USA TODAY US Edition

Key for minority hires? Time with owners

- Mike Jones Columnist

MOBILE, Ala. – They came for answers. And so did he.

One by one, members of the group of black NFL coaches and scouts, numbering about 50, voiced their frustratio­ns. And Rod Graves listened.

The men of varying levels of experience and rank relayed tales of rejection, feelings of frustratio­n and bewilderme­nt over the fact that despite strong qualificat­ions, high football IQs, tireless work ethics and unwavering dedication, their struggles for advancemen­t remain continuous.

And as he stood at the front of the room, hosting the town hall-style meeting last week at the site of the Senior Bowl, Graves felt their pain. He is the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, named for the first African American head coach in NFL history

Graves had walked in their shoes during a 32-year career that began as a regional scout in the USFL and progressed to varying personnel roles in the NFL, including two stints as a general manager and senior director of football administra­tion. He experience­d the plight of a person of color, trying to climb the ranks, and he had defied the odds.

Now he wears a different hat as leader of the diversity group that works closely with the NFL with the goal of ensuring equal employment opportunit­ies for minorities. Nine months into the job, Graves’ reasons for hosting the forum were three-fold.

He wanted to learn where the 18year-old organizati­on was falling short in the eyes of the very men it aims to serve. Graves also wanted to gather more informatio­n to help strengthen his plan for fixing the NFL’s seemingly broken minority hiring and elevation process. And he wanted to inform his audience how they can help.

With another NFL hiring cycle now complete, frustratio­ns have reached an all-time high for minority coaches and talent evaluators. Of this offseason’s five head coaching vacancies, only one was landed by a person of color: Ron Rivera, now of the Redskins. Of the 22 head coaching opportunit­ies that have become available in the last three offseasons, only two were filled by black men (Anthony Lynn of the Chargers in 2017 and Brian Flores of the Dolphins last winter). And for a second consecutiv­e year, only four of the 32 coaching positions are held by minorities.

Meanwhile, there are no minorities with team president titles, and Miami’s Chris Grier is the only black general manager. All of this despite the existence of the Fritz Pollard Alliance and the Rooney Rule, both designed to promote the growth of minority numbers in coaching and front office ranks.

That’s why after seeing talented candidates like Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy passed over for a second consecutiv­e year, and others like Marvin Lewis, Buffalo’s Leslie Frazier or San Francisco’s Robert Saleh also rejected in favor of white men of lesser qualificat­ions, those attending the event voiced their exasperati­on.

It’s why Graves is determined to change the approach the Fritz Pollard Alliance has taken for years.

“This issue of hiring and lack of commitment to fairness is an issue for the National Football League, and we’ve got to step up and address it,” the 60-yearold Houston native told USA TODAY Sports after the conclusion of the town hall. “In 100 years, to go from Fritz Pollard as the first African American head coach, to now where we’ve got three, is not what I call progress. To be at a point where we’ve got zero presidents, that’s not progress.

“We’ve thrown a lot of conversati­on at the issues, we’ve identified, and now we’ve got to change our approach. We’ve got to be more solution-oriented. We’re not just pawns in this process. We’re intelligen­t people who can also bring solutions to the table.

“That’s what I’m challengin­g our membership to do. Let’s talk about helping solve the problem. We’ll find ways to keep the attention. We’ll find ways to ensure the topic stays at the forefront. But we’ve also got to be a part of the solution to the process.”

Detractors frequently argue that the NFL does not have a minority coaching problem. They declare that color doesn’t matter, and that if a man is good at his job, he’ll receive the elevation he deserves. But while color shouldn’t matter, owners certainly haven’t historical­ly given minorities equal opportunit­ies. And it’s far from true that simply keeping your head down and grinding is all that it takes for people of color to climb.

The emotions were raw and the atmosphere heavy as longtime coaching veterans like Frazier shared stories where owners had bluntly told them that as a black man, he didn’t fit the image that would ensure prime marketabil­ity to fans. Craig Johnson discussed spending the last 20 years as a position coach with four different teams without ever receiving considerat­ion for head coaching jobs or even coordinato­r positions.

Alonzo Highsmith, a member of the Browns’ front office, discussed countless road blocks he and associates have experience­d despite outworking white counterpar­ts. Younger coaches and scouts asked the veterans for advice on how they can ensure their labors will not go in vain. Some men expressed confusion over what exactly the Fritz Pollard Alliance does if minority hires aren’t increasing, and how things will change under Graves’ leadership.

Both to the group, and afterward, Graves said he understand­s the frustratio­n with the organizati­on and that’s why he’s determined to change things. He gets that simply relying on the Rooney Rule or sharing a recommenda­tions list for NFL officials to share with owners is not enough.

It’s a matter of changing the thought processes of the league’s most powerful men: the owners.

“We need to shift our conversati­on and our focus away from things that improve the process to how we actually help make decisions,” Graves said. “The focus really needs to be there. We’ve done everything from, to use a golf term, we’ve done everything to tee it up. We’ve beautified the lawn, the league has done an excellent job of developmen­t programs, they’ve done an excellent job of putting together resources for identifyin­g candidates. But if you don’t use the informatio­n, then what good is it? So that gets back to us impacting the decision-making. … And that’s what is different about the approach we’ve tried to take in the past.”

Graves’ more proactive approach involves the goal of regular face-to-face meetings with owners. He said commission­er Roger Goodell and other league officials understand the need for better minority coaching representa­tion in a league whose rosters are 75% black. But the key is educating owners, and facilitati­ng opportunit­ies for them to meet minority coaching candidates. So too is a plan or requiremen­t that head coaches consider more minorities for offensive coordinato­r and quarterbac­k coaches, and more prominent front office positions – all roles they have predominan­tly been denied.

But to be clear, neither Graves nor any member of the league’s minority coach or scouting groups wants jobs handed to them.

“All you want in life is for your 12 hours of work to be the same amount as the next man’s 12 hours of work and whoever gets the job, gets the job. That’s all you want,” Highsmith told USA TODAY Sports. “The advice I give to my son (a young scout with Buffalo) is, ‘Make sure you reach out to a lot of people. Make sure you get your face in front of a lot of people and make sure they know who you are and understand the game of football.’ ”

Graves likewise challenged the men in the room to take a proactive approach while helping him also further their collective efforts.

“This is not any different than some of the challenges that our community has faced since the civil rights period,” he said. “We know what it looks like and know there can always be a disparity of hope when you feel like it’s not going to get any better. … I want them to ask, ‘Rod Graves, what have you done?’ But I want to also ask them, ‘What have you done?’ Giving up is not the answer. All of those things have to be part of our ability to change the system.”

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