Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Sep 2017

Black Head Coaches: Climbing a Slippery Mountain

Interesting feature in the Denver Post looking at the path that African-American coaches have to take to work their way up to coordinator jobs and then head coach positions. One problem is that offensive coordinators were almost always quarterback coaches first, and quarterback coaches are almost exclusively white. Most black head coaches have worked their way up on the defensive side of the ball; on the offensive side, they generally get running back and wide receiver position coach jobs that rarely lead to coordinator or head coaching jobs.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 12 Sep 2017

43 comments, Last at 18 Sep 2017, 8:50pm by drobviousso


by GwillyGecko :: Tue, 09/12/2017 - 11:00pm

prediction:some guy will claim tomlin isnt allowed to be criticized

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 1:51am

I would expect to see more and more black quarterback coaches going forward. Prior to 1995, the NFL barely ever gave blacks a shot at QB. As more blacks play QB in the NFL, more black former QB's will probably coach the position.

In 1995, Kordell Stewart and Steve McNair were drafted in the first 2 rounds, after only Randall Cunningham (1985) and Andre Ware (1990) being drafted in the top 2 rounds since 1980.

Then in 1996 - Tony Bank, 1998 - Charlie Batch, 1999 - Shaun King, Daunte Culpepper, Aklili Smith and Donovon McNabb.

And now we're at the point where it doesn't seem like black QB's are being downgraded in the draft at all.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:49am

It seems like Doug Williams is conspicuously absent from this discussion.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 2:12pm

He was a pioneer, for sure. But when he was playing, there was still a thought that blacks might not be able to play the QB position. For instance, Al Campanis' remarks came in 1987 - Doug Williams won his Super Bowl a few months later.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:57am

It definitely has stopped being brought up as an issue (Kaep's current situation aside).

From 2012-2015, one of the two starting QBs in the Super Bowl was an African-American (Kaep, Wilsonx2, Newton). I never really heard it mentioned as a story, which is good.

Sure, there may be some silent racial biases still at play, but in recent years we had two black QBs drafted #1 overall (Newton, Winston), another drafted #2 (RGIII), and quite a few others drafted high.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 9:06am

Jim Caldwell came up as an offensive coach.

He was a QB coach for Penn State of all places, who has had about the whitest QB legacy possible.

Hue Jackson, Anthony Lynn, and Denny Green were offensive coaches. If you go *way* back, so was Fritz Pollard.

This bit was interesting, though.
Twenty-eight of the 32 running backs coaches and 17 of the 32 wide receivers coaches are black. No other offensive assistant position (QBs, offensive linemen, tight ends) has more than six black coaches.
RBs and WRs are mostly black. QBs, OLs, and TEs are mostly white. The article doesn't comment on this at all, but I'm guessing DB and DL coaches are mostly black. That the article is silent about it suggests they are. Kicking coaches? Going to guess white. What trend exists seems to be that coaches mostly come up in positions where they coach players of their own race. I'm curious whether that's a conscious or an unconscious decision, or just sequelae of coaches coaching what they played.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 2:14pm

I think it's a matter of men eventually coaching the positions they played.

Are most OLs white?

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 4:35pm


It's close to parity for guards and tackles. Centers and long-snappers are overwhelmingly white. It's still a white majority, and if you go back 20 years, to when coaches were playing, it was likely overwhelmingly white.

QBs and TEs are mostly white. RBs, WRs, and DBs are almost always black.In 2014, there were zero white corners. DL is black. LBs are mostly black, but it's closer.

So what do we take from this?

OLs, TEs, QBs, and kickers are white.
RBs, WRs, DLs, and DBs are black.
More offensive players are white than defensive players. More defensive players are black than offensive players.

Yet we're shock (shocked!) that most black coordinators are on the defensive side and most white coordinators are on the offensive side. Even though that mostly corresponds to where they played, and likely has some correlation to where players of their race play.

