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Column: How might we bring equity in coaching to football?

We’ve got some early wins to celebrate in 2021.

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

We saw history last Sunday in the Super Bowl. And I’m not talking about yet another discussion of Tom Brady’s ring count (talk to me when he matches Bill Russell’s total).

No, the Super Bowl was historic because of the Buccaneer’s coaching staff: three Black coordinators, a Black assistant head coach and two women coaches.

Why is the makeup of most NFL teams’ coaching staffs not similar - if not in representation to the league, but at least to the country as a whole? After all, 70% of NFL players are people of color (2019 season), and women still make up 50% of the population.

The reality is that, while we can celebrate coaching hires like Brian Flores with the Dolphins and Mike Tomlin with the Steelers, those hires are few and far between. That’s because many minority and women candidates don’t get the opportunity at the assistant level to ever have a shot at building an NFL head coach-caliber resume.

Let’s examine what’s happened in Jacksonville with the hiring of Urban Meyer, and Meyer’s addition of Chris Doyle to the staff as director of sports performance.

Chris Doyle...that name sounds familiar.

Until this season, Doyle was the longtime strength and conditioning coach for the Iowa football program, working in Iowa City from 1999-2020 under the tenure of Kirk Ferentz. Prior to his departure from the program last season - in light of accusations of racism and bullying from several former players (started by former Hawkeye James Daniels) - Doyle was one of the most renowned and highest-paid strength and conditioning coaches in college football.

Of his role in appointing Doyle, Meyer stated, as reported by ESPN, “I vet everyone on our staff, and like I said the relationship goes back close to 20 years and a lot of hard questions asked, a lot of vetting involved with all our staff. We did a very good job vetting that one.”

Doyle resigned from his role in Jacksonville in short order following swift backlash to his appointment, especially from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization which “exists to champion diversity in the National Football League.”

Sure. Perhaps Chris Doyle is a high-performer in his role as a strength and conditioning coach. However, people are held accountable for their holistic behavior in the workplace - including behaviors which negatively impact organizational culture.

The fact Meyer could consider sweeping aside accusations of racist behaviors from a tenured coach is something of a head scratcher, but it’s nothing new. The reality is the NFL and its surrounding ecosystem has been and continues to be something of an old boys club. There’s a reason coaching trees are often leading indicators of success, and it’s not often that someone who isn’t culled from a solid branch will have opportunity to be successful - and that includes women and people of color who aren’t able to get into lower level roles with chances to rise up within NFL organizations.

Let’s get back to Meyer. The former Ohio State coach literally hired a person with a history of alleged racist behaviors and player abuse because Meyer said that he’d known him for a long time. When the basis for hiring is the length and strength of relationship, there will never be an opportunity for up-and-comers to have a shot to get that critical experience at key assistant and coordinator roles.

This sort of hiring ignores the opportunities of a growth mindset. It means that coaches will be static, and that the only way to achieve success is, well, by already being successful. It means that hires are based on past performance rather than opportunity for growth. Sure, there’s got to be something in terms of baby steps - no one’s going to give a head coaching position to a grad assistant - but folks have to be given the opportunity to advance.

Folks often say that they hire the best person for the job. The reality is that, generally, by the time you get a set of candidates to a final interview, all are qualified, and it’s more a matter of fit - and often it’s candidates who don’t look like the interviewers who don’t “fit” (hello, systemic racism). Case in point: Institutions, including the NFL, which have implemented the Rooney Rule or similar have still failed to increase diversity among their leadership ranks.

For background, the Rooney Rule requires NFL teams with head coaching vacancies to interview at least one diverse candidate for the role. The rule ultimately expanded to the hiring of general managers, and has even been adopted by corporate America. Just last year, the rule broadened to include coordinator roles as well in the NFL.

The Rooney Rule is a good first step because it gets diverse candidates in the door. But what if - and this is crazy talk, here - you actually give someone an opportunity with an offer, and that someone could actually be better than the old boys’ club (!). What would the chance be for innovation in the NFL? Look what happened when Sean McVay - someone with just a decade of coaching experience - got the opportunity to be a head coach: The Rams made a Super Bowl. Look what happened when Bruce Arians hired a diverse staff around him: An ancient quarterback won a Super Bowl.

What if the Rooney Rule were to be expanded beyond just the most high-profile positions in the NFL? What if even open roles for position coaches and assistants had to include diverse candidates? I’d venture to guess that, in a decade or so, we’d see a lot of diverse up-and-coming coordinators with the resumes to support their hire at head coaching roles.

This idea expands outside the realm of coaching. Sarah Thomas earned her spot as an official in the Super Bowl - an honor reserved for the top officials from the regular season.

Of course, there are folks who will say “who cares?” when news about diverse hires gets brought up. But the reality is we’ve had 55 Super Bowls, and only just now in 2021 had one that included a female official. The Bucs’ coaching staff was possibly the most diverse we’ve ever seen in the NFL, and demonstrated that diverse staffs could bring championships. Ohio State won a football game with a Black head coach in 2020. You’ve got to recognize when glass ceilings get broken, and when diverse individuals have success, because it sends a very visible message that sports belong to everyone.