Race Again Is Factor In NFL

By Kevin B. Blackistone
Updated: January 19, 2006

DALLAS — Romeo Crennel got his first NFL head coaching job last February. Eric Mangini got his first NFL head coaching job Tuesday.

Crennel had just capped his 35th season in coaching, including nearly a quarter of a century in the NFL. Mangini turned 35 Thursday and just completed his 11th season coaching in the league.

Crennel had just won a third Super Bowl ring in four years with Bill Belichick’s Patriots as the defensive coordinator, a title he held previously in Cleveland, too. Mangini just watched his 11th season as an NFL assistant – his first as a coordinator – wind down in the divisional playoffs, where the defense he oversaw for Belichick’s defending champions gave up 27 points at Denver in a loss.

Crennel is black; Mangini is white.

There was a lot of backslapping going on around the NFL this season about the strides the league made in its ongoing struggle to provide coaching aspirants of color a fair shot. Crennel was one of six black head coaches this season.

But improved numbers alone are not evidence that the NFL has become a meritocracy when it comes to front-office hiring. Its culture has not yet changed.

Not when it takes an infinitely more experienced and successful Crennel nearly a lifetime to become a head coach while a Mangini, Crennel’s understudy, can become a field general as a relative neophyte.

Not when Mike McCarthy, the mastermind behind a horrific 49ers offense who previously was the genius behind a similarly horrendous Saints offense, gets picked to be Green Bay’s head coach over candidates such as Bears assistant Ron Rivera, who just coordinated one of the most dominant defenses an NFL season has witnessed.

Not when the runner-up to the Jets’ opening that Mangini won was Mike Tice, dismissed at season’s end as a near joke of a sideline strategist for the Vikings.

“If anybody thinks this thing has changed, they need to deal with it day to day,” said John Wooten, the ’60s era lineman who chairs the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group of minority coaches and executives in the NFL working with clubs to open the hiring process. (Pollard became the first black pro football head coach in the ’20s and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame last year.)

If white coaches were looked at as black coaches are, the Cowboys’ Sean Payton would have had a hard time getting hired by the Saints after all that marred Tice’s tenure in the Twin Cities. But white coaches are judged individually, as all should be, and not collectively, as are black coaches.

To be sure, how many times in recent weeks have you heard it suggested that more black head coaching aspirants should win head jobs this off-season because of the success this season of Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis and Lovie Smith? Have you ever heard it suggested that white coaches shouldn’t be hired because of the lack of success of Norv Turner or Dom Capers or Jim Haslett?

And even though we’re supposed to be entering an off-season in which the unfairness of being judged collectively is supposed to work in favor of black head coaching aspirants, it hasn’t.

There have been 10 head coaching vacancies. There have been five hires. One went to a black man, Herm Edwards, who left the Jets after five seasons, three in which he guided them to the playoffs.

That Edwards got retreaded was a breakthrough of sorts. Second chances don’t seem to be extended often to black coaches. Dennis Green and Dungy are so good, they couldn’t be denied. But Ray Rhodes got one season in Green Bay after four in Philadelphia. Art Shell is still waiting for another shot despite a winning record and three playoff berths leading the Raiders for six seasons.

It takes the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires franchises to interview candidates of color for openings, to ensure, if only falsely, that white candidates aren’t the only candidates who get a look-see.

The NFL hasn’t progressed anywhere near as much as the NBA, where race doesn’t stand out anymore in front offices. Perhaps the NFL is a little further along than baseball.

Time will tell if the World Series success of the White Sox, led by black general manager Kenny Williams and skippered by Venezuelan Ozzie Guillen, will translate into more opportunities for black and Latin front-office hopefuls there. So far, it hasn’t.

But even though the coach of the year battle came down to Smith and Dungy, black head coaching hopefuls in the NFL are still waiting, even as the league hired its youngest coach since the early ’60s.