Why do coaches from the offensive side become HCs? It's an offensive game.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:00pm

Are there currently any white CB's? Have there been any white CB's since Jason Sehorn? (I can't think of any at the moment. I'm sure I'm missing somebody obvious.)

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 2:19am

If there aren't (m)any white DBs/WRs, it's for the same underlying reason that there weren't black QBs for many years. Coaches at high schools don't give them the opportunity so there are fewer getting college scholarships and therefore fewer available to the NFL.

There's a term for all this "Stacking". Traditionally white people were given the important jobs up the spine of the team - QB, C, MLB with blacks being pushed to the peripherals. If you look at soccer in the 70s, it was the same with goal-keeper, central defense, midfield and striker being white and black players were put on the wing.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 8:35am

It's important to remember how northern the NFL was almost up until the merger. By 1960, more seasons of football had been played in the Philadelphia city limits than had been played below the Mason-Dixon Line. There had been more seasons of Ohio teams not named the Bengals or Browns.

D.C. is as southern as a franchise got until 1966-1967, when Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans joined*.

There were western teams (various teams in StL, LA, Dallas, as well as KC and SF), but really no southern teams. Given that the northeast and midwest were pretty solidly white until the late Depression -- Detroit was 90% white in 1940, and was a white-majority as late as 1970 -- it shouldn't be surprising that most football players were white until pretty recently. Unlike baseball and even hockey, it pretty much required college. It was overwhelming played by northern and midwest teams, and was played in college by northern and midwest schools. And in the two-way era (up until the 1950s), Cs and MLBs were often the same guy.

* - mostly. Not counting western teams, geographically, Portsmouth was farther south than DC.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:58am

“Being a defensive coach is not considered a thinking man’s job,”

What an absurd comment. For every Ryan or Phillips, there's a Dungy or a Belichick or a LeBeau.

And even with the Phillipses, I'm thinking more Bum than Wade.

by JimZipCode :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 9:23am

Great piece. Important topic.

by drobviousso :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 12:04pm

Did... Did this article just lead with an anecdote about how hard it is for a black coach to get promoted to HC using Raheem Morris as an exemplar?? Also, I am old enough to remember that black men couldn't be quarterbacks because they weren't the kind of leaders white men were. Now its an insult for a black man to be a good leader? Seems like an idea that deserves more unpacking.

This is an important and potentially very interesting topic. Lots of issues to explore, and Aaron Brooks Go brings up a few. But this is not a well thought out article.

Lastly, this line really stuck in my craw. "Who decides which coach becomes the “it” guy, and why is it rarely us?." I assume the author is black. Was assistant coach at some point? Did he get passed over for promotions? Or is this just sloppy writing?

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 12:37pm

I'm sure I'm forgetting someone, but the only recent African American hot coach prospect that I've seen not get a job is Terryl Austin.

I definitely think in recent years it's become better. Might be more interesting to track how many African Americans there are at the coordinator level, as that is the general stepping stone (the article may have done this - admittedly I have not yet read it).

by stieny :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 1:30pm

So in a country that is 12.6% black, 21.8% of the NFL head coaches are black? And this is somehow proof that the discrimination of the previous generation is still with us? It may be but it is certainly not shown with this statistic.

by Arkaein :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 1:41pm

When, something like 70% of NFL players are black, and over half of NCAA D1 football players are black, it's pretty disingenuous to look at the entire US population when evaluating the pool of potential coaches.

Now lots of NFL coaches probably didn't even play at a D1 level, but you'd think that the coaches would be a little more representative of the people who actually play the game.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 2:23pm

Just because blacks do a better job of getting playing jobs in the NFL, does not necessarily mean that they are going to be the most qualified for coaching in the NFL. The skillsets are different. You will notice that very few great players in the NFL become great head coaches.

I once had a discussion trying to figure out who was the best combination of player/coach in any pro sport. Possible answers might be Mike Ditka, Pete Rose or Lenny Wilkens.

