For more than 30 years, NFL teams quietly avoided hiring Black assistants to coach certain position groups, mostly those in the middle of the field like quarterback or the offensive line.
The belief among white coaches and owners, while often unspoken, was that those positions required intelligence. And Black coaches weren’t smart enough.
“This is unfortunately part of our league’s history,” said Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, who got his first assistant coaching job in 1981.
In some ways, history hasn’t changed.
Nearly two decades after the implementation of the Rooney Rule, USA TODAY Sports compiled and analyzed demographic information for all 722 on-field coaches in the NFL at the start of this season.
The analysis reveals that, even in 2022, there are stark racial disparities among coaches of different position groups – evidence of subconscious stereotypes that helped funnel white assistants to coordinator and head coaching positions while stunting the progress of their Black counterparts.
Particularly on the offensive side of the ball, USA TODAY Sports found coaches of color are still heavily concentrated in positions that historically offered fewer promotion opportunities. Twenty-nine of the league’s 31 running backs coaches this season – or 93% – are coaches of color. Wide receivers coaches are 70% nonwhite.
Offensive line and quarterbacks coaches, meanwhile, are 90% and 81% white, respectively.
“That’s what you might call positional segregation,” said Cyrus Mehri, co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a nonprofit organization that champions diversity in the NFL.
“Just as we had a long march for breaking barriers on the field, breaking through with the ‘thinking person’ positions, we’re still seeing coaching segregation.”
Much has been made about the lack of diversity among NFL head coaches and coordinators – and at the quarterback coach position, which has long served as a springboard to those top jobs. But far less attention has been paid to the other end of the spectrum – coaches of color being hired but then pigeonholed into roles where there is little hope of advancement.
USA TODAY Sports found that in the past seven years, only six running backs coaches have been promoted to offensive coordinator. Just one coach with a running backs resume, Anthony Lynn, has been hired as a head coach during that span.
“Already, being Black, I’m at a disadvantage in the NFL,” Denver Broncos running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley told USA TODAY Sports. “Then coaching the running backs, you’re not working with the quarterbacks. So, to some coaches, you’re in no man’s land.”
'We're going to die trying'
The NFL’s coaching diversity issues are long-standing and well-documented.
In a league where an estimated 70% of players identify as nonwhite, only six of 32 teams have a nonwhite head coach this season. And only three of those head coaches – Houston’s Lovie Smith, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles – are Black.
NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said the league has “fallen quite short of where we should be,” at least with regard to head coaching diversity.
“The current effort hasn’t worked, but we’re going to die trying,” Vincent said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we can do, being as creative as (we) can possibly be until there’s a change of heart and the individuals making these decisions just frankly look at these men a little differently.”
Hope lies in what he and other NFL executives often refer to as “the pipeline” – the lower rungs of the NFL coaching ladder, where coaches of color can be identified and shaped into future head coaches.
In an effort to better understand this pipeline, USA TODAY Sports compiled a wide range of historic and biographic data for every on-field NFL coach at the start of this season – from head coaches and coordinators all the way down to quality control coaches and fellows.
In addition to age, family ties, playing experience and employment histories, USA TODAY Sports independently verified the race and ethnicity of each coach using published news articles, public records and information provided by team employees, agents and coaches.
Among the key findings from USA TODAY Sports’ data:
► Of the 722 on-field coaches in the NFL this season, 314 (or 43.5%) identify as nonwhite, which is believed to be the largest figure, by count, in league history.
► More than 50% of coaches at the lowest levels – quality control, coaching assistants and fellows – are nonwhite, compared to only 27% at the coordinator level or above.
► The Pittsburgh Steelers (63%) and Houston Texans (60%) boast the highest percentage of non-white coaches on staff, while the Cincinnati Bengals (24%) and Kansas City Chiefs (30%) have the least.
A spokesman for the Chiefs said the organization has long been committed to diversity. While Kansas City has among the least diverse staffs this year, traditionally, the team and coach Andy Reid have been among the biggest champions of diversity in the NFL. In 2018, Reid was awarded the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s “game ball” for fostering opportunities for candidates of color in coaching and front office positions.
