By TOM SHANAHAN
Expect reporters to encircle Eric Bieniemy this week at Super Bowl LIV. The Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator can trust media sessions to include queries on NFL owners and general managers overlooking him as a black candidate for five vacant head coaching positions.
This may sound like news, but it’s nothing new.
Twenty-two years ago at Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego, Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, who is black, was cornered in the stands at Qualcomm Stadium’s closed end. In both cases, Bienemy and Lewis were dubiously discredited as candidates for not calling plays, even though their respective head coach, Kansas City’s Andy Reid and Green Bay’s Mike Holmgren, endorsed them.
I was among the media asking Lewis that distant afternoon for his thoughts. Their circumstances are so alike that Bieniemy can recite Lewis’ words as rejoinders in my San Diego Union-Tribune
story on Jan. 21, 1988.
Lewis’ comments are still relevant.
“That’s just another excuse,” Lewis said that distant afternoon. “When (San Francisco’s) Bill Walsh was the coach, Sam Wyche didn’t call plays, Paul Hackett didn’t call the plays and Denny Green didn’t call the plays. What’s more important than calling plays in the game is the game plan.”
With only three black head coaches entering the 2020 off-season, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Lewis joined Walsh’s staff in 1983 and was around assistants Wyche, Hackett and Green before they moved on.
Wyche, a 49ers assistant from 1979 to 1982, was named Indiana University’s head coach in 1983 and then the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach (1984-91).
Hackett, a 49ers assistant from 1983-85, was named the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh (1989-92) and again at USC (1998-2000).
Green, a 49ers assistant in 1979 and 1986-89, was the head coach at Northwestern (1981-85), Stanford (1989-91), the Minnesota Vikings (1992-2001) and Arizona Cardinals (2004-06).
Lewis collected three Super Bowl rings in San Francisco during his time that included working with Holmgren on the 49ers’ staff. When Holmgren was named Green Bay’s head coach, he brought Lewis along as his OC. Holmgren and Lewis added another ring together in the 1996 season with their Super Bowl XXXI win over New England.
“I put the game plan on the board Tuesday and in practice Wednesday I run it,” Lewis said of his Green Bay OC duties. “There are games when I call plays. Mike will say, ‘I’m not doing a good job; you take over.’ I might not call a play for three or four games, and then I might for a half. All someone has to do is call Coach Holmgren and ask, ‘What does Sherman do?’ ”
As Lewis spoke on a 60-degree afternoon in the open air of San Diego’s stadium, he expressed frustration but also remained hopeful.
“Maybe I’ll get a call on Monday,” he said looking ahead to the day after the Super Bowl.
The Dallas Cowboys did call about their vacant job – sort of.
“I was coming in for an interview that I thought was undercover and all of the sudden these television camera lights flashed on me,” Lewis said. “There were TV cameras everywhere. Everyone knew I was coming in. I think the interview was just for show.”
That quote was taken from “Raye of Light,” my book with Jimmy Raye, Michigan State’s pioneering black quarterback and assistant coach at the college and NFL levels. The book details Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams leading the integration of college football.
In Chapter 22, “The Cursory Head Coach Interview,” Lewis and Raye discussed their disappointment that they never were given a chance as a head coach in college or the NFL. In the same chapter, Tyrone Willingham, whom Raye and Lewis coached at Michigan State, says they were better coaches than him, and he is embarrassed he was a head coach (at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington) without them receiving an opportunity.
For the 1998 NFL season, the Cowboys hired Chan Gailey. He had been the offensive coordinator the previous two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-97) as well as with Denver Broncos (1989-90).
Of the other three other NFL jobs filled to start 1998, one went to rookie, Jon Gruden, and two to recycled names, Wade Phillips and Jim Mora.
The Buffalo Bills promoted Phillips from defensive coordinator when Marv Levy retired. Phillips had previously been head coach of the Denver Broncos (1993-94) before he was fired.
The Indianapolis Colts hired Mora, who had been a head coach of the New Orleans Saints (1986-96). Footnote: Raye believes the only legitimate head coach interview he had was with the Saints in 1986 when the job went to Mora. Raye says he accepted the explanation from then-New Orleans general manager Jim Finks. Finks told Raye Mora could bring with him his staff that won the 1985 USFL title with the Baltimore Stars.
The Oakland Raiders hired the rookie, 35-year-old Gruden, who had been the Philadelphia Eagles’ OC (1995-97). Gruden had previously served as the Packers’ wide receiver coach (1993-94) while under Holmgren and Lewis.
