And then there was one.
David Culley didn’t even last a calendar year with the Houston Texans, as dysfunctional an NFL team as there is. Culley spent 43 years as an assistant in college and pros, but his tenure as a head coach ended after just 17 games.
With his firing, the list of Black head coaches in the NFL now contains just one name.
Mike Tomlin’s job looks secure, saving the NFL from the embarrassment of having no Black coaches at all. The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t fire coaches and, besides, Tomlin wins two thirds of his games and hasn’t had a losing season in 15 years.
He’s got a Super Bowl title, too, if any owners needed any more proof that Black coaches can succeed at the highest levels. You wouldn’t think they would after all these years, but their hiring pattern suggests otherwise.
One Black head coach in a league dominated by Black players. One Black coach, 33 years after Art Shell broke the modern era head coaching color barrier with the Raiders.
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The NFL wants more, or so it says. The Black players who dominate league ranks want more coaches who look like them, too.
But despite new hiring rules and some years with real progress, it seems like it’s 1989 all over again.
No, nobody can force a team owner to fill a vacancy with a Black coach. That wouldn’t be right, and it wouldn’t be fair to other coaches who are trying to find their way to the top.
But in a league where 70% of the players are Black, somehow, some way, there needs to be more than one Black coach.
The NFL has acknowledged as much over the years, introducing the Rooney Rule nearly two decades ago to force teams to interview at least one Black candidate for each coaching vacancy. The rule was expanded to two interviews in 2020, and some draft pick tweaks were made to encourage teams to hire Black coaches and executives from lesser positions on other teams.
For a while, it seemed like it was working. As late as 2017, there were eight minority coaches — seven of them Black — helming teams around the league.
But instead of expanding, the number has contracted — and sharply. Head coaches are hired to be fired in any league, so the fact all but one are gone just a few years later isn’t terribly out of the ordinary.
But it is telling that Black coaches who fail in their first opportunity simply don’t get second and third chances like many white coaches before them.
Need more proof? None of the six Black men who were head coaches in 2017 and later fired have been hired in similar jobs. At the same time, flashy retread white hires like Jon Gruden and Urban Meyer were hired and then unceremoniously booted out of the league.
The truth is, hiring coaches has never been a scientific process. There’s a lot of guessing and a lot of hoping that goes with every hire — and the odds are always against whoever gets the nod.
That was certainly the case in Houston, where the knock on Culley was that he was a lifetime assistant, not a true head coach. But he didn’t have star quarterback Deshaun Watson the entire season and was put in charge of a team undergoing a big overhaul.
The Texans won only four games under Culley, though as late as Monday he was at the podium in Houston answering questions about next year’s team. That made his firing three days later even more confounding, and at the age of 66, he’s not likely to be a head coaching candidate again.
Houston could, of course, hire a Black coach to replace him. There are plenty of qualified candidates in top assistant and coordinator jobs around the league, so finding at least two to interview to qualify for the Rooney Rule shouldn’t be difficult.
Look at the stats, though, and it doesn’t look promising.
Between 2012-2021 there were 219 open coordinator positions — where many head coaches are hired from — and 168 (76%) went to white candidates. In the same period, white men were hired for 51 of the 62 (82%) head coach openings.
It may get better, it may not. NFL owners are almost all white and almost all members of the good old boy network that has populated the league since its existence.
For the most part, they’ve gotten rich in business making their own decisions, and they tend to hire people who are like them. Rooney Rule or not, they’re going to do what they think — right or wrong — is in the best interest of their business and their football team.
Those decisions have led us to where we are today. One Black coach in a league of 32 teams spread across a diverse country.
The NFL clearly needs to do better. The question is, how?
Big Board: The top 50 prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft
1. Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame, Jr.
2. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Edge, Oregon, Jr.
3. Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan, Sr.
4. Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU, Jr.
5. George Karlaftis, Edge, Purdue, Jr.
6. Evan Neal, OT, Alabama, Jr.
7. Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah, Sr.
8. Ikem Ekwonu, OL, NC State, So.
9. Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa, Jr.
10. Ahmad Gardner, CB, Cincinnati, Jr.
11. Drake London, WR, USC, Jr.
London led the nation in contested catches with 19 and he only played eight games after his season ended with a broken ankle. His size, athleticism, route-running and flair for the spectacular catch will make him a problem for defensive coordinators in the NFL.
12. David Ojabo, Edge, Michigan, Jr.
After playing only 26 snaps for the Wolverines before his junior year, Ojabo has been a revelation this season with 11 sacks and five forced fumbles.
13. Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama, Jr.
Williams is a home run hitter with game-breaking speed. He's also a weapon on special teams, as a returner — he returned two kicks for touchdowns in 2021 — and in coverage. The dynamic receiver injured his left knee against Georgia and will have an MRI to determine the severity.
14. Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi St., So.
Cross is a powerful blocker who can do damage at the second level in the run game with premium athleticism and his target-lock awareness. He developed into a dominant pass protector this season and could end up cracking the top-10 in April.
15. Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida, Jr.
16. Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss, Jr.
Corral is slightly undersized, but he's an NFL-caliber playmaker with genuine arm talent. His X-rays were negative after he injured his ankle in a loss to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
17. Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia, Sr.
