Culley’s firing is ominous for Black NFL coaches

As I write this, there is just one Black NFL head coach. One.

And that single Black head coach in a 32-team league — Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin — has never had a losing season in his 15 years at the helm.

This is the standard to which Black coaches are held. An almost impossible one. 

The Houston Texans fired David Culley on Thursday, after just one season in the job and three days after putting him through the dog-and-pony show of sitting before media on Monday and talking as if he were getting a Year 2. 

Culley was never going to get a Year 2, not if you read the writing on the wall. There was a report last year, before the ink had even dried on Culley’s contract with the Texans, that he was merely keeping the seat warm until career journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, whose entire coaching resume reads “high school assistant,” took the gig after being fast-tracked through the process of getting experience.

Imagine. Culley was 66 years old when he got his first shot to be an NFL head coach. He endured untold bigotry as Vanderbilt’s first Black quarterback, had spent his entire adult life coaching, including over 25 years as an NFL assistant. And before he’d even put up a family picture in his new office, there was an idea he shouldn’t get too comfortable because team brass may have already picked his successor.

Beyond that, he was handed a terrible roster, didn’t have Houston’s young star quarterback, and somehow got a team pretty much everyone thought would be 0-17 to four wins, one of them over the No. 1 seed in the AFC and another over a team that was in the playoff mix until the last second of the last game of the regular season.

We can argue whether Culley should have even taken the job, given the clown show the Texans have been since Cal McNair became controlling team owner and installed Jack Easterby, a power-hungry zealot who has not one day’s experience as a football coach, talent evaluator or salary cap guru, as someone of great influence within the organization.

But for better ownership or for worse — and these days it seems like there’s a lot more of the latter — there are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs. If you get a chance at one, you almost have to take it. Can’t blame Culley for that.

A Black NFL head coach like David Culley has to move mountains to get the same treatment as white coaches. And even then, it's too often not enough. (Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)A Black NFL head coach like David Culley has to move mountains to get the same treatment as white coaches. And even then, it's too often not enough. (Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

A Black NFL head coach like David Culley has to move mountains to get the same treatment as white coaches. And even then, it’s too often not enough. (Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

On Monday, the Miami Dolphins fired Brian Flores after his second straight winning season, the first time in almost 20 years that team had been over .500 in consecutive years.  

Flores’ situation is frustratingly familiar, reminiscent of Jim Caldwell, who had made the perpetually pitiful Detroit Lions a competitive, winning team only to be fired because he wasn’t successful enough. Caldwell’s replacement went 13-29-1.

They are just two of the men who hammer home the point that there really is no getting ahead for Black coaches. Like my grandfather, who wasn’t allowed to sell the cars at the dealership, only to clean and detail them, these coaches are often handed a mop and bucket for the biggest messes. Clean it up, is the directive. Against the odds, when they start to get things tidied, they’re gone. Modest success isn’t enough success. 

The past few years offer little hope that Black coaches will ever gain any ground. Not just because they have to be damn near perfect to get a job in the first place and a big winner off the bat or they’ll be gone, but because over the past five hiring cycles a full three-quarters of the 40 head coaches hired were from offensive backgrounds.

Of the 33 offensive coordinators this season (the Dolphins had co-coordinators), just five weren’t white. There were four Black quarterbacks coaches, the position that generally gets promoted to coordinator. 

Those are not numbers that inspire confidence there’s a change coming.

For all of the interviews NFL vice president Troy Vincent does saying the league knows there’s a problem when it comes to the dearth of non-white coaches, he works for the team owners, as do commissioner Roger Goodell and everyone else in the league office.

It is clear those NFL franchise owners are in favor of Black men doing one thing: battering their brains and bodies as players, for their own entertainment and their own bank accounts. Until, that is, players retire and want what’s due to them. Then club owners get their lawyers and doctors to use a vile practice called race-norming to tell them that their Black brains weren’t as good as the brains of white players anyway, so they shouldn’t get any or certainly not as much money to help them live out their lives as comfortably as possible.

Year after year, their actions show that playing football is all most of them think Black men are capable of. It’s no different than the not-too-distant past when general managers and coaches did not believe Black men could be quarterbacks under the racist guise that they were neither smart enough nor good enough leaders. Many of those men have sons and sons-in-law and nephews in front offices and on staffs now.

Do not tell me it should be about hiring the best person for the job. Do not tell me that unless you believe that of the 122 head coaches who have been hired since 2003, only 19 non-white men represented the “best person for the job.”

Do not tell me that team owners should be colorblind because there is years and years of evidence that they are not. They see Black coaches and they keep looking. 

Eric Bieniemy is experienced, successful, has guided the best young quarterback in the league and has the full-throated endorsement of the highly respected head coach he works with. He has interviewed 13 times over the last several years. There has never been one real reason given why he hasn’t been hired.  

The audacity of painting “END RACISM” in stadium end zones when you have had to codify diversity into your interviewing practices. The gall to play the stirring African-American spiritual “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” when so many continue to just check a box, sitting down with a couple of non-white coaches a year to fulfill the letter of the Rooney Rule when you have no interest in its spirit. And now they don’t even have to spring for airfare and a hotel suite to grudgingly fulfill the obligation; it’s free via Zoom. 

Yearly lists of qualified non-white candidates. Near-annual tweaking of the Rooney Rule. “Enticements” to get teams to promote and develop coaches and front office executives of color. 

A farce, all of it. For a league allegedly driven by optics, franchise owners do not care that a growing number of people see just how bigoted and behind the times they are. That in a brutal sport where roughly 70 percent of the players are Black, just one head coach is.

It’s a common adage among Black folk: We have to work twice as hard to get half as far. 

Unless you’re Black and an NFL coach. Then it doesn’t matter how hard you work. 

You really won’t get anywhere.

Leave a Reply