The search is on for a new executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, and the prospects are seemingly not unlike hiring a head coach to inject renewed purpose for a team that finished 4-12.
John Wooten has retired as chairman of the FPA, the organization that pushes for minorities to get a fair shot at coaching and front office roles in the NFL, leaving with the stark reminder of all that needs to be done as the NFL prepares to celebrate its 100th season.
In 2019, not 1920, a minority was hired for just one of eight head coach openings. Over two years, it’s 2-for-15, with the Cardinals' Steve Wilks, the lone hire last year, already dumped – and replaced by Kliff Kingsbury, a purported offensive whiz kid who has never coached a down in the NFL and had a 35-40 record as a college coach.
So, here we go. NFL 100 is also the year that the league – with more than 70% of its players African-American – will have its fewest head coaches of color (four) since 2013.
Beyond that, going on Year 100, there’s never been an African-American team president in the NFL. And with Ozzie Newsome stepping aside with the Ravens, Chris Grier begins his promotion with the Dolphins as the NFL’s only minority general manager.
In 2019, not 1920.
The NFL should be embarrassed by these patterns, but you can’t blame Wooten. Nobody has applied heat on the NFL to live up to the spirit of the Rooney Rule like this man, who didn’t receive a salary as he worked it inside-out: connecting candidates with teams; pushing Roger Goodell, NFL officials and team owners; and publicly shaming one entity or another as warranted.
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Over the past few months, Wooten, 82, has been showered with respect. As a former player, agent, scout, team executive and league official, Wooten’s network is the serious truth. People may not have always done it as he would have – he was stunned that Jim Caldwell was passed over this year by teams looking for head coaches to connect with quarterbacks – but at least they listened.
Now what? By mid-June, the FPA hopes to name its next executive chief while current executive director Harry Carson becomes chairman.
“You can’t replace the irreplaceable,” Cyrus Mehri, counsel for the FPA, told USA TODAY.
Yet Mehri, who co-founded the FPA with the late Johnnie L. Cochran, knows: Wooten’s successor must come with the credibility of already having an established network that can tap NFL power-brokers. And there’s an obvious priority to develop more coaches with offensive backgrounds, especially given that so many NFL teams have been enamored in trying to find the next Sean McVay.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed out recently that as he rose through the ranks, he was advised to switch from coaching receivers to the defensive side – the path that Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis and Ray Rhodes took to head coaching jobs. Although new Dolphins coach Brian Flores, technically the Patriots linebackers coach, was effectively the defensive coordinator for a Super Bowl champion, he is an anomaly in more ways than one.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Tomlin told reporters during the NFL meetings last month. “It was a disappointing hiring cycle for someone who watches it like I do, knowing some of the deserving men that I thought should have gotten an opportunity that didn’t. But we’ll continue to work and fight for opportunity. I think that’s what the Rooney Rule speaks to – the quality within the opportunity.”
It’s one thing for Tomlin, the second African-American coach after Dungy to win a Super Bowl, to speak out on the issue. But in a recent interview with NFL Network, Saints coach Sean Payton underscored something else that needs to happen.
As Payton put it, the NFL’s “diversity problem” is “hitting us square in the face.”
It’s not often that white coaches express such passion, although Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians would be an exception. Then again, it’s fitting that the issue would resonate with Payton.
Who helped Payton land his first NFL job, on Rhodes’ staff with the Eagles in the 1990s? Wooten.
Now Payton is positioned to become more invested in a mission with a purpose that was always about transcending race. Here’s to hoping that more than a few will become similarly moved to take on the “diversity problem” as one of their own.
Arians has. In addition to continuing to break gender barriers with his hires, he’s the only coach in the league with African-American coordinators running his offense (Byron Leftwich) and defense (Todd Bowles).
Then there’s Bill Belichick. During the combine a few weeks ago, the Patriots coach didn’t show up to an FPA reception to receive an award, but he recorded a video acceptance speech in which he declared that he shares principles with the FPA, presumably when it comes to fair opportunities.
Although the six-time Super Bowl winner has hardly been a vocal advocate for minority hiring opportunities, he is viewed within FPA circles as a “sleeper supporter” due to his actions. Belichick has facilitated the type of entry-level opportunities in the scouting and coaching ranks that the FPA expresses as a key objective for stocking the pipeline.
Of course, the best example of this is Flores, whom Belichick gradually gave more layers of responsibility and then publicly praised as an emerging head coach candidate. You’d think that a public endorsement from the best coach in the NFL’s modern era has to go a long way toward breaking patterns.
Remember, Flores coached on defense.
And now it’s so intriguing that the only minority head coach hired this year was introduced by the NFL’s only minority GM.
“We didn’t look at it that way,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross told USA TODAY. “You look at each position and what it is. You’ve got to be color-blind in making these decisions.”
Color-blind. That’s quite the term for “post-racial America,” although it doesn’t explain how some people get opportunities that remain so elusive for others. When we celebrate NFL 100, two of the greatest coaches ever will be remembered for social statements – intended or not – that coincided with their winning on the field.
Paul Brown helped reintegrate pro football in 1946 by signing Bill Willis and Marion Motley. Bengals owner Mike Brown maintained to me a few years that his father – who had black players when he coached at Massillon (Ohio) Washington High, Ohio State and at the Great Lakes Naval Academy – wasn’t trying to make a social statement when he established the Browns with Willis and Motley on his squad. He just did as much when the vast majority of others wouldn’t. And he won — to the tune of seven championships in the All-America Football Conference and NFL.
Years later, 49ers icon Bill Walsh proudly stated his intentions when he diversified his staff with much more than a token minority assistant. That’s how Rhodes, Dennis Green, Ty Willingham, Sherman Lewis and others got their break in coaching. And Marvin Lewis was part of the Walsh fellowship program.
Wooten remembers the call from Walsh back in the 1980s, when he was a Cowboys scout.
“He said, ‘Woot, I’m just going to get one or two guys and train ‘em,’ “ Wooten told USA TODAY. “After a year, they’ll be able to go on my staff if there’s an opening, or wherever the openings are, they’re ready to go.’ “
See, there’s nothing wrong with “intending” to diversify. It’s just good business, anyway, to draw on the perspectives of those with different backgrounds and cultures. Walsh won three Super Bowls, too.
Mehri, who sees the post-Wooten era as “FPA, 2.0,” says the entry-level fellowships that the FPA is pushing for to stock the pipeline – offensive, defensive and scouting positions with each team – are patterned after Walsh’s model.
“This thing has a chance to make this whole league more relevant in this country,” Wooten added.
But it will have to come with team-by-team initiatives rather than a league-wide mandate, Mehri says, because, “teams don’t want this forced down their throat.”
Listen to Ross and that’s apparent.
“I don’t need to be persuaded to do something,” Ross said. “I’m always looking for the best person. I’m all for that, giving people opportunities.”
That’s the point. Now if only owners' actions can reflect that across the entire NFL.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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