There are only Two Black NFL head coaches. Where are the rest?

black NFL head coaches

Five of the seven black NFL head coaches were fired on December 31st.  The firings mean there are now only two Black head coaches in the NFL: Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn and Steelers longtime head coach Mike Tomlin.

Of the last 13 coaching hires in the NFL over two seasons, the only minority hire has been Steve Wilks — and he was fired by the Arizona Cardinals after just one year.

Where have all the black coaches gone?

To the unemployment line, at least in the NFL. Five of the eight coaches fired over — and since — the last season were black, and so far none of them has been rehired as head coaches in the league.

The data in the chart above, collected by  The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), shows that while 70% of NFL players are black, only 9% of managers in the league office are (that’s vs. 13% of Americans overall). And as for team CEOs or presidents—the ones chiefly responsible for deciding what to do about kneeling—it’s exactly 0%.

You might think that the proportion of African-Americans among NFL staff has been rising over time. It hasn’t. In fact, it was at a much higher 14% way back in 1996, according to TIDES.

The news Wednesday that the Denver Broncos were hiring Vic Fangio as head coach and the New York Jets were going with Adam Gase as their new coach means six of the eight teams looking for new coaches have found their man.

Mike Tomlin

And so far none of the new hires have been minorities.

That’s not a new problem in the NFL, of course. It’s also one the league has addressed with the Rooney Rule that ensures minority candidates are interviewed for any head coaching openings and other front office positions.

The rule was a step forward, and for a long time it seemed to be working. To make sure, the NFL just last month announced changes to strengthen it.

The changes were hailed as a breakthrough at the time by former Giants linebacker Harry Carson, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in NFL coaching and executive ranks. They came after a season in which seven coaches were replaced — and only one of the replacements was black.

“After last season’s hiring cycle, something had to be done,” Carson said. “These enhancements should strengthen the rule and ensure that it applies as intended and truly gives candidates of color a fair chance.”

So far, not so good. Teams may be interviewing minority candidates but, lately at least, they’re not hiring them.

And if last year was a step back from true diversity, this year has started off even worse.

Of the last 13 coaching hires in the NFL over two seasons, the only minority hire has been Steve Wilks — and he was fired by the Arizona Cardinals after just one year.

Anthony Lynn

“I liked it better when there was eight and not just two,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida. “But I do think there is a cyclical nature to this and that may be part of it.”

Lapchick, who authors annual reports on the level of diversity in all the major professional leagues, said the NFL experienced a similar dip in the hiring of black coaches after the 2011 season into 2014. Then the hiring picked up again to the point in the last two years when there were eight coaches of color — including Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic.

He’s hoping that this dip may also be short-lived, while others believe promising black coaches may get more opportunities if the Rooney Rule was expanded to include coordinator positions, too.

“Am I concerned there are (two) coaches of color?” Lapchick asked. “Of course, and if I hadn’t just gone through it in my head looking at 2011 and the three years after that I would have been deeply discouraged by what I saw at the end of this season.”

Just why the number of minorities is down depends on who you’re talking to, though it’s certainly not for a lack of qualified candidates. There are black coaches on the staffs of almost every NFL team that potentially could run teams just as well as any of the coaches hired so far this postseason

It doesn’t help that a few of the more recent hires are head scratching choices, at least to those outside the organizations.

Arizona reached into the college ranks to tab Kliff Kingsbury, as its new head coach. That by itself was unusual since Kingsbury had a losing record at Texas Tech and has never coached in the NFL.

And Tampa Bay hired former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who is coming out of a one-year retirement at the age of 66 to take the Bucs job.

Ultimately, of course, teams are free to hire the person they believe will lead them to the Super Bowl. And, remember, it wasn’t until 1989 when the Raiders hired Art Shell that the NFL had a black coach at all.

Still, one black coach of the last 13 is a troubling trend in a league dominated by black players. Cyclical or not, that’s not the number envisioned by the NFL when the Rooney Rule was put in 16 years ago.

Diversity is one of the NFL’s strengths, and one of the big reasons it is the most popular sport in America.

Right now, there’s not nearly enough of it at the head coach level.

Black NFL head coaches fired

Hue Jackson Steve Wilks Marvin Lewis Vance Joseph Todd Bowles

Nicholas Norman is the founder of Distinct Athlete and one of the preeminent figures in the digital sports industry. Using his extensive background in sports media, he has built Distinct Athlete into one of the largest, most successful independently-owned sports blogs in the country. Nicholas Norman has worked in sports media for over 8 years, beginning with his time as a student at Troy University. His background includes six years working at the Forward Times Newspaper. Nicholas Norman founded DistinctAthlete.com in Jan. 2012.