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Eric Bieniemy, Byron Leftwich left waiting as number of Black NFL head coaches stagnates

They are perched on a significant summit in their coaching careers, Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs and Byron Leftwich of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, offensive coordinators who have helped their teams advance to Super Bowl LV on Sunday in Tampa, Florida. Their success is due in part to their ability to see a problem and swiftly identify a solution, and yet they both admit there are certain questions for which they have no answers, questions that come from various angles, in various forms, all essentially asking the same things: Why was Bieniemy passed over for each of the seven head-coaching vacancies this hiring cycle, and how did Leftwich fail to even get an interview?

"We have no answers because those things are not up to us," Leftwich says. "We're not the ones making the decisions, so it has nothing to do with us. We get asked about it, but it's tough for us because we can't speak for someone else. You can only speak for your part that you have in it, your ability to coach, your ability to lead men. To be honest with you, I don't even think about it, because the fun that I have here, and the group of people that I have here, allows me to focus on doing what I need to do to put these guys in positions to have success."

In a perfect world, the focus would be on all the things Leftwich and Bieniemy have done to help their teams reach this point, but the NFL, like most big business, is far from perfect, particularly as it relates to hiring practices. Of the 27 coaching vacancies over the last four hiring cycles, only three have been filled by Black men, making the cases of Bieniemy and Leftwich even more conspicuous. Both are Black, both are qualified, and both have more complete resumes than some of those who've gotten jobs. And yet, in a league where the player population is roughly 70 percent African-American, only 11 percent of the coaching vacancies since 2018 have been filled by Blacks, a reality that some in the league office find embarrassing and that minority coaches find concerning.

The question of race and reward as it relates to head coaches is sure to be a common thread for Leftwich and Bieniemy during media interviews this week, and each will deal with it from a different vantage point. For Leftwich, this is his first time in the eye of the storm. He served as quarterbacks coach in Arizona in 2017, spent time there as the interim offensive coordinator in 2018, then was brought to Tampa by Bruce Arians, who initially hired him with the Cardinals, the following season.

In 2019, his first year as a play-caller, Leftwich was overlooked for interviews despite the Bucs finishing third in scoring and total yards, perhaps because Jameis Winston threw a league-high 30 interceptions and Tampa missed the playoffs. This season, the offense finished third in scoring again -- in a year in which the NFL broke its record for points scored -- and the former Marshall quarterback, who started 50 games in a nine-season NFL career, was marginalized by media and team decision-makers again as many rushed to give credit to Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion QB who was signed last offseason.

In an age where owners are said to be looking for young, creative offensive minds to run their sidelines, the marginalizing of the 41-year-old Leftwich has not gone unnoticed by Arians, who told 95.3 WDAE of Leftwich not receiving an interview this cycle: "Yeah that really pissed me off, I'll be honest with you. The job he's done -- he coaches quarterbacks, he calls plays, he's everything everybody says they are looking for."

Bieniemy releases a soft, knowing chuckle at the treatment of Leftwich. He has been there before. The only difference is that he has gotten interviews, at least eight at last count, but no offers over the last three cycles. It's as if he has had nothing to do with helping QB Patrick Mahomes win a league MVP one year, capture a Super Bowl MVP and Lombardi Trophy the next year, and position himself for a possible second title in as many seasons this year. Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy, his immediate predecessors at offensive coordinator in Kansas City, each got head coaching jobs with Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively. But that opportunity has yet to present itself to Bieniemy, despite strong recommendations from Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

"Is there ever a time you feel frustrated?" Bieniemy says, repeating the question. "The human element in everything will, at some point, try to take over. So, yes, there are times. But here's the thing -- and this is where I can draw from my past -- I can only be frustrated for that particular moment because we're still prepping to pursue our dream, we're still prepping to get ready for the Super Bowl, so I don't have time to have a pity party and sit here and be upset because someone has chosen not to choose me."

The most recent past to which he refers was his NFL rookie season in 1991. He was coming off a magical senior season at Colorado, having finished second in the nation in rushing and third in the Heisman voting while leading the Buffaloes to a national title. The Chargers drafted him 39th overall, and his expectation was to go in and make an immediate impact.

"You couldn't tell me anything," he says. "I was a stubborn, hard-headed, egotistical young man. Drafted high in the second round, I felt like I was a pretty damn good back."

Problem was, the Chargers had other backs who were pretty damn good. Marion Butts was coming off a 1,225-yard season and a Pro Bowl trip; Ronnie Harmon was regarded as one of the game's top third-down backs, with the feet of a ballerino and the hands of a wide receiver; and Rod Bernstine was a former first-round pick whose versatility commanded playing time.