So I think the correct percentage of black NFL head coaches (and really should include assistants) should probably be higher than the 12% general population, but lower than the 70% NFL player population.

by ChrisS :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 4:02pm

I think the reason the greatest players are not coaches is because they have achieved success in the sport of their choice whereas the highly competitive but less athletic participants in the sport see coaching as their path to glory (or at least a paycheck).

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 4:28pm

To be good at playing sport, you need to be instinctive and turn off the analytical mind. Coaching is almost exactly the opposite where analysis, planning and strategy are more important. It's a rare person who is able to do both. Most people have a dominant mode - see Andy Reid and Mike McCarthy for examples of not being able to do both!

Can't remember what I was reading recently but I'm also reminded of a quote along the lines of "Terrible baseball players make the best coaches because, unlike a great hitter, they don't try to get you to hit the way they did.". Good coaches can adapt to teach skills in many different ways, a lot of great players get frustrated when others can't do what they found came to them naturally and easily.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:03pm

I think for a lot of great players they probably can't even explain how they do what they do. It's just instinct. Then mix in the part about dedication. I remember when Magic Johnson tried to coach, and he couldn't handle the players who were more interested in checking their pagers (LOL) than working on their game.

Most great players are fanatics about preparation, so that can't really be taught either.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:02pm

Yeah, I think that's part of it. The great players made a lot of money, and usually have had enough of the game. There have been great players who tried to coach but were not successful.

by Steve in WI :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 2:11pm

I think that it's a huge part of the discussion, at least going back to however long it's been that being a great NFL player meant generational wealth or something approximating it.

Coaching is a high-stress job with very long hours. That doesn't mean that there aren't people who love it (I mean, surely Belichick can afford to retire and could have afforded to retire 10 years ago for that matter), but if you're a player who has just retired with at least an eight-figure net worth, after going through the physical and mental demands of playing the game, it's not hard to see why being a head coach isn't the most attractive prospect in the world for a lot of guys.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 4:36pm

Dick LeBeau.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:05pm

I don't know how good of a player he was (only 3 Pro Bowls). But as a head coach, he was a disaster 12-33 (.267).

by ssereb :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 11:14pm

Bill Russell. He won two titles as a player-coach of the Celtics (and the first black head coach in NBA history), but he also took the Sonics to the playoffs a couple times before a disastrous stint with the Kings.

by Richie :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 7:11pm

Yeah, but how good of a coach was Bill Russell when he didn't have Bill Russell playing center for him?

by ssereb :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 11:57pm

Five seasons, .464 win percentage, two playoff appearances with one series victory, one other .500-ish season. None of his teams were especially talented. The best player he coached was probably...Spencer Haywood? Reggie Theus? But if we're valuing playing achievements equally with coaching achievements when combining the two, that Celtics career looms large.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 2:11am

For what it's worth Tom Landry was All-Pro in 1955.

In the old days, players didn't make enough money to set them up for life and sports were less strategic/tactical than they've become. It was just line up and try to beat the other guy. That favoured players becoming coaches even if they turned out to be terrible at it.

But a great player usually plays until they're 35. That's 10-15 years of experience that they've lost to a Belichick who got his first job with the Colts straight out of college and spent his childhood following his dad around practices. (Of course that didn't help Mike and Dave Shula as much).

by Richie :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 7:15pm

That's a great point that I hadn't considered before.

Many great players are too old to be a head coach by the time they've had enough assistant coaching experience to get a shot.

Mike Singletary was 50 when he first got a shot with San Francisco. I assume most of the good coaches were closer to 40 when they get their first head job, so owners are probably more reluctant to even give a 50-year-old his first HC job.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 6:20am

Franz Beckenbauer? Josep Guardiola? Actually I think the real answer is probably Johan Cruyff.

As a side note, I find it interesting that neither unquestioned leading active NFL coach nor the arguable leading active soccer coach (Mourinho) played professionally, but both their fathers did.

by stieny :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 2:41pm

Now lots of NFL coaches probably didn't even play at a D1 level, but you'd think that the coaches would be a little more representative of the people who actually play the game.

