Just Win, Baby: The Unheralded Fact of Black NFL Coaching Success

By Conaway B. Haskins III
Updated: December 9, 2004

Green Dungy Edwards

Lewis Smith Robiskie

RICHMOND, Va. — As we the 2004 NFL season comes to a close, it would be wise for the sports world to reflect on the status of black coaches at football’s highest level.

Given the recent controversies in the college game that have raised the ire of black coaches and their allies, we should all take a step back and examine an interesting fact of NFL coaching life – the clear success of black coaches in terms of wins and losses.

Art Shell made history in 1989 when Al Davis promoted him to head coach after his long tenure as a player and coach with the team. Shell was followed into the NFL by Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards, Marvin Lewis and, the newest member of the coaching fraternity, Lovie Smith.

Let us not forget current Browns coach, Terry Robiskie, he being the man who’s been asked to finish out the seasons of two different fired coaches. In my mind, Ray Rhodes should receive special recognition as the first black man to be hired for a head coaching spot after being fired from one, thus starting a black coach reemployment trend that has extended to Tony Dungy and Dennis Green.

Aside from their membership in the black race, one other important fact unites them all. As a group, these men have won a higher percentage of their games than the NFL average coach, typically a white coach.

According to the latest data, there have been 255 men who have coached NFL-level teams. This includes the AFL, which merged with the NFL in the 1970 after serving as a rival to the league for players and media attention.

Of course, there were many coaches who worked in the league before 1950, but the most accurate statistics cover the last 50 years. Overall, the NFL’s coaches have achieved an overall record of 10,456-10,207-348 in regular season games, and a 390-390 playoff record.

Out of those 255, only eight African Americans (3.1% of the total) have risen through the ranks to reach the head coach spot.

Entering Week 14’s games, the NFL’s black coaches have achieved an overall regular season record of 331-255-1 (56.4%). Over a combined total of 40 full seasons, they have guided their teams to 21 playoff appearances in 32 full seasons, for a 12-21 record or 36.4%.

Despite these not-so-great post-season win totals, black coaches have appeared in 5 conference championship games since 1989, coming close to Super Bowl berths on several occasions.

In comparison, the 246 White men who have coached NFL teams are 10,028-9, 865-346. This pans out to a regular season winning percentage of 49.5%.

White coaches do fare better in the playoffs with a combined 371-367 record (50.3%), which is logically in line with the average playoff performance since there is a 1 to 1 win-loss ratio.

Essentially, this indicates that, on balance, a white coach has only a 50-50 shot at having a winning record. But, a Black coach is more likely than not to win more games than he loses.

It is not my intent to demonstrate that black men are better coaches than white men, but the evidence does show that the ability of African-American to win in the NFL is clear.

Despite this, only 12 teams in history have given a black man a chance to be their head coach, and only 10 have actually hired black men as head coaches (Robiskie was twice brought on as an assistant and promoted in-season). If Vince Lombardi was right about winning being the only thing that matters, then NFL teams should open up the flood gates to welcome black coaching talent.

On the contrary, the league has had to institute a policy that essentially forces NFL teams who are looking for new coaches to pay lip service, at a minimum, to black candidates. While this action does have some residual benefits in terms of raising the profile of selected black prospects league-wide and giving them the opportunity to gain key interview experience, it hasn’t yet produced a flood of hires, say, on par with the NBA.

In my mind, and according to their data, no one can really make any other argument for why there aren’t more black coaches in the NFL other than to site the lingering effects of historical discrimination and the continuing presence of institutional racism with the NFL’s team executive suites.

Given that the NCAA is down to 2 black coaches, bringing candidates up through that pipeline is probably not a great option. Plus, given the recent history of coaches who tried to make the transition from the college game to the pro ranks (e.g. Steve Spurrier, Butch Davis, etc.), this is probably not a bad thing.

While Paul Tagliabue and the NFL’s executive team must be commended for taking progressive steps toward opening up opportunity for black coaches through its Minority Coaching Fellowship and other efforts, the leagues’ team owners should be continuously taken to task for not sealing the deal with hiring black coaches.

After all, if the worst thing that can happen is that the brother turns out to be average, the records show that it’s not so bad after all.