach Andy Reid and some of his most accomplished players in that number. While Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce responded passionately this week in vouching for Bieniemy’s impact as a leader and detail-oriented strategist, Reid revealed that the Eagles, who hired Nick Sirianni to replace Doug Pederson, never formally requested to interview Bieniemy despite reports to the contrary. Reid spoke to high-level executives for several teams, pushing for Bieniemy. After the Super Bowl, he expects to follow up.

“I’ll be curious to hear their comments about how he did or why he wasn’t picked,” Reid said.

Meanwhile, Bucs coach Bruce Arians expressed frustration that Leftwich didn’t land a single interview. Bowles interviewed with one team, the Eagles.

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy

Bowles, like his Chiefs counterpart, Steve Spagnuolo, has had a crack at a head coaching job. He was 24-40 in four seasons with the Jets (2015-18), fired after three consecutive last-place finishes. Since then, there’s been only scant mention of him as a head coach candidate, but with the success of his unit helping the Bucs advance to the Super Bowl, he could re-emerge as a candidate.

Regardless, Bowles’ poignant comments recently to NBC Sports’ Peter King captured some of the frustration Black coaches endure in an environment that includes suspicions that a fair number of interviews are less-than-legitimate as teams work to comply with the Rooney Rule requiring them to interview at least two minority candidates for such vacancies.

“For me and Eric, it’s two good coaches,” Bowles said. “Whenever people on the outside — ownership, media, anyone else — when they start saying ‘coaches’ rather than ‘Black coaches,’ then things will start to get better. … In other professions, you don’t say, ‘Black fight attendant,’ you say, ‘flight attendant.’ The fact that we keep referring to Black coaches to begin with means there’s a big problem with everything.”

The problem is underscored by the results. During the past four hiring cycles, five minorities were hired for 27 head coach vacancies. Beyond the numbers, it’s the resumes, as minorities with stronger credentials are routinely passed over. Will Brandon Staley, hired as the new Chargers coach after just one season as the Rams defensive coordinator, sizzle with the same results Sean McVay has produced? It’s the type of opportunity for someone with a limited track record that is rarely granted to minorities.

“I agree 100% with Todd,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley told USA TODAY Sports. “I’d love for it not to be about ‘minority coaches’ because we have enough of us representing in a manner that reflects our abilities. It’s unfortunate that until it gets to that point, we’ve got to continually keep it in the forefront of people’s minds.”

In November, Locksley founded the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches, which aims to prepare and promote opportunities for coaches on the college and NFL level. Locksley, previously offensive coordinator for a national championship team under Nick Saban at Alabama, will tell you there is little difference between the college and NFL levels when it comes to perceptions of equal opportunities. Yet one reason he was inspired to form an organization with a mission similar to that of the Fritz Pollard Alliance is he recognizes his journey represents an aberration. He landed at Maryland despite going 2-26 in his first head coaching job at New Mexico, only to find a career revival at Alabama.

Locksley says he’s “beyond the give-a-crap stage,” which was his way of declaring that he won’t apologize for campaigning for opportunities to advance for the coordinators in the Super Bowl and other potential head coaches.

“They’re not hiring people now,” he said. “They’re electing people.”

The campaigning hasn’t worked for Bieniemy. Then again, you’d just hope his work would speak for itself. As in keep hope alive. 

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