The “show” for Lewis and and those of others black candidates led to the NFL’s Rooney Rule and the formation of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (Pollard was the first NFL head coach, 1920-21, with the Akron Pros) to promote black coaching opportunities.
There initially was improvement, but entering 2020 there are only four NFL minority coaches, three black and one Hispanic. The black coaches are Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers; Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers; and Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins. Ron Riverera, the Washington Redskins, is Hispanic.
Eventually, though, the Rooney Rule became merely a box to check for owners and general managers without legitimately considering a black candidate. Bieniemy, who has applied for seven head coach positions the past two years, is the latest victim.
In Lewis’ Green Bay years with Holmgren (1992-99), Gruden was one of six white Packers assistants to leapfrog him to a head coach appointment. Ray Rhodes, who is black, also coached alongside Lewis with the Packers, but he had defensive coordinator credentials when the Eagles hired him (1995-98). Rhodes brought Gruden with him to Philadelphia.
The other five coaches:
— Steve Mariucci was named the 49ers’ head coach (1997-2002). He had been the Packers’ quarterbacks coach (1992-95) and Cal’s head coach in 1996.
— The Chiefs’ Reid, who also is from Holmgren’s coaching tree, was named the Eagles’ head coach (1999-2012). Reid had been a Green Bay offensive assistant (1992-94), offensive line/tight ends coach (1995-96) and quarterbacks/assistant head coach (1997-98).
— Dick Jauron landed the Chicago Bears job (1999-2003). He had been the Packers’ defensive backs coach (1986-94) and moved to the Jacksonville Jaguars as their defensive coordinator (1995-98).
— Mike Sherman was hired as the Packers head coach in 2000 through 2004. He had been the Packers’ tight ends coach (1997-98) and the Seattle Seahawks’ OC in 1999. Sherman replaced Rhodes, who was hired as the head coach in 1999 but fired at the end of the season. Lewis was Rhodes’ OC, so after Rhodes’ dismissal Lewis moved on as to Minnesota as the Vikings’ OC.
— Marty Mornhinweg was picked as the Detroit Lions’ boss (2001-02). He had been a Packers’ offensive line assistant and quality control coach (1995) and quarterbacks coach (1996) before a four-year stint as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator (1997-2000) under Mariucci.
Lewis’ 1998 disappointment followed no interviews for 11 vacant jobs entering the 1997 season, even though he was coming off a Super Bowl title and Super Bowl coordinators are usually the hot prospects.
“I think I’ve served a hell of an apprenticeship,” Lewis said 22 years ago in San Diego. “I’ve worked in great organizations, and I’ve worked on both sides of the ball.”
* * *
Oddly enough, 10 years before Lewis was cornered at Qualcomm Stadium, Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams sat in the same section of seats. Williams was engulfed by reporters with him on the verge of becoming the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, beating Denver, 42-10. Williams sat relaxed, leaning back in his seat. He was well down the an expanding road of black quarterbacks proving they belonged.
Lewis, though, sat upright, befitting his honest nature, knowing his road still needed to be cleared.
“I guess we’ve overcome that,” said Lewis in 1998, referring to Williams and black quarterbacks. “Ten years ago, there probably weren’t many black coordinators.”
He was right. Pioneering Michigan State quarterback and college and NFL assistant Jimmy Raye was one of the NFL’s first black coordinators when Los Angeles Rams head coach John Robinson hired him as his OC in 1983.
Lewis witnessed other barriers more readily knocked down that door to a black head coach.
In 1963, Lewis finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting just two years after Syracuse halfback Ernie Davis was the first black Heisman winner, receiving congratulations in New York from President John F. Kennedy.
Pioneering Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty recruited Lewis to Underground Railroad teams out of Louisville, Ky., in the 1960s. In 1969, Daugherty brought Lewis back to campus as an assistant coach at a time when there were few black assistants in college for pro football. Daugherty added Raye of Fayettevile, N.C, as an assistant in 1972.
When Raye moved onto the NFL with the 49ers in 1977 under head coach Ken Meyer, he was one of only eight black assistants in the league.
In future years both Lewis and Raye were passed over vacant head coaching jobs, including at their alma mater.
In 1980, Michigan State hired 57-year-old Muddy Waters of small college Saginaw Valley State over Lewis, who had been on the MSU staff since the 1969 season under Daugherty, Denny Stoz and Darryl Rogers. Waters was fired after the 1982 season and Lewis left for the 49ers’ opportunity.