So Bieniemy watched and waited, carrying just three times for 17 yards and no touchdowns as a rookie. That experience taught him not only about patience, but also perseverance. Unable to contribute on offense, he pushed for opportunities on special teams and became a force for the Chargers.

His coaching career followed a similar road. After coaching running backs at Colorado and UCLA, Bieniemy broke into the NFL as a running backs coach with the Vikings in 2006 -- and he knew he wanted to be a coordinator or head coach one day. So he set out to learn all he could about every position and how they work together. He spent 2011 and '12 as Colorado's offensive coordinator, joined the Chiefs as running back coach in 2013 and earned his current title in 2018.

"I learned during that time, just like I've learned throughout my entire career in this coaching profession, seek not to become a person of success but a person of value," he says. "The more valuable you are, the more impactful you are to a team's success. What does that mean? It means you have to become more well-rounded in everything. Be great not just at something, be great at everything. It taught me to make sure I could learn more about being a better football player who happens to play the running back position by becoming a four-phase special teams player, and increasing my value that way. And when I was working toward becoming the coordinator, not just focusing on being the best running back coach I could be, but also the best football coach; on knowing more about the O-line position, the wide receiver position, the tight end position -- becoming an expert in all areas."

Bieniemy and Leftwich remain outwardly optimistic and positive, but the same cannot be said for others. The league is trending in a disturbing direction, having gone from an all-time high of seven Black head coaches in 2011 to only three today: Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, Brian Flores of Miami and David Culley of Houston. On one side of the scales, you have a player population that is mostly African-American, and on the other, you have a slight share of the hires over the last four cycles going to Blacks.

Jimmy Raye Jr. is all too familiar with this. In some respects, he was Eric Bieniemy before Eric Bieniemy, a standout college football player -- he was the first Black QB from the South to win a national title, leading Michigan State to the championship in 1966 -- whose climb up the coaching ladder stopped at the coordinator level. Over his 35 NFL seasons as a coach or senior offensive assistant, he was good enough to work as coordinator for the Rams, the Bucs, the Patriots, the Chiefs, Washington, the Raiders and the 49ers, but never the right man to lead a team.

"I'm going to continue being who I am, I'm going to continue to work regardless of what has taken place, and I will continue banging on that damn door." Eric Bieniemy

"What's happening today is much the same of what was happening in the late '70s and the '80s and the '90s," says Raye, now 74 and retired in North Carolina. "You think you are in a fair and equitable system and being judged by your abilities and your expertise and your leadership qualities to lead men, but in the end, none of that matters, because they don't have any rules in hiring. They hire who they want to hire, qualifications be damned. Basically what the NFL, what the business establishment is saying is, 'We're going to do what we want to do, and what are you going to do about it?' There is no accountability and no consequences for your actions.

"Owners are buffeted by who influences them -- the general managers and team presidents, whoever they talk to -- because they don't run the business of football as they run their private businesses. You couldn't succeed doing it that way. But the toy that they play with as far as their football teams, they don't feel any responsibility to address the issue. They've proven that over the last 100 years, even though the product on the field is dominated by Black players. What's going to happen is that it's going to erode and eat itself from the inside out, because the competency of the young coaches that they're hiring is lacking. That's why you see the six or seven jobs open every year. The hiring process is fractured, and eventually it's going to leak into the game, and the game is going to lose its voracity, and then -- maybe only then -- they'll say, Something is wrong here. But that's a ways away. But that's the direction it's going."

Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations, considers Raye a mentor. He has previously included him on working groups to address the lack of diversity at the top of the coaching ranks. He acknowledges the pain that Raye and others are feeling, calling it "real." But he says the league remains optimistic about change, because there was overall progress made this cycle. 

First, the number of Black general managers has increased from two to five, with Brad Holmes (Detroit), Terry Fontenot (Atlanta) and Martin Mayhew (Washington) joining Andrew Berry (Cleveland) and Chris Grier (Miami). Second, the number of Black coordinators has increased from 17 to 25, thanks in part to a new policy that stops clubs from blocking assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions elsewhere, or even making what some would technically view as lateral moves when they are actually promotions. It's part of the reason Duce Staley and Aubrey Pleasant were able to leave the Eagles and Rams, respectively, to join the Lions.