A spokeswoman for the Bengals said the team’s data “reflects a snapshot in time and does not represent the full picture,” adding that the organization has a long history of supporting diversity, dating to 1946 when founder Paul Brown signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis to the Cleveland Browns. They were among the “Forgotten Four” players who helped break pro football’s color barrier.
► 54% of defensive coaches at all levels are nonwhite, compared with just 40% of offensive coaches and 32% of special teams coaches.
► At the position coach level, 40% of the nonwhite assistants on offense coach one position: running backs.
The Rooney Rule, enacted in 2003, was designed to increase the number of people of color in head coaching, general manager and other executive positions. However, its success has been limited.
Vincent said the league office has been aware of the racial disparities between coaches at different position groups and has worked to address them, but stereotypes persist.
“That’s a tight-knit fraternity, with nepotism and all of those things coming at play, it’s really hard to crack in those rooms,” Vincent said.
“You’re talking about three to four offensive line coaches in the National Football League that are Black. That’s ridiculous, when the greatest players who’ve ever played the game are African-American.”
The most glaring divide is between quarterbacks and running backs coaches.
As a case study, USA TODAY Sports followed the career paths of the 32 men in each role during the 2015 season. Fourteen of those running backs coaches are still in the NFL, and 12 still coach running backs. One is now an offensive coordinator and one is a quarterbacks coach. Sixteen of the quarterbacks coaches from that season still coach in the NFL, and just four are still quarterbacks coaches. Five are now head coaches and four are offensive coordinators.
“I know a lot of guys have gotten typecast or pigeonholed, as far as not being an offensive coordinator or not having more input as far as the offense is concerned,” said Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ running backs coach from 2014 to 2018.
“I think sometimes the perception is that anybody can coach running backs.”
Hammock, who is Black, suggested that perception lingers even within coaching staffs. He recalled Ravens head coach John Harbaugh giving him a chance to call plays during a preseason game in Baltimore and feeling like “a lot of people looked at me differently,” even though he had previously called plays during a stint at Minnesota.
“The look of guys that next day, when they walked into the office, was priceless,” Hammock said. “Because it's like yeah, I can do it, I can call plays if given the opportunity.”
'So where's that excuse now?'
The racial disparities among NFL position coaches are reminiscent of those that have existed for decades among players – a concept known as "stacking."
“Black players tend to be found at positions where ‘speed’ and ‘quickness’ are thought necessary,” USA TODAY wrote in a 1991 examination of the issue, “(and) white players at positions where ‘intelligence’ and ‘leadership’ are considered important.”
Data published by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida has helped shed light on this issue in the NFL.
From 1999 to 2014, which is the most recent year for which data is available, TIDES found the highest percentages of white NFL players at quarterback, center and linebacker. The highest percentages of Black players during that time were at wide receiver, cornerback and running back.
Multiple coaches, agents and executives pointed to these disparities as the crux of the coaching issue. There are so many Black running backs coaches, the thinking goes, because there are so many Black running backs.
“People don’t understand that it’s more of a feel position,” former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber said. “Not every running back coach played it, but the ones that did really get the respect of the players. And it just so happens that most people who have played the position in the NFL are Black.”
Will Harris, one of the few Black agents who represents an NFL coach, said most entry-level coaches don’t even have a choice. They coach the position they played because that gives them the best chance to land a job.
“The calculation is never, 'I'm going to come and have to learn everything on the job,’ ” said Harris, an attorney and managing member of Icon Sports Consulting.
The issue, however, is what often happens next.
In lieu of promotions to offensive coordinator, top running backs coaches are often given raises and an additional title, such as “associate head coach” or “run game coordinator.” Seven of the NFL’s 31 running backs coaches have such titles this season. (The Panthers do not have a running backs coach by title, but assistant head coach for offense Jeff Nixon, who is Black, previously coached the position.)
Some running backs coaches stay in the job simply because they love it. But many get stuck. Dungy said this illustrates a systemic and complex issue in the NFL. It’s not just that Black coaches are kept out of head coaching jobs, he said, but that in many cases they are kept off the surest path to advancement altogether.
That hasn’t historically been a problem for white coaches. Many get jobs coaching quarterbacks even if they never played the position. Of the 35 white NFL coaches who work specifically with quarterbacks in 2022, USA TODAY Sports found 15 of them did not play quarterback in college or the pros.