Why? If I love the sport but run a 6.0s 40 (my actual time my junior year in high school) maybe I'll study strategy more and do less physical training (I got faster when I grew but no-one ever called me fast regardless of how much I trained). The study of strategy would qualify me better as a coach than speed or strength. So the pool should be people who love and study the sport, not people who played at an elite level. There's some overlap for sure, but it's not the same population.

So maybe the population is "people who played in high school" as an indication of their interest in the sport. Which is probably much closer to the demographics of the population as a whole, but I don't have the stats to be sure.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 1:48pm

As the commenter below mentioned, it shouldn't be compared to the population as a whole. In reality it should be compared to the pool of qualified coaches - which is somewhere in between the country and the % of NFL players.

I honestly think judging the process is more important here than the outcome (% of NFL Coaches that are black). Have any had their progress blocked due to discrimination? Are they passed over for clearly inferior candidates?

I wouldn't want the NFL to meet some quota, but it's worth evaluating given how many coaching hires, white or black, do poorly as it is.

by Richie :: Wed, 09/13/2017 - 2:26pm

"Have any had their progress blocked due to discrimination? Are they passed over for clearly inferior candidates?"

I think the problem is more likely to lie at the lower level. NFL coaches are generally hired from amongst the assistant coach ranks. It's easy to see if assistant coaches are getting passed over. But it's much harder to identify if any blacks are getting passed over for entry-level assistant coaching positions.

by Alexander :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 2:03am

Q: What defines the pool of qualified head coaches?

A: Its arbitrary, but it is mainly defined by the pool of College Head Coaches and Top Pro Assistants. Call this pool 1.

Q: What defines the pool of qualified people in pool 1?

A: Again arbitrary, but most likely lower tier assistants. This is pool 2.

Q: What defines the people qualified to be in pool 2?

A: A combination of intelligence and passion for football. Since intelligence is a bell curve, the number of people in pool 2 should roughly resemble the demographics of football viewers and/or high school football participants. Luckily for us, both basically resemble the entire US population.

by Richie :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 1:18pm

For your pool 2, I think former players probably get a better opportunity for spots there. So I think the demographics of college and pro football should be weighted a little heavier.

by Alexander :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 7:45pm

Well of course. Former athletes have connections which give them a leg up on getting entry level positions. This explains how black head coaches actually outperform the % of blacks in the total population. The fact that ex-players get these opportunities does not mean they deserve them. I think the easiest place to see this is in the sports-radio and announcing business. For every Charles Barkley and Chris Collinsworth (who are great) there are a dozen Reggie Miller/Warren Sapp/Ray Lewis/Phil Simms/etcs who are terrible but still have jobs over guys putting in good work at low-tier radio/tv jobs because they happened to be 6'2" and able to run fast.

by meblackstone :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 12:02pm

I find this article juxtaposed with ones on the lack of female NFL coaches comical.

Same agenda making the opposite arguments.

by drobviousso :: Thu, 09/14/2017 - 5:30pm

What does juxtaposed mean in your universe?

by LionInAZ :: Fri, 09/15/2017 - 10:20pm

You'd have to check the Denver Post, where the article was originally posted, to understand, I guess.
Not that it really matters, unless one thinks neither issue is important.

by meblackstone :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 11:30am

Placed side by side for contrast.

Since to a large extent it is the same people making the arguments.

1. There aren't enough black coaches because the % of black coaches is lower than the % of black coaches.
2. There should be more female coaches because playing and coaching are different skillsets, and women are more than capable of excelling at the mental and technique part, even if on average size and strength are lower.

Personally, I agree with the second argument more. Coaching well also requires a learning curve, so players becoming GAs instead of going pro are more likely to fill the ranks. Walk-ons too.

by drobviousso :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 8:50pm

I looked and couldn't find a single article by that paper or by that author that make the argument that there should be more female couches. Oh, I see, you mean placed side by side with strawmen. That makes sense.

by drillz :: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 7:48pm

Great article, enlightening not surprising