We’ve been told that one of the greatest barriers to seeing more Black head coaches in the NFL is The Pipeline—the symbolic path that coaches follow from college to NFL assistants to coordinators and finally the big chair. It is where NFL teams, much like Fortune 500 companies, say they will find their next generation of diverse leaders, if only they can identify the best and brightest early and steer them toward maximizing their full potential. As with any other job, nothing proves readiness like results, and absent having previous NFL head coaching experience, the best way to show and prove results is having worked your way up through the lower coaching levels.
Today, the Indianapolis Colts absolutely ethered The Pipeline and the NFL’s broader dearth of lower-level Black coaching candidates as a reason that diversity has yet to permeate the league’s head coaching level as it has for decades on the field. The Colts fired head coach Frank Reich this morning after an awful 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots dropped the team to a 3-5-1 record. His replacement as interim head coach? Jeff Saturday, the retired longtime Colts center who currently serves as an ESPN commentator and most notably, has no coaching experience at the college or NFL level. Ever.
That fact was quickly pointed out on Twitter.
You read that right: Saturday’s most notable, if not only, coaching experience was leading a parochial high school team in his native Georgia, and not a stellar high school program, at that.
I’ll pause here for the necessary disclaimer: This has little to do with Saturday, who is white. He finds himself in the odd position of being handed a coveted job via a mix of the Colts’ football ineptitude and Reich’s personal misfortune for being canned in the middle of the season (although fired NFL head coaches usually get paid handsomely to go away, so I’m sure Reich will be quite alright). Saturday knows Indianapolis football at its best, having played his best professional years, won a Super Bowl and served as a consultant there until this morning’s announcement. He’s far from the first person for whom proximity has been a substitute for experience in the pursuit of a high-level, high-paying gig. He won’t be the last.
But if the NFL accepts this hire—and it has no choice but to—then it has to stop telling us how critical it is to fill The Pipeline with diverse candidates and then wait for years while they’re prepared to be head coaches before they can have an opportunity. The Colts currently have eight Black assistants on their staff with at least one year of experience in the pro ranks, which is more than Saturday has walking in the door. I’ve written about the Pittsburgh Steelers, which as of the start of this season, had a majority nonwhite coaching staff under Mike Tomlin, who is Black, and who threw former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores a lifeline by hiring him when he couldn’t get a job elsewhere after becoming the lead plaintiff in a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and several teams.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that any of the assistant coaches in Indy or Pittsburgh, or anywhere else in The Pipeline, will ultimately make it to a head coaching position. Many of them won’t even covet the job, and for those who do, the traditional path from position coach to coordinator will certainly prove valuable. But after today, The Pipeline has officially diminished, if not evaporated, as an excuse for head coaching jobs remaining mostly a province of lily-whiteness.