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‘If He Was White, He Would Have a Job.’ One of the Best Coaches in Football Keeps Getting Ignored

7 minute read

In recent history, working as an offensive coordinator for a Super Bowl-winning team has almost guaranteed you a head-coaching job in the NFL.

Unless you’re Black.

Just look at the record. The Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII, in 2018. About a week later, Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich was introduced as the new head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He took that job after the Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator in 2017, Josh McDaniels of the New England Patriots, decided at the last minute to turn down the Colts job and keep his assistant position in New England. The Patriots won Super Bowl LIII, in 2019, the following year. McDaniels is now the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

Then the Kansas City Chiefs began what could be a dynasty. KC won Super Bowl LIV, in 2020. But Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a Black former NFL running back, did not receive any head-coaching opportunities. The following season, Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Chiefs. Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, a Black former NFL quarterback, was not hired as a head coach. Leftwich took himself out of consideration for the Jacksonville Jaguars job the following season, reportedly because he did not want to work with with the team’s incumbent general manager. Tampa Bay fired Leftwich as offensive coordinator in January.

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Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams won last year’s Super Bowl. Afterward, the Minnesota Vikings finalized the hiring of that team’s offensive coordinator, Kevin O’Connell, was their new head coach. And on Sunday, the Chiefs won their second Super Bowl in four seasons, as they eked out a 38-35 thriller over the Eagles in a game watched by 113 million people, the third-highest viewed TV program in history. After the game, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid went out of his way to praise Bieniemy. “Eric Bieniemy was tremendous down the stretch there, putting things together,” Reid told Fox’s Terry Bradshaw during the Lombardi Trophy presentation. He told another interviewer that Bieniemy was “phenomenal.” Kansas City’s clever play designs and adjustments helped the team overcome a 10-point deficit.

But once again, Bieniemy was passed over for a head-coaching job. He had interviewed for the Indianapolis Colts’ position, but on Tuesday, the team announced that it was hiring the offensive coordinator from the losing Super Bowl team, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen.

“Eric Bieniemy has done everything he is supposed to do” to secure a head-coaching job, says Louis Moore, professor of history at Grand Valley State University who specializes in African-American and sports history. “He’s worked his way up, and he’s won. If he was white, he would have a job. There’s no question about that.”

According to one accounting, Bieniemy has interviewed 17 times, with 16 different teams, for head-coaching positions since the Chiefs reached the first of their five straight AFC championship games, back in 2019. At this point, one reason often cited for his lack of opportunities—that Reid, not Bieniemy, calls the plays in Kansas City—feels particularly hollow. Two former Chiefs offensive coordinators—Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy—under Reid were also not regular play-callers for most of their tenures. Nor had they won Super Bowls in Kansas City, like Bieniemy has. But both were hired as head coaches: Nagy by the Chicago Bears, and Pederson with the Eagles, where he won a Super Bowl.

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not call offensive plays as the special-teams coach for the Eagles before being hired as Ravens head coach in 2008. Nor did Joe Judge, another special-teams coach whom the New York Giants hired as head coach in 2020. Harbaugh won a Super Bowl and has held the job for 15 years. Judge was fired after two seasons.

Less accomplished coaches, like Steichen, are getting jobs before Bieniemy. Younger white coordinators, it seems, are more likely to be labeled offensive gurus or wunderkinds. Few have granted Bieniemy that cachet.

“Bieniemy is going on probably the greatest five-year offensive stretch in history right with the most dynamic quarterback ever,” says Moore. “And the Chiefs are making a conscious effort to make him out to be the guy. What more do you need to be done? The NFL hasn’t come to terms that there could be a Black genius.”

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To Moore, the Bieniemy situation reveals the NFL’s institutional struggles with racism. A group of former Black NFL head coaches, for example, are suing the league for discrimination. Nearly 70% of NFL players are Black, but just three of the league’s 32 teams have Black head coaches (Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Todd Bowles in Tampa Bay, and DeMeco Ryans in Houston; Miami’s Mike McDaniel is biracial). Colin Kaepernick, a Black quarterback who led a protest movement against racial injustice back in 2016, has been out of the league since then. Former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jon Gruden was fired after racist, sexist, and homophobic emails he sent were made public. The NFL used “race-norming” in determining payouts for retired players under the league’s $1 billion concussion settlement: this testing method assumed Black players start with lower cognitive function, making it harder for them to show they suffer from a mental deficit linked to their playing days. After a lawsuit and an uproar, the NFL agreed to end race-based testing in 2021.

In his 34 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones has never hired a Black head coach. Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at USC, points to a key comment that Jones made in a Washington Post article back in November. That story contained a picture of a teenaged Jones standing in a crowd of white boys blocking the path of Black students seeking to desegregate an Arkansas high school back in 1957. While that photo sparked understandable controversy, Boyd believes Jones’ revealing words on why more Black coaches aren’t hired got lost in the uproar.

Jones admitted that, in his experience, the actual job interview for head coaches doesn’t mean all that much. He hired people he knew, like former Cowboys coaches Jimmy Johnson, a former roomate with whom he played on an all-white championship team at the University of Arkansas, and Barry Switzer, another friend from Arkansas. Jones did almost hire a Black head coach, Dennis Green, in the early 2000s. But that was only after he worked with Green on the NFL’s competition committee—and got to know him. (Jones ultimately passed on Green to hire Bill Parcells, who had coached the Giants to two Super Bowl victories.)

“I didn’t hire Jimmy through an interview. Did I? I didn’t hire Barry Switzer through an interview, okay? And I didn’t want Denny through an interview at the time. But I knew ’em,” Jones told the Post.

“The question, as Jones sees it, is how to escort Black coaches into the circle of cronyism so they don’t have to be interviewed,” wrote Post journalists David Marannis and Sally Jenkins. “Jones insists the most avid candidates will find a way in.”

“To me, that explains everything,” says Boyd. “It is an old boys’ club. These old boys are going to hire whoever they want.”

Colts owner Jim Irsay, for example, hired former Colts great Jeff Saturday as interim coach this season. Saturday had never spent a second on a college or professional coaching staff. Indianapolis finished 1-7 under Saturday.

“These guys do not want to hire Black coaches,” says Boyd. “Maybe when they make the decision, that’s not at the front of their mind. Maybe they don’t say, ‘I’m not going to hire a Black coach.’ That’s the result. They can think of a million and one reasons why not to do it that have nothing overtly to do with race. But when you look at who are the coaches in the NFL, it speaks for itself.”

The Chiefs held their Super Bowl victory parade today. Bieniemy will reportedly interview with the Washington Commanders on Thursday. For their vacant offensive coordinator position.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com