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New England Patriots’ promotion of Jerod Mayo important for Black coaches

Rarely have Black coaches been selected to take over iconic franchises

A long-rumored move occurred Friday as the New England Patriots promoted inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo to replace head coach Bill Belichick, the legendary leader who mutually spilt with them this week after winning a record-tying six Super Bowl championships in 24 seasons.

The first person picked to fill one of the NFL’s eight openings for head coaches, Mayo, who turns 38 on Feb. 23, becomes simultaneously the NFL’s youngest head coach and only the fourth Black one in the 32-team league. And while there’s so much to unpack about the Patriots’ groundbreaking coaching succession, here’s the other big news: The league’s hiring cycle began with a bang.

Club owner Robert Kraft wasted no time in executing his vision for the Patriots’ future, promoting Mayo to the team’s top coaching position while the league (heck, the nation) still was processing the end of Belichick’s tenure. The fact that Kraft put his plan in place so quickly, with the news cycle about Belichick’s departure likely continuing for a good stretch as the NFL playoffs kick off Saturday, confirms that the owner was set for some time on installing Mayo whenever Belichick’s staggering run atop the team’s football operation ended.

To say that Mayo is a Patriot is akin to saying that former New England great Tom Brady was a successful quarterback. Such a description doesn’t reveal the full story.

New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo (right) look on before the snap against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 20, 2015, in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

An outstanding middle linebacker for the Patriots, Mayo spent his entire eight-year career with the franchise after it selected him 10th overall in the 2008 NFL draft out of Tennessee. As a rookie, Mayo emerged as one of the league’s best at his position and was named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year. He went on to become an All-Pro and Pro Bowler who was known for being cerebral, tough and an inspirational leader.

What’s more, Mayo’s work ethic and attention to detail became the stuff of legend around the franchise’s Foxboro, Massachusetts, team headquarters. Mayo arrived early, stayed late and devoured game film. Clearly, his impressive approach made a strong impression on Kraft.

After retiring in 2015, Mayo returned to the franchise as inside linebackers coach in 2019. Ever since, there has been speculation that Mayo could be in the mix to eventually replace the venerable Belichick. That list was believed to have included several names of coaches with long ties to the franchise, including former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who was fired on Tuesday, and former Las Vegas Raiders coach Josh McDaniels, who was fired on Halloween night in 2023.

But Kraft’s next head coach was in-house all along. And make no mistake, the fact that Kraft’s new top man on the coaching staff is a Black one is significant for myriad reasons, said law professor N. Jeremi Duru.

“The Patriots hiring Jerod Mayo is a huge deal,” said Duru, a professor of sports law at American University in Washington and one of the nation’s foremost experts on the NFL’s hiring practices. “This is an iconic franchise replacing the greatest coach in NFL history. Historically, those jobs have rarely gone to Black candidates.”

Mayo becomes the team’s first Black head coach. In the context of Mayo’s ascension from being a position coach to the Patriots’ head coach, it’s relevant to discuss the history of racial discord in the metropolitan Boston area.

Remember comedian Chris Rock’s trenchant line about Boston? “I was walking down the street in South Boston the other day, or was it Johannesburg?” Although Rock was making a joke, the fact that he put Boston in the same category as a city in a foreign country famous for apartheid, well, that’s really all you need to know.

“This is an iconic franchise replacing the greatest coach in NFL history. Historically, those jobs have rarely gone to Black candidates.”

— N. Jeremi Duru, American University professor of sports law

Before the 1960s, the Boston Red Sox of Major League Baseball mirrored the city’s mood. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s modern color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Until 1959, the Red Sox, MLB’s last team to have a Black player take the field, remained all white.

The NBA’s Boston Celtics made legendary center Bill Russell the first African American coach in the league. The civil rights icon, however, endured despicable racial abuse while leading the Celtics to 11 Finals championships in 13 seasons. Russell received death threats. Once, his home was invaded. The vandals wrote racial epithets on his walls. They left feces in his bed.

Clearly, Mayo’s promotion represents ongoing progress on this front for the Boston area, and for the NFL in its efforts around inclusive hiring writ large.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick (right) and inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo (left) talk on the sideline in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Jan. 9, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Mark Brown/Getty Images

This hiring cycle is the most important for the NFL, which has been building toward it for years, many NFL proponents of inclusive hiring said.

Repeatedly recently, the NFL has moved to strengthen the Rooney Rule. For the first time, it implemented hiring mandates in coaching and the front office with an eye toward improving diversity, equity and inclusion at the club level. And the league also established a meet-and-greet program to put club owners in the same room with NFL minority employees who aspire to climb the ladder.

Kraft’s decision to empower Mayo to run his own shop cannot be linked to any specific league program or hiring initiative, per se. Mayo is a longtime member of the Patriots. No one needed to educate Kraft about what Mayo would bring to his new role.

But the impact throughout the NFL of Mayo’s promotion cannot be overstated, according to Rod Graves, executive director of the independent group that advises the NFL on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

“The immediacy of Bob Kraft’s decision to hire Jerod Mayo reflects on him as a principled, fair, and deliberate businessman,” Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, wrote to Andscape in a text message.

“Bob Kraft has the pulse of his team. He understands the gravity of his decision, and he tags a dynamic leader and fine football coach. Mayo has had a front-row seat to the greatest coaching career in NFL history.”

Perhaps in the history of sports, period. Now, the Patriots begin a new day: Their first one with a Black man in charge.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.