Sometimes it seems that with black head coaches in the NFL, its one step forward
and two back. Before the season even ended, Dennis Green was fired by the Vikings.
Green had gotten the Vikings to the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons but was undone
this year by a combination of circumstances that were out of his control. RB Robert Smith,
a key element in the Vikings offense, retired in the offseason, and the Vikings
could not replace him. OT Korey Stringer died after a training-camp workout.
When Vikings owner Red McCombs extended Randy Moss contract and gave him a huge
signing bonus, Moss no longer had any incentive to play hard all the time. By Moss
own admission, he plays when he wants to, and thats torn the Vikings apart. But no
owner is going to admit he made a mistake, so Green has become the scapegoat.
For weeks, the feeling throughout the NFL had been that Tony Dungy was on thin ice at
Tampa Bay, and only a long run through the playoffs would have saved his job.
It will be interesting to see if Green and Dungy get a second chance. So far, the only
black coach who has gotten one has been Ray Rhodes, and his second chance didnt last
long. After just one season in Green Bay, Rhodes was fired.
Probably the best example of the different approach owners take to black coaches is Art
Shells situation. The first black coach in the NFL, with the then-Los Angeles
Raiders, Shell had four winning seasons in his five full seasons with the team. But since
he was fired after the 94 season, he hasnt had another chance, working
primarily as an OL coach. Another good OL coach, Joe Bugel (who is white), had a losing
record with Arizona but still got another chance at a head-coaching job with the Raiders.
After a 4-12 season, he was fired.
There are some encouraging signs, though, that we will soon see more of a breakthrough
for black head coaches. Traditionally, one of the paths to a head-coaching job has been
from the role of coordinator. For a long time, black coaches never even got that high, but
its happening now.
A candidate to become a head coach now seems to be Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator
of the Ravens. Herman Edwards went from assistant head coach/DB coach in Tampa Bay to head
coach of the Jets, and he got the Jets into the playoffs in his first season with them.
Two more assistants, both defensive coordinators, are strong candidates: Lovie Smith of
the Rams and Ted Cottrell of the Jets.
But Bill Walsh, who has been aiding the cause of black coaches for more than two
decades, thinks there still arent enough young black coaches in the pipeline.
"There are a bunch of young black assistants coming into the league who have
head-coaching potential," Walsh said. "I talked to Mike Shanahan at Denver, and
he has a couple on his staff. Karl Dorrell, who coaches wide receivers, and Bobby Turner,
the running backs coach, are both real possibilities. George Stewart on our 49ers staff
has the potential to be a head coach. You can see these young coaches on staffs throughout
"It takes time, though, for an assistant to get the experience he needs to cope
with all the aspects of a head-coaching job."
Right now, Walsh doesnt see many serious candidates, but he thinks NFL teams are
eager to hire black coaches, and that was not the case in the past. Tyrone Willingham, who
decided to go to Notre Dame from Stanford instead of moving up to the NFL, would have had
a great opportunity.
Said Walsh: "I talked to the league office, and they told me there were two clubs
(that) wanted Willingham. There would have been a bidding contest for him."
Jim Skipper, who was the assistant head coach for the Giants before leaving to coach
the XFLs San Francisco Demons last year, is a long shot, Walsh thinks.
"I dont think the NFL would hire a head coach directly from the XFL,"
Walsh said, "so hed probably have to come back to the NFL as an assistant. He
is an excellent coach, though. He did a fine job with the Demons."
Walsh has been pushing the cause for black coaches since he was a head coach at
Stanford in 1977 and 78; Green was on his staff then. With the 49ers, Walsh
established a program that brought in black former players at a low-level coaching
position, enabling them to sharpen their coaching skills.
One such player was Rhodes, who worked his way up to defensive coordinator for the
94 championship team in San Francisco before getting two chances as a head coach.
In the 90s, Walsh worked with the NFL office on a program to help black NFL
assistants prepare for being head coaches, including a video that instructed them on how
to present themselves in interviews. He also made a 90-minute talk to the collegiate Black
Coaches Association on the subject.
At the time, there was considerable resistance in the NFL to the idea of black head
coaches because owners and general managers, all of them white, worked off the "old
"I think were past that now," Walsh said. "Theres always
going to be some general managers who want to hire somebody they know because they played
with him or coached with him, and that eventually may work to the benefit of some black
candidates, as there are more and more black players. But mostly, teams just want to hire
a good coach."
Walsh also thinks that its possible there may be some black candidates coming
from the college ranks.
"A coach who does well with a non-football school has a good chance to jump to the
NFL," he said. "Denny Green had only one winning season at Stanford before he
was hired. Willingham is a good coach, but he wasnt exactly Terry Donahue (a Hall of
Fame coach at UCLA) at Stanford."
So maybe the NFL will soon be at a point where ability is judged ahead of skin color
for head coaches. Its past time.
Glenn Dickey is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and has covered pro
football since 1967. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org