At 6-foot-6, 340 pounds, the Outland and Bednarik trophy winner is an immovable object who could anchor a run defense for years to come.
18. Chris Olave, WR, Ohio St., Sr.
It's rare you find a route technician with reliable hands who can also run this fast. Olave might have snuck into the first round had he left school last year and it wouldn't surprise me if he cracks the top-20 in April.
19. Nik Bonitto, Edge, Oklahoma, Jr.
Bonitto is slightly undersized for an edge defender, but he's a dynamic pass rusher and relentless in his pursuit of running backs.
20. Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn St., Sr.
21. Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia, Jr.
The Butkus Award winner is a dynamic blitzer who is capable of making plays all over the field.
22. Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington, Jr.
McDuffie plays bigger than his 5-11 frame. He's one of the surest tacklers at the position in this draft class and his instincts are elite.
23. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio St., Jr.
Wilson can threaten a defense at every level, but will need to improve against physical press corners.
24. Jaquan Brisker, S, Penn St., Sr.
Brisker is a polished, physical playmaker with few holes in his game.
25. Jermaine Johnson, Edge, Florida St., Sr.
26. Darian Kinnard, OT, Kentucky, Sr.
Kinnard is a mauler who happens to be a gifted athlete as well. You won't find many 6-foot-5, 345 pounders who move and change direction like him.
27. Roger McCreary, CB, Auburn, Sr.
McCreary simply doesn't allow much separation and he's battle-tested out of the SEC. He's capable of thriving in man and zone.
28. Travon Walker, Edge, Georgia, Jr.
Walker offers premium versatility and immense power. He is an elite run defender, but will need to sharpen his technique to become a more consistent pass rusher.
29. Treylon Burks, WR, Arkansas, Jr.
You're not going to find a better combination of size (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and speed at wide receiver in this class. Burks is a vertical threat, but also features immense YAC ability — he broke 15 tackles on 66 receptions this season.
30. Jordan Battle, S, Alabama, Jr.
31. Kenyon Green, OL, Texas A&M, Jr.
This former five-star recruit can play either guard or tackle at a high level — Green made starts at every single offensive line position except center this season.
32. David Bell, WR Purdue, Jr.
Bell's route-running is advanced and his YAC ability should make him an impact player early in his career.
33. Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh, Sr.
The Heisman finalist is most dangerous outside of the pocket when he goes off script. Pickett has good size, overall athleticism and solid arm talent, but needs to work on his anticipation throws and his comfort within the pocket.
34. Cameron Thomas, Edge, San Diego St., Jr.
Thomas was the most dominant pass rusher in college football this side of Ann Arbor. He racked up an FBS-leading 77 pressures this season and finished sixth with 29 run stops, according to Pro Football Focus.
35. Brandon Smith, LB, Penn St., Jr.
36. Kenneth Walker III, RB, Michigan St., Jr.
The Walter Camp National Player of the Year and Doak Walker Award winner features legit home run speed, but doesn't shy away from contact either. He led all of college football with 89 broken tackles this past season, according to Pro Football Focus. Walker will need to develop as a pass protector to maximize his potential.
37. Drake Jackson, Edge, USC, Jr.
Jackson can play in space or rush the passer off the edge. He has another level that could be unlocked with NFL weight training and coaching.
38. Derion Kendrick, CB, Georgia, Sr.
Kendrick was a three-year starter for Clemson before transferring to Athens. He's an asset against the run and thrives in man or zone coverage. Kendrick is vulnerable to receivers with top-end speed, but who isn't?
39. Zion Johnson, OL, Boston College, Sr.
This team captain has thrived at left tackle and guard, but he projects as an impact interior lineman in the NFL.
40. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa St., Jr.
41. Kyler Gordon, CB, Washington, Jr.
Gordon is an aggressive, uber-athlete who showed significant development in his technique this season.
42. DeMarvin Leal, DL, Texas A&M, Jr.
Leal features inside-outside versatility and explosiveness, but will need to work on becoming an asset against the run after not taking a step forward his junior season.
43. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina, Jr.
Howell possesses impressive arm talent and proved he is a legitimate threat as a runner this season despite failing to meet big expectations.
44. Trey McBride, TE, Colorado St., Sr.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end had a highly-productive senior season — 1,121 yards on 90 receptions — and showcased significant blocking prowess along the way.
45. Bernhard Raimann, OT, Central Michigan, Sr.
46. Andrew Booth Jr., CB, Clemson, Jr.
Booth's ball skills enable him to thrive while playing in press or off coverage. He exhibits physicality in defending the run, but needs to sharpen his tackling technique.
47. Daxton Hill, S, Michigan, Jr.
Hill features a mix of athleticism, intelligence and instincts that will enable him to play every position in the defensive backfield. He will need to tamp down his tendency to gamble.
48. Myjai Sanders, Edge, Cincinnati, Jr.
Sanders features great speed and explosiveness off the edge to enter the league as a designated pass rusher. He'll need to add some muscle and finetune his focus to become an impact run defender.
49. Daniel Faalele, OT, Minnesota, Sr.
Faalele achored one of the best offensive lines in the nation this season. He's a massive man — 6-foot-9, 379 pounds — who is relatively new to the sport. He grew up playing basketball and rugby in Australia. He learned football in 2016 so there's a lot of clay to mold.