Sidelined

NFL’s hiring mandate gives coaching hopefuls like Kenneth Black a chance with uncertain long-term impact

League fellows like the former Florida A&M assistant aim to enter pipeline of offensive coordinators and head coaches

As part of the league’s wide-ranging effort to address its inclusive hiring crises, the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason hired Kenneth Black, who’s African American, as a coaching fellow on offense (NFL fellows can either be female or members of an ethnic or racial minority group). The former college quarterback and college offensive coordinator works closely with Rams head coach Sean McVay and the entire offensive staff, performing myriad duties and gaining experience at the game’s highest level.

Generally, assistants on offense — and especially those who work closely with quarterbacks — are the most sought-after candidates to fill openings for head coaches. The hope, high-ranking league officials say, is that Black and the other fellows in the new program will continue to climb the coaching ladder and, eventually, enter the hiring pipeline for top-rung positions as NFL offensive coordinators and head coaches.

The program is the first hiring mandate in the league’s history, and Black, who’s 31, revels in his role as a pioneer.

“This is an unbelievable opportunity and a great responsibility,” Black said. “Obviously, I want to show that I can do this for myself. I want to prove that.

“But my goal is also to help others like myself, other young up-and-coming coaches, get opportunities. And the best way I can do that is to make the most of this opportunity.”

To hear Rams management tell it, Black is off to a strong start.

Kenneth Black (right) was a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Florida A&M University.

Devin P. Grimes/Florida A&M Athletics

In the run-up to training camp, Black, formerly the co-offensive coordinator at historically Black Florida A&M University, immersed himself in learning the Rams’ offensive system and terminology, reviewing game film from previous seasons and becoming familiar with the entire coaching staff and players. Throughout the process, Black displayed a high football IQ, tirelessness and affability, enabling him to smoothly transition into his groundbreaking role with the reigning Super Bowl champs.

“He just had a great way about himself during the quarterback meetings [in the offseason],” McVay recalled. “He’s a great listener, but he also offered great opinions. He just had a great feel for how to appropriately inject himself. In a short amount of time, he’s done a great job fitting in.”

McVay, who believes in empowering assistants as he once was empowered while working under head coaches earlier in his career, plans to expand Black’s portfolio as the newcomer proves he can take on more. “We really give a lot of ownership,” McVay said. “I want to create opportunities where everybody on our staff can coach, and how we do that is an ever-evolving process.”

Black was first exposed to McVay’s inclusive management style, albeit in a limited fashion, while interning with the Rams before last season’s training camp as a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellow. In that program, named after the innovative Hall of Famer who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles, all 32 clubs are encouraged to hire at least two fellows with an offensive background for the duration of training camp and the preseason. The offensive fellowship differs significantly from the Walsh fellowship.

Every team is required to participate in the new initiative, the positions are for an entire year, coaches are paid from a leaguewide fund instead of by the clubs, and head coaches and offensive staffs must maintain significant interaction with fellows. After an impressive performance during his brief stint previously with the team, Black immediately emerged as a top candidate for the Rams’ fellowship.

The mere existence of the program, however, marks yet another tacit acknowledgment by the NFL that it is falling woefully short in creating diverse workplaces at the club level.

Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said the NFL is being proactive about Black people being underrepresented in leadership positions.

Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Throughout every iteration of the Rooney Rule, the league’s main tool to help foster diversity and inclusion in its workplace, owners have maintained their opposition to any form of hiring mandates. In the earliest discussions that resulted in the longtime rule’s creation, the potential approval of a quota system — for any position on the coaching ladder — was considered a nonstarter. But that was in a world before Brian Flores called out owners publicly for their allegedly unfair hiring practices.

In February, Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach and current Pittsburgh Steelers assistant, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit — which seeks class-action status — against the NFL. Flores alleges that professional sports’ most successful and powerful league commits widespread malfeasance in hiring. Although the league said Flores’ specific allegations are without merit, commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged the NFL comes up short of the goal line in inclusive hiring.

Shortly after Flores initiated legal action against the league, Goodell announced the NFL plans to begin a comprehensive review of its entire approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. During their annual meeting in March, NFL owners approved the offensive fellowship program. And finally, at the annual two-day spring meeting in May, the NFL unveiled a program intended to accelerate the rise of qualified minority employees in coaching and front-office management.

Still, based on the numbers, the NFL isn’t doing enough to address the long-running problem, the league’s critics contend.