“The Michigan State job would have been the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Lewis says in “Raye of Light.” “I love that place so much. I felt I could have recruited, hired a great staff and done the job. I’ve always thought it was a great institution with great facilities. It’s the most beautiful campus in the country. They just needed to recruit better. I felt we could be playing for national titles again.”
After Waters was fired, George Perles was the head coach until he was dismissed after the 1994 season. Lewis and Raye both had what they considered “show” interviews with then-school president Peter McPherson. The job that went to Nick Saban.
Bieniemy, 50, is in his second year as the Chiefs’ OC. Reid brought the former NFL running back to KC after he had spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Colorado. Reid hired him as a running backs coach (2013-17) before he promoted in 2018 to OC.
Matt Nagy (2016-17) and Doug Pederson (2013-15), both white, had preceded Bieniemy as KC offensive coordinators. They both moved on to head coaching jobs with similar or less experience than Bieniemy compiled on his resume for 2020 interviews.
Nagy was hired by the Bears in 2018 after two seasons as Reid’s OC. He was the Chiefs’ quarterbacks coach three seasons before Reid promoted him to OC.
Pederson was hired as the Eagles’ head coach in 2016 after three seasons as Reid’s OC. He had been the quarterbacks coach under Reid in Philadelphia before Reid brought him to Kansas City as his OC (2013-15).
Neither Nagy nor Pederson helped the Chiefs reach a Super Bowl. Historically a Super Bowl berth burnishes an assistant’s candidacy, but the Chiefs reaching their 50th Super Bowl hasn’t helped Bieniemy. Unlike pass cycles, all five new head coaches were in place before the Super Bowl bids were claimed by the Chiefs and 49ers.
Of the five new 2020 NFL coaches, two are recycled, two are rookies and one comes from the college ranks.
— Dallas hired veteran Mike McCarthy, who won Super Bowl XLV as Green Bay’s head coach (2006-18).
— The Washington Redskins hired veteran Ron Rievera, who had taken the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl 50 as their head coach (2011-19).
— The New York Giants hired Joe Judge, 38, as a rookie head coach. He hasn’t been a coordinator at any level. He was the New England Patriots’ special teams assistant (2012-14), special teams coordinator (2015-18) and special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach (2019).
— The Carolina Panthers picked Matt Rhule, 44, who had turned around college programs at Baylor (2017-19) and Temple (2013-16). His only NFL experience was a Giants assistant offensive line coach (2012).
— The Cleveland Browns were the last team fill their vacancy, naming Kevin Stefanski, 37, on Jan. 13. He spent one full season as the Minnesota Vikings’ OC in 2019 after assuming an interim OC role in 2018. He had been with the organization since 2006 in less roles.
This is not to say the five coaches that landed jobs weren’t worthy candidates. But once again of the worthy candidates it was the black assistant that was left without a seat at the table.
Rivera, it should be noted, gained his first job with the Panthers nearly a decade ago through a short-lived NFL Symposium (1998-2008), an off-season program designed for NFL owners and general managers to get to know potential candidates – a benefit serving white and minority candidates.
From the 2011 Symposium, two minority candidates hired were Rivera (Panthers, 2011-19) and Leslie Frazier (Minnesota, 2011-13).
Three white coaches benefiting from the 2011 Symposium were John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens, 2008-), Chuck Pagano (Colts, 2012-17) and Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons, 2008-14).
In past interviews, Tony Dungy, a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach and first black coach to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 season, has said he believes the problem has more to do with owners and general managers needing getting outside their circle of friends to learn about minority candidates; that’s the bigger issue than racism.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, Dungy was among the handful of black coaches frequently mentioned in the media as a prime candidate to become the first black head coach in the NFL’s modern era.
That distinction went to Art Shell with the Los Angeles Raiders (1989-94). The other candidates who were often mentioned were Green, Dungy, Jimmy Raye, Johnny Roland and Billie Matthews. Only Green and Dungy got a call, but Green had to wait until 1995 with the Vikings and Dungy 1996 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 1995, Green and Rhodes were the only black coaches along with one Hispanic, Detroit’s Wayne Fontes.
In 1996, Green, Rhodes and Dungy were the only black coaches along Fontes as the only Hispanic.
In 1997, Green, Rhodes and Dungy were the only minority coaches.
In 1998, the year Lewis was overlooked, Green, Rhodes and Dungy remained the only minority coaches.
For Eric Bieniemy in 2020, the more things change the more they stay the same.