"I can't discount -- and will not discount -- some of the work that has been done," Vincent says. "Jimmy is a mentor. His history and his body of work, it speaks for itself. When I listen to folks like him and (John Wooten) and Dickie Daniels, I'm constantly reminded (of the work that needs to be done). And that's why personally I have to stay optimistic. I don't have a choice, because I'm in the role today (of trying to make change). Overall, there was some clear progress that was made during this cycle, some things we can build on. I do have hope, but at the same time, I don't want to discount what did occur. We weren't happy with what we netted on head coaches. But in the overall body of work, there was clear progress to build on."

More than a few Black coaches with long NFL roots liken Bieniemy to Sherman Lewis. Bieniemy was an All-America running back in college, just as Lewis was an All-America running back at Michigan State. Bieniemy transitioned into coaching and broke into the NFL as a running backs assistant, just as Lewis did when he broke into the pros with the 49ers. Bieniemy worked his way up to coordinator just as Lewis had worked his way up, and Bieniemy won a Super Bowl as a coordinator just as Lewis did, though Lewis won four overall.

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two is how both Black coaches watched other white coaches on staff get opportunities to be a head coach while they did not. That meant Pederson and Nagy with the Chiefs, and five offensive assistants with titles beneath Lewis during his eight seasons with the Packers: Jon Gruden (offensive assistant), Steve Mariucci (quarterbacks), Andy Reid (tight ends/assistant offensive line), Marty Mornhinweg (quarterbacks) and Mike Sherman (tight ends/assistant offensive line). 

Lewis, who last coached for Washington in 2009, did not return repeated calls for this story, which some contemporaries attributed to him maybe not wanting to discuss the situation. But the similarities are not lost on anyone who knows the history of the game. Mike Holmgren, who was Green Bay's head coach during Lewis' time with the Packers, is one of them. He recently was having devotion with his wife one morning when they began discussing NFL hiring practices. He couldn't help but think of the shared experiences of Bieniemy and Lewis.

"It's not fair," he says of what's happening to Bieniemy. "It just isn't fair. He is going to get a chance somewhere because their team is very good, they're always going to be good, he's not going to change, and Andy is going to help him. So unless it's really screwed up, unless the league is really screwed up to where they can't recognize that, he's going to get a chance. We can kind of put that in our back pocket. I trust that we've all evolved a little bit more than we were 20 years ago. I mean, goodness me. I hope that's happened. I pray about that. I used to say, 'I don't get it.' Every chance I got, I talked about Sherm Lewis to people. If you looked at the resume without the names, you'd go, OK, these guys are qualified."

Holmgren is more optimistic than others. History shows that it was that only the threat of legal action spurred change at the turn of the century. There were only two Black head coaches in 2002 -- and had been only six in the league's history to that point -- when civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran threatened to sue the NFL for discriminatory practices. That ultimately led to the league adopting the initial Rooney Rule, which required teams to interview at least one minority candidate before hiring a head coach. The number of Black head coaches increased incrementally over the next decade, reaching an all-time high of seven before falling back to its current level. Why the decline?

"I think what happened was, the shield had been pissed on, and (league owners and executives) cleaned it up and got Blacks hired into positions of authority and decision-making, and once they did that, they relaxed and said, 'OK, we've done that. Let's go forward,' " Raye says. "And as the Black coaches started to be fired or eliminated, they didn't see the need again to address that as part of the solution for success. Then it was back to business as usual.

Does Raye see change on the horizon? "Not in my lifetime, no. I don't," he says. "There's too much rationalization going on and too much more acceptance in society of white privilege and white supremacy. We've got our hands full right now trying to save the democracy. NFL football is a blip on that radar, so I don't see it. I would like to hope that that would be the case, but it's so disingenuous, and so inbred, and so deeply imbedded in systemic racism that it has no chance."

Raye is not one for hyperbole. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He cares about the game, but more than that, he cares about fundamental fairness, which is why he is speaking out for the minority coaches who have to remain silent, for fear of retribution. As for Leftwich and Bieniemy, their focus is on Sunday's game and doing what they can to help their players succeed. They will worry about their personal situations at another time, if at all. They are former players who have been taught to worry about only what you can control. But most importantly, to keep fighting.

"Out of respect for Coach Sherm, I'm going to make sure that that doesn't happen," Bieniemy says of his career path stopping at the coordinator level. "I'm going to continue being who I am, I'm going to continue to work regardless of what has taken place, and I will continue banging on that damn door. At some point in time, somebody is going to let me in for the right reasons; not because they feel they have to, but because they feel that I am qualified and am the best man for the job. Until then, if it takes us just winning Super Bowls here in Kansas City, then that's what I'm going to do."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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