“The old thing used to be, 'Well the quarterbacks are white, so the quarterbacks coaches are white, and they relate better,’” said NFL coaching agent Brian Levy, who counts several prominent Black coaches among his 100-plus clients.
“Well now you have a ton of minority quarterbacks. So where's that excuse now?”
Two paths clear as Black and white
Deland McCullough’s career trajectory is common among running backs coaches.
After a brief professional playing career at the position, he climbed quickly up the ranks as a coach – first in college, at Indiana and Southern California, before reaching the NFL in 2018 with the Kansas City Chiefs. He won a Super Bowl with the team two years later and was recognized as the NFL’s running backs coach of the year.
In 2021, however, McCullough returned to college as an associate head coach at Indiana. He accepted the running backs coach job at Notre Dame in February and said he stayed there despite overtures from the New York Giants, who wanted to hire him in the same role.
McCullough, 49, stressed that he loved his time in the NFL. But he also said he didn’t think he could advance to head coach there from the running backs position, like he could in college.
“In college, I don’t have to convince people I can be more than just a running back coach,” McCullough said. “In the NFL, I think I would.”
McCullough is one of eight running backs coaches who have left the NFL for a college job since 2015. Others stay in the league but instead switch positions, such as Thomas Brown of the Los Angeles Rams, who moved from running backs to tight ends coach this year, or Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach Charles London.
A little more than a decade ago, London was a quality control coach for the 2011 Tennessee Titans with a fellow up-and-coming coach named Arthur Smith.
Smith, who is white, received three promotions in six years before the Falcons hired him as their head coach in 2021. London, who is Black, spent nine years as running backs coach in the NFL and college football. Smith hired him as his quarterbacks coach.
London told USA TODAY Sports he never felt held back as a running backs coach and believed he always had opportunities to advance. But he was puzzled when asked about why so many Black men work with running backs, and so few coach quarterbacks.
“I’m not sure I have an answer to that,” he said, noting there are a large number of qualified coaches of color in the league.
He later added: “There’s still progress that needs to be made.”
Leave or get stuck
For Rod Graves, who heads the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the racial makeup of coaches at different positions is not surprising because it’s nothing new.
In 1991, the league had 51 Black assistant coaches, according to The Tampa Bay Times. None of them coached quarterbacks or the offensive line, and more than half coached running backs or wide receivers.
“We've always had a sense that there were lots of minority coaches, Black coaches in particular, at the running back position,” Graves said. “I think it is a question of whether or not there's any sort of racial intent behind it. I'm not certain that that's the case. But I think it's something that needs to be discussed.”
Graves said the larger concern isn’t who coaches which position, but rather the opportunities afforded to coaches of color across the board.
“It all stems back to the coordinators,” said Bruce Arians, who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for three seasons and had one of the most diverse staffs in the league.
“They’re not going to hire position coaches very often to be head coaches, unless they have a tremendous history of leadership. So the pipeline has to go through the coordinators.”
And, at least for now, the coordinator pipeline goes through the quarterbacks room.
That’s why, for the first time, the league office mandated this spring that each team hire a minority coach as an offensive assistant. The assistant is required to have “regular and direct contact with the Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Offensive Line, Quarterback, and Tight End coaches” – a nod to the positions that most make up the head coaching pipeline.
University of Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, who founded the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches in 2020, called the league’s initiative a “small step in the right direction.”
“We've just got to continue to … promote the minorities that are working with quarterbacks, because there are a ton of them,” he said. “Some of them are in our HBCUs, some of them are in lower levels, but they all have the tools necessary to be quarterback coaches at the highest level.”
Locksley spent eight seasons as a college running backs coach early in his career before Ron Zook hired him as the offensive coordinator and tight ends coach at Illinois in 2005. The next year, Locksley said he went to Zook and told him he wanted to coordinate from the quarterbacks room.
“I hadn't coached the quarterbacks at the Division I level, but it was something that I thought was important if I wanted to be a head coach.”
Dungy said his advice to young running backs coaches would be to do exactly what Locksley did: Approach your head coach and ask to move to another position.
“Or else you might get stuck,” Dungy said.
Contributing: Nancy Armour and Jori Epstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How 'positional segregation' keeps Black coaches stuck in NFL pipeline