USA TODAY US Edition
Today’s NFL would disappoint Walsh
What would Bill Walsh think? Sure, it’s a loaded question, but I had to ask Harry Edwards, anyway, when considering the disturbing patterns in the NFL regarding head coaching and other high-level positions. Edwards, the renowned sociologist and civil rights activist who worked alongside the legendary 49ers coach in the 1980s, barely let me finish the question.
“I think Bill would be very saddened by the whole situation,” Edwards told USA TODAY Sports as he prepared for another Super Bowl trip as a 49ers consultant. “He would not be simply wringing his hands but trying to see how this would turn around and advance.”
With the 49ers headed to Miami for Super Bowl LIV, it’s apropos to acknowledge what the legendary coach meant to the franchise’s winning tradition and the NFL. The late Walsh, recently named as one of the 10 coaches for the league’s 100th anniversary team, was the creative innovator who built his West Coast offense around Joe Montana and won three Super Bowls.
Yet among many veteran African Americans in NFL circles, Walsh is also revered as a champion of opportunity. He used his power for a greater cause. At a time when most teams had, if any, only a token minority assistant coach – and before Art Shell became the first African American head coach in the modern era in 1989 – the 49ers won those Super Bowls with the NFL’s most diverse coaching staff.
It was not a token gesture, as roughly half of Walsh’s coaching staff included African Americans, which coincided with a minority internship program he established that became the model for a leaguewide program. You’ve probably heard of some of the minority coaches that Walsh provided opportunities for – including Dennis Green, Ty Willingham,
Ray Rhodes, Marvin Lewis and Herm Edwards – because they ultimately became head coaches.
Walsh, whose coaching tree also included Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike Holmgren and Brian Billick, was intentional and unapologetic about opening the doors for minorities.
“Just like Jackie Robinson was good business, it was good football. Good business,” Edwards said. “This was not just bleeding-heart liberalism. He wanted the best combination of people because he wanted the very best culture.”
Edwards outlined various ways that he felt the ultra-diverse staff bolstered the 49ers’ culture, mentioning team chemistry, cultural and social support, the application of organizational principles and aspirational goals for players to pursue the coaching ranks.
“The No. 1 reason, though, was that it gave us a better chance to win,” Edwards said. “You get the best people and get the best out of them.”
Today’s NFL could certainly use the type of progressive thinking that Walsh employed. During the past three hiring cycles, coaches of color landed just three head coaching jobs of 20 vacancies. There is just one African American GM and zero team presidents among 32 teams. Yet the bleak numbers only begin to explain the issues and frustrations among minority coaches and others seeking leadership positions.
On the coaching front, concerns are escalating that rampant nepotism has become another barrier for entry-level jobs. The “prototype” candidate? That tag – often applied to assistants attached to quarterbacks – doesn’t typically apply to minorities, though some of the league’s most successful coaches had no such offensive background. Play-calling responsibilities, or lack thereof, ranks as an inconsistent factor. Perhaps most egregiously, seemingly qualified minority candidates who have paid dues and developed rich resumes are often passed over for those with significantly less impressive experience.
Sure, the NFL has its “Rooney Rule,” which mandates teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies. Yet it is apparent the spirit of the rule isn’t always applied.
All of which leads to suggestions – in a league where more than 70% of the players are African American and coaching staffs are twice the size that they were a generation ago – of a distinct bias against promoting minorities to the highest levels of leadership.
It’s no wonder that Rod Graves, who recently succeeded John Wooten as executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA), issued a scathing rebuke of NFL hiring practices. Graves, whose background includes eight years as Cardinals GM, called the challenge “a battle for social justice.”
Graves wrote in a statement released this month: “Attaining diverse leadership in the NFL can only happen through the willful actions of the Team Owners and decision-makers. True devotion to diversity starts with a recognition of the profound good that it can bring to the Game. It embraces a belief that the benefactors who contribute to the business of football should also share in the benefits. It embraces a core belief that the Game should be accessible at every level for those that possess the skills and who have the resources to meet their aspirations.”
That sounds a lot like what Edwards said in describing Walsh’s philosophies as a power-broker. Edwards pointed to Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians – flanked by African American coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles (a former head coach) – as an example of what he once discussed with Walsh: an emphasis on minority coordinators.
Yet even top-performing minority coordinators – such as two preparing teams for Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy and San Francisco’s Robert Saleh – are being passed over.
“What is obvious is that blacks are being systematically shut off from these leadership positions,” Edwards said. “(Colin) Kaepernick is not by himself, on the outside looking in.”
What would Walsh think? He would be alarmed and extremely disappointed that the opportunities for minority coaches hasn’t kept pace with a changed environment. Walsh, who died in 2007, would be hurt for the NFL itself, and for the coaching profession. I know this because that’s what Walsh told me when we collaborated for his guest column, which appeared in USA TODAY in 1997 – a year when there were 11 head coaching vacancies in the NFL and just one minority, Chiefs legend Emmitt Thomas, was called for an interview.
“Why is this important?” Walsh said to USA TODAY in 1997. “I believe coaching, in a sense, represents the participants. The racial-ethnic balance in football has turned over very rapidly in recent years, as has the interest and the involvement of so many men for the coaching profession. But we’re not seeing the upward mobility that we should be seeing.”
It’s 2020. Walsh’s themes still apply – but unfortunately, in more ways than one.