Why the NFL’s Black Offensive Coaches Struggle to Achieve Head Coach Or Coordinator Positions

Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph after day 4 of training camp at the team's practice facility in Dove Valley July 30, 2017. (Photo by Steve Nehf, The Denver Post)
Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph after day 4 of training camp at the team’s practice facility in Dove Valley July 30, 2017. (Photo by Steve Nehf, The Denver Post)

The Denver Post spoke with 10 black coaches about the hiring process

It’s the Thursday morning before Super Bowl LI, where three days later New England will rally past Atlanta in the biggest comeback victory in Big Game history. Falcons running backs coach Bobby Turner sits at a round table, reading a newspaper, alone for most of the 45-minute media scrum. To his right, Raheem Morris, Atlanta’s assistant head coach/wide receivers coach, also sits largely uninterrupted.

On this February morning, there is one assistant coach soaking up the media’s attention: Kyle Shanahan, the latest to don the “offensive genius” label. Four days later, the 37-year-old Shanahan will be named San Francisco’s head coach. On this day, he’s surrounded by dozens of reporters questioning him about his next gig.

Three accomplished men, two black and one white, their careers paths juxtaposed. Turner is one of the NFL’s most respected assistant coaches, with a long track record of producing star running backs. Morris, a career defensive coach, brought his leadership and people skills to help a struggling Falcons offense reach its juggernaut status a year ago. But it was Shanahan who landed a six-year head coaching contract.

The scene encapsulates what irks so many black offensive assistant coaches in the NFL. Who decides which coach becomes the “it” guy, and why is it rarely us?

The Denver Post looked at NFL hirings over the past 10 years, and the data shows black offensive coaches face a significantly more difficult path to becoming a head coach than their black defensive colleagues and white offensive counterparts. The simplest explanation is that black offensive assistants may not fit the traditional benchmark NFL teams often have when hiring an offensive coordinator or head coach while “hot” candidates like Shanahan do.

“Everything is so fast-tracked now. That’s the frustrating thing — it’s a flash-advancement league,” said the Broncos’ Vance Joseph, the first noninterim black head coach in franchise history. Joseph built his résumé on defense, specifically the secondary. “Who’s the next hot coordinator? There are a lot of longtime minority assistants — guys who could be great head coaches, have put in the time and earned it — but they get looked over for the hot name, media-friendly guy.”

If you’re a young black assistant coach looking to someday become a coordinator or head coach, you stand a much better chance if you move to the defensive side of the ball. That’s because the most direct path to NFL advancement on offense is coaching quarterbacks, a position black assistants rarely get.

“When you look at an OC getting hired, you say, ‘What was his expertise?’ ” Turner said. “Some guys are being hired just because he was a quarterbacks coach and they want him to have a relationship with the QB.”

Some numbers:

  • 110 of the 147 offensive coordinator jobs (74.8 percent) filled since 2007, not counting coaches hired on an interim basis, went to a former NFL and/or college quarterbacks coach.
  • Of those 110 jobs, five went to black coaches (4.5 percent) and three of the five went to the same black coach, Hue Jackson, now Cleveland’s head coach.
  • Black coaches accounted for eight of the other 37 offensive coordinator jobs (21.6 percent) that went to coaches without a QBs coach background, showing they often have to take the long route to the top.
  • There are only two black QB coaches in the NFL: Byron Leftwich, who was hired by his former coach, Bruce Arians, with Arizona, and David Culley, who coached NFL wide receivers for more than 20 years but took the Buffalo quarterbacks coaching job in a late-career attempt to become a head coach. There were no black QBs coaches in the NFL a year ago.

The Denver Post spoke with 10 black coaches about the hiring process. All said they believe that NFL teams most often hire “white” when looking for offensive coordinators, while black coaches stand a much better chance of advancement on the defensive side of the ball, where they are often viewed more favorably than their white counterparts for their emotional leadership and ability to relate to players in a league where 70 percent of the players are black. (Several coaches requested anonymity to avoid a negative impact on possible future employment.)

“I had a white coach tell me once, ‘If you go to the defensive side of the ball, you’ll be a head coach quick,’ ” said Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. “You have it, but you have to go to defense. So, everybody knows.”

The Broncos’ and Chargers’ offseason hirings of Joseph and Lynn, respectively, gave each franchise its first noninterim black head coach. The NFL now has seven black head coaches, tied for the most in league history. Lynn was an assistant for 17 years, primarily a running backs coach, before getting his promotion.

Progress is apparent, but there are issues bubbling lower on the coaching totem pole.

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The Denver Post