The discussion of race in leadership positions, particularly in America with its unique history, is a thorny and complex subject not just in football, but in any business. We are thrust headfirst into the midst of that conversation every January and February when typically between five and 10 teams oust their head coach and search for another—and usually all but one or two, if any, are white.
Nobody knows this better than Pittsburgh Steelers senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin, who has been interviewed for vacant head coaching positions 11 times over the course of his lengthy coaching career. He believes he has been close at times—runner-up to another Black coach, Anthony Lynn, for the Los Angeles Chargers job, for instance—but it’s an experience he values in part because he believes it has taught him how to identify the sincere interviews from the token ones carried out merely to satisfy the Rooney Rule—the sham interview.
“Because I think I’ve had 11, I can tell when one was just an (expletive) interview and I could tell when I was really in it”, he told Will Graves of the Associated Press, in comments originally made in October which he told the reporter he stands by today. “And so to me, that’s kind of worth it”.
This is the hot topic burning up the league right now as the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams prepare to face off in the Super Bowl next week, after former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the league and three teams: The Dolphins, the New York Giants, and the Denver Broncos.
One of his charges is that interviews for head coach, general manager, and coordinator roles are often carried out without serious intent, which violates at least the spirit of the Rooney Rule. He has alleged that he has gone on interviews in which the team in question already made up its mind on who would be hired. Austin’s agent insists this happened to his own client at least once, with the Detroit Lions, when they hired Matt Patricia.
One of the biggest issues that many observers see right now is that NFL decision-makers are seeking young offensive gurus—but there just aren’t many Black coaches in the pipeline on the offensive side of the ball.
“It’s like, ‘We’re going to go this way now?’”, Austin told Graves about the recent trend, which highlights the two head coaches in the Super Bowl this year, the Rams’ Sean McVay and one of his former assistants, Zac Taylor, now helming the Bengals. “So what’s that do? That cuts out a lot of guys who have worked their way up and become coordinators, because most of the (Black) coordinators for us have been on defense, not on offense”.
He added that “There is no pipeline” for Black head coaches on the offensive side. “You know, you can count on your hand how many Black quarterback coaches, how many offensive coordinators, how many offensive line coaches in this league are people of color”.
There are only two Black offensive coordinators in the NFL, those being Byron Leftwich and Eric Bieniemy, names you well know by now. Earlier, it was believed that Leftwich would land the job with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that job was just filled. There are indications that Leftwich may have pulled out over disagreements with the front office structure, though we don’t know details.