When the Carolina Panthers reached an agreement with Frank Reich to become the head coach, thus replacing Steve Wilks as the interim, it continued a disturbing trend.
The last Black interim coach retained full-time with the same team was Romeo Crennel with Kansas City in 2011. Not 2020. Not 2015. But 2011. There have been seven other Black interims, including Wilks, during that time. Anthony Lynn was hired full-time after his one-game interim stint with the Bills in 2016, but with a different team, the Chargers.
This means that if you make an apples-to-apples comparison, it’s been 12 years since a Black interim coach was retained full-time. Even with Lynn, a slightly different situation, that’s seven years, still a lifetime in the NFL.
That piece of data, while nuanced, illustrates one of the biggest issues the NFL still faces when it comes to race and coaching: there remains a racial blockade for Black interim coaches. Black coaches can be temporary stewards, but don’t seem to be viewed by many owners and general managers as good enough to go beyond that.
NFL owner: Here are the keys to the franchise. Congratulations.
Black interim coach: Thank you!
NFL owner: Just make sure they’re in a place where we can find them after, say, Week 17.
Black coach: Oookay?
NFL owner: Actually, want me to hold those keys for you?
It’s also fair to note that many, if not all, interim coaches, have slim odds of being retained. But it’s particularly worse for Black coaches, despite them having won marginally more games since 2000 but are retained a slightly lower rate.
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Since 2000, there have been 41 interim coaching stints following a firing or resignation. Only 14 times did the interim lead their team to a record of .500 or better and, of those 14 coaches, nine were not retained.
Of the 41 interim coaching stints, 15 featured Black coaches and 26 featured white coaches. Black coaches went a combined 33-53 (.398). White coaches went a combined 57-119 (.331).
Reich guided the Colts to the playoffs twice and this isn’t really about him. He’s qualified for the job but the point is Wilks is, too. This would have been a good time to hire what looks like a talented coach, who took the orbital debris that was left of the pulverized and talent-derived franchise that traded its best player away in Christian McCaffrey, and take a shot.
And what we’ve seen in many cases is that teams don’t want to take that leap when the coach is Black.
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the Head Coach position by David Tepper,” attorneys John Elefterakis and Douglas H. Wigdor, who represent Wilks, said in a statement. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
The lawyers also represent Brian Flores, an assistant coach in Pittsburgh, who sued the NFL and accused it of racial discrimination regarding its hiring practices. Wilks later joined the lawsuit and alleged that after a 2018 stint as an interim head coach in Arizona he was a “bridge coach” and never had a serious chance of getting the job full-time.
When reporters asked Wilks about the suit, he responded, “I’m all about change. And I’ll leave it at that.”
Wilks did everything you’d want an interim to do. The locker room was a mess following Matt Rhule’s firing and Wilks was quickly seen by players as a solid leader. The fact he went 6-6 in the final 12 games is one of the true miracles from the year. Carolina was actually in the mix late in the season to win the division.
He also had the support of the players.
“If you ask anybody in this locker room,” said defensive lineman Derrick Brown, “we want Steve Wilks to be our next head coach.”
None of this is to say that Wilks is Don Shula. Wilks does, however, represent an historical disconnect, a racial one.
So, nice job Steve Wilks.
Story Credit: usatoday.com