The league has only three Black head coaches: Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans and Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who was unexpectedly promoted from defensive coordinator recently after then-head coach Bruce Arians stepped down and took a front-office role with the franchise. Mike McDaniel of the Dolphins, who is biracial, joins Ron Rivera of the Washington Commanders and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets as the league’s other minority head coaches.

Over the previous five hiring cycles, there were 36 head-coaching openings. Only four Black men were hired to fill positions. In the hiring cycle completed before this season’s NFL scouting combine, white coaches were chosen for seven of the nine openings. Bowles’ unexpected promotion occurred after the cycle was believed to have been completed.

The NFL has only two Black offensive coordinators: Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs and Byron Leftwich of the Buccaneers. It always bears repeating: The NFL has 32 teams.

“We also know that there aren’t a lot of coaches of color on the offense side of the ball and working in those quarterback rooms. By creating that position and investing in that position … you’re being very intentional about training and getting a spot right.”

— Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead

In 2020, players who are Black or African American accounted for 57.5% of those on NFL rosters. The fact is, more than half of the league’s on-field workforce is Black, but Black people are vastly underrepresented in NFL team leadership.

Yes, there’s clearly a problem, Rams general manager Les Snead said. And Snead believes the league is working earnestly to correct it.

“The league does take such a beating on this, but the league is being proactive and intentional in trying to address a problem,” Snead said. “We know coaches are coming primarily from the offensive side of the ball.

“We also know that there aren’t a lot of coaches of color on the offense side of the ball and working in those quarterback rooms. By creating that position and investing in that position … you’re being very intentional about training and getting a spot right.”

Kenneth Black transitioned from being a player at Prairie View A&M to becoming a graduate assistant in 2013 to kick-start his coaching career.

Devin P. Grimes/Florida A&M Athletics

For years, many Black NFL assistant coaches privately have opposed hiring quotas, arguing that jobs specifically earmarked for minorities cast a shadow over them within organizations. If they’re supposedly not good enough to compete with white candidates for openings, their thinking goes, why would owners ever take them seriously for the biggest positions. After the deplorable results of so many hiring cycles, though, several Black assistants interviewed by Andscape recently said it’s time to try almost anything.

Black caught the coaching bug from his father, Kenneth Black Sr., a successful high school teacher, administrator and coach in Jacksonville, Florida, and Louisville, Kentucky. After beginning his college playing career at Western Kentucky University, Black transferred to historically Black Prairie View A&M, shining for two seasons as the Panthers’ starting quarterback. In 2013, he joined Prairie View A&M’s staff as a graduate assistant and remained there for six seasons. Black moved to Florida A&M in 2019 as a co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

African American coaches don’t want “anything to just be given to us. We’re not looking to be handed anything because of the color of our skin,” Black said. “We want to show, we want the opportunity to prove that we can do it as well. And we want to do that through our work.”

One could make a persuasive argument that Black is in the most enviable position among the league’s new fellows.

Not only has he joined a franchise basking in the glow of a Super Bowl championship, Black also has the good fortune of learning under McVay, who’s currently second to none in the NFL at helping assistants rise to the ranks of head coaches. In only five seasons leading the Rams, McVay, formerly the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator, has had four former assistants move on to run their own shops: Matt LaFleur (Green Bay Packers), Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings), Brandon Staley (Los Angeles Chargers) and Zac Taylor (Cincinnati Bengals).

At the very least, coaches who roll with McVay will likely continue to draw a high degree of attention from club owners.

“Good things have happened because we’ve been successful as a team, and those guys have been a big part of our success here,” McVay said of his former assistants who went on to lead teams. “I just happen to be in the head-coaching role, but this has been a reflection of good things going on with the Rams.”

None of that is lost on Black.

“You know what [working under McVay] does? It might open a door for you, that maybe wouldn’t be open for you if you didn’t have the Rams on your resume, and it gets you the chance to shake somebody’s hand,” Black said. “But from there, it’s really about the work you’ve done and what you’ve proven. You can’t ever forget that.”

Even in a best-case scenario, the new fellowship program and the league’s other plans to address its failings in workplace diversity and inclusion can’t be evaluated fairly for years. Top officials acknowledge as much, saying that they’re playing the long game in an effort to effect lasting structural change.

But after Black NFL employees have experienced so many disappointments for so long, time is a luxury they say they don’t have.

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