There have been several prolific Black head coaches in NFL history. However, the small and disproportionate number of Black coaches to Black players has concerned many people for several years.
The first Black head coach in the NFL, Fritz Pollard, was followed, after 67 years, by the great Art Shell. Current Black head coaches include Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith. The firing of Tony Dungy and Dennis Green led to the Rooney Rule to encourage racial diversity in hiring.
Given that 70% of the NFL players are Black, why is it that there are so few Black head coaches? Read on to find out about the illustrious careers of past and present Black coaches and more!
NFL’s Black Coaches: Past And Present
The National Football League (NFL), established in 1920, has had 511 head coaches to date. Of the people appointed as head coaches, only 4.7% or 24 of them have been Black.
First Black Coaches
The first Black head coach in NFL history was Fritz Pollard, appointed as co-coach by the Akron Pros in 1921. Coach Pollard played the game at the same time that he played for the Akron Pros as a running back. Pollard was at the time one of two Black players in the NFL.
However, he faced discrimination to the extent that he didn’t even change in the locker room but would get ready in his car or the back room of a nearby cigar store. Pollard lived his whole life without seeing another Black head coach appointed to the NFL.
In fact, three years after he died, the first subsequent Black head coach was appointed to the NFL. Art Shell was hired by the Las Vegas Raiders in 1988, over 65 years after the appointment of Pollard. This would open the gates for other Black coaches to be hired.
Unfortunately, those gates were not floodgates, and, despite a sport saturated with talented Black players, Black head coaches are few and far between these days.
Current Black Coaches
There are currently two Black coaches in NFL. The longest tenure of the two has been that of Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has an impressive 154-85-2 career record. Coach Tomlin holds the current record with 15 consecutive winning seasons.
Under his stewardship, the Pittsburgh Steelers have twice earned a spot in the Super Bowl and won once. Coach Tomlin has held his position as head coach of the Steelers since 2007.
The other Black coach to join the NFL as head coach is Lovie Smith, previously the head coach for the Chicago Bears and later the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In February 2022, Coach Smith was appointed as head coach of the Houston Texans.
Other Notable Black NFL Coaches In History
Tony Dungy, a head coach in the NFL since 1996, was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers until 2001 and the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts until 2008. He is truly prolific.
He led the Indiana Colts to victory at the Super Bowl in 2007, making him the first black coach in history to lead his team all the way to the top. Coach Dungy has a head coaching record of 148-79-0, and his teams have won the season games he coached at a rate of almost 70%.
Dennis Green was the first Black NFL head coach appointed since Art Shell, making him the third Black head coach to be appointed overall. He coached the Minnesota Vikings from 1992 to 2001. Despite never winning the Super Bowl, he changed the game for the better, introducing new tactics.
Why The Lack Of Black Head Coaches Is A Problem
The main issue is that in a sport with around 70% of the players being people of color, the lack of diversity in its coaching is disproportionate.
The Rooney Rule is an affirmative action measure that requires, in its current iteration, teams searching for candidates to interview at least two external minority candidates for head coaching opportunities. This is an initiative aimed at creating a new equilibrium in professional football.
This Rule was spearheaded in 2002 by Dan Rooney, who at the time was the Pittsburgh Steelers owner and the chairman of the league’s diversity committee. The firing of Tony Dungy and Dennis Green spurred on the need for hiring policy changes, as the league was left with only one Black head coach.
The Rule has been modified several times, the most recent modification being that each team must hire a diverse person as an offensive assistant. This includes a woman or a person of an ethnic or racial minority.
Criticism has been leveled at the Rule in that it does not go far enough to encourage a change in coaching demographics. For example, in 2012, no people of color were hired despite eight head coaching positions available. When the players are 70% Black, this makes little to no sense.
A class action lawsuit was filed by Brian Flores, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins. He avers that the NFL knowingly engages in discriminatory hiring practices and conducts sham interviews to seem in compliance with the Rooney Rule.
The NFL has no Black owners and only two minority owners, namely the Jaguars’ Shahid Khan and the Bills’ Kim Pegula, who is a co-owner with her husband, Terry. The league must then work overtime to ensure that Black candidates for head coach are not overlooked.
Lastly, studies have shown that Black assistant coaches in college football had less career satisfaction and were less likely to receive head coaching jobs than their white colleagues. In the NFL, it has been shown that generally, Black assistant coaches are equally qualified.
And yet, why are there so few Black coaches? Racial biases among decision-makers could very well be the reason.
Football is a mighty sport, and it deserves equally mighty head coaches at the helm. Considering that most NFL players are Black, it makes sense that Black head coaches should be appointed.
Black assistant coaches have been found to be equally competent, yet they haven’t been promoted at the same rate as their white counterparts. The small amount of Black coaches is a travesty of justice, and we need more than the Rooney Rule to correct the situation.