The NFL would never be proactive in pushing for more minority head coaches. Black sports news shows that the league had its hand forced when the two most successful black coaches at the time, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, were fired as the coaches of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings in 2002. While neither was unemployed for long, the outrage over the lack of black coaches never waned.
Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, former chairman of the league’s diversity committee, would help push through a plan to require every NFL team to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a new head coach. The data shows that the implemented rule may not have changed many things.
Entering the 2023 season, the NFL had three African-American coaches, which is the same number the league had when the rule was put into place. The NFL has three other minority coaches, including Washington’s Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic; Miami’s Mike McDaniel, who is biracial; and Robert Saleh, who is Muslim and of Lebanese descent.
But despite the challenges Black coaches face, they have found ways to be successful.
Super Bowl XLI Was Banner Moment
The NFL’s most important event, the Super Bowl, went 40 years without having one Black coach leading their team to the big game. That ended Feb. 4, 2007, in Miami. The Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts both had Black coaches leading their franchises.
Lovie Smith was the Bears’ coach and spent nine seasons with the Bears. Smith led Chicago to the playoffs three times, but his best season would end up being his third year with Chicago. Smith finished with an 81-63 record in Chicago and would later coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans.
On the other sideline, Tony Dungy had become one of the NFL’s most successful coaches, but as an assistant and with the top job. During Dungy’s 13 seasons as a head coach, he led the Buccaneers or Colts to the playoffs. The only knock against Dungry was that he couldn’t win the big game.
For his career, Dungy finished with a 9-10 mark in the playoffs. In Dungry’s only Super Bowl appearance, he guided the Bears to a 29-17 win over the Colts.
Tomlin Sets His Own Standard
Up-to-date sports news shows that Mike Tomlin has become the dean among Black coaches in the NFL. Tomlin was fortunate that when he took his head coaching job, he did so with an organization known for being patient. Since the Steelers hired Chuck Noll in 1969, Pittsburgh has only had three head coaches.
The franchise has built the foundation for its success in having that continuity. Tomlin has rewarded the team for their belief in him. Since taking over in 2007, Tomlin has never finished with a losing record. The Steelers have played in the Super Bowl twice during Tomlin’s tenure.
Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XLIII during the 2008 season by beating the Arizona Cardinals and would lose to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV. Tomlin has compiled a record of 168-95-2 during his career and is 8-9 in the postseason. Tomlin and Dungy are the only Black coaches to win the Super Bowl.
Lewis Turned Around Bengals
If Marvin Lewis had won in the playoffs, the long-time Cincinnati Bengals coach may be a candidate for the Hall of Fame. Before Lewis took over the Bengals in 2003, Cincinnati hadn’t made the playoffs since 1990. During the 1990s, the Bengals had one of the worst runs in NFL history.
From 1991 to 2002, the Bengals finished with a losing season every year. In Lewis’ first two seasons, Cincinnati finished 16-16. During the 2005 season, the Bengals broke through and won the AFC North with an 11-5 record. Cincinnati took a tough playoff loss to Pittsburgh that season when star quarterback Carson Palmer got hurt.
That’s how the Bengals’ postseason would go under Lewis. Seven times Cincinnati made it to the playoffs under Lewis, and in every appearance, they lost in the first round. Lewis would get fired by the Bengals in 2019 but finished with a respectable 131-122-3 record.
Green Had First Sustained Success
Unfortunately, Dennis Green is primarily remembered for a press conference blowup during an unsuccessful three-year stint as the Arizona Cardinals head coach. During Green’s time in Minnesota, he was the standard bearer for success among Black coaches. During eight of Green’s first nine seasons with the Vikings, Minnesota made the playoffs.
Green’s best season with the team came in 1998. The Vikings finished the year 15-1 and were one game away from going to the Super Bowl. However, Minnesota lost the lead late and would fall to the underdog Falcons. Green also took the Vikings to the NFC Championship game in 2000, but they would get blown out by the New York Giants.
Green wrapped up his tenure in Minnesota with a 97-62 record. He was 4-8 in the playoffs. Green was fired during the 2001 season in part due to his lack of postseason success.
Raiders Give Shell a Chance
While Fritz Pollard was the first African-American coach, serving as a player-coach with the Akron Pros in 1921. The Raiders hired Art Shell in 1989 as the first Black coach in the modern era.
He took over in 1989 after Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis fired Mike Shahan. During the following season, Shell would win Coach of the Year. The Raiders went 12-4 and advanced to the conference championship game before losing to Buffalo. In Shell’s five full seasons as Raiders’ head coach, Los Angeles made the playoffs in three of their five seasons.
Davis fired Shell after the Raiders finished 9-7 in 1994. The Raiders would later bring Shell back after they had moved to Oakland for a one-season stint in 2006.
Shell led the Raiders to a 2-14 record but was fired again.
During Shell’s coaching career, he was 56-52 overall and 2-3 in the playoffs.
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