A True Football Pioneer

By Tony McClean
Updated: February 5, 2005

NEW HAVEN, Ct — Today, we take a look back at a man who was a true football pioneer that made the coaching careers of Tony Dungy, Dennis Green, and others all possible. Fritz Pollard was born on January 27, 1894.

He was the first African-American coach in the National Football League.

Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard grew up in Chicago. By the time he graduated from high school, he was a talented baseball player, running back and a three-time Cook County track champion.

He briefly played football for Northwestern, Harvard and Dartmouth before receiving a scholarship from the Rockefeller family to attend Brown University in 1915.

It was here where Pollard led his squad to a 1916 Rose Bowl game. He was the first African-American to play in the Rose Bowl, and the second to be named an All-American in college football.

Newspaper headlines of the day celebrated Pollard and the legendary Jim Thorpe as the greatest backs of the era. Yet today, Thorpe is a national icon and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Pollard is largely unknown.

After leaving Brown, Pollard briefly pursued a degree in dentistry, worked as director of an army YMCA, and coached football at Lincoln University. He signed to play for the Akron Pros in the American Professional Football League (APFA).

Pollard led Akron to a championship in 1920, was named head coach in 1921 and continued to play for the Pros as well. The APFA was renamed the NFL in 1922, making Pollard the first African-American coach in NFL history. Pollard coached Akron until 1926, and went on to coach NFL teams in Indiana and Milwaukee.

In 1928, Pollard and Dr. Albert C. Johnson organized the Chicago Black Hawks, an all-black professional team based in the Windy City, to demonstrate that black and whites could compete without racial incident.

The Black Hawks played against white teams around Chicago, but enjoyed their greatest success by scheduling exhibition games against West Coast teams (white) during the winter months.

The Black Hawks were made up of players from black and white colleges, some non-collegians, and NFL veterans Jay Mayo “Ink” Williams, Sol Butler, Duke Slater, and Pollard, himself.

From 1929 until 1932 when the Depression caused the team to fold, the Black Hawks had become one of the more popular teams on the West Coast.

Pollard retired from football in 1937 to pursue a career in business, remaining the only Black to have coached in the NFL until Art Shell was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 1989.

Since then, other African-Americans such as Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Lovie Smith (Bears), Herman Edwards (Chiefs), and Mike Tomlin (Steelers) have become successful NFL head coaches.

Pollard’s name is still present in today’s football era. The Fritz Pollard Alliance is working to promote coaching and executive opportunities for minorities in the NFL. They’ve served as a watchdog to see that minorities are given a fair shake in the hiring process.

Over the years, the organization has hosted seminars for 50 potential assistant coaches, mostly minorities, in which interview techniques and how to be a good coach were discussed.

Recently, the Alliance held seminars with a focus on potential minority executives.

It’s important that the name Fritz Pollard and his legacy aren’t forgotten

NOTE: The African-American Alliance contributed to this story.