Rivera’s ouster in Carolina leaves NFL with only three full-time head coaches of color
League still struggles with diversity, in both coaching numbers and front-office positions
Two days after losing to lowly Washington on Carolina’s home field, Panthers owner David Tepper removed the two-time Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year — and one of only four head coaches of color in the league — with four games remaining in the regular season. The Panthers promoted former secondary coach Perry Fewell, who is African American, to interim head coach.
The timing of the move raised eyebrows, but it was not altogether unexpected. For weeks, there has been growing speculation within the league that Rivera would be ousted on Dec. 30, the Monday following the conclusion of the regular season, when most coaching changes occur.
Under Rivera, who had held the position since 2011, the Panthers have struggled the last two seasons as veteran quarterback Cam Newton has often been ineffective or sidelined because of injuries. Moreover, Tepper, who completed his purchase of the franchise in July 2018, has privately expressed his desire to make substantive changes throughout the organization, league sources told The Undefeated.
With Rivera out, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins are the league’s remaining head coaches of color. The NFL has 32 teams.
The Panthers’ search for their next on-field leader is already underway. The Fritz Pollard Alliance hopes that the Panthers, as well as all teams that make changes with their top coaching positions, will strongly consider deserving candidates of color. Rod Graves will insist on it. Graves was hired in April as the primary decision-maker for the group that advises the NFL on matters of diversity and inclusion and which assists the league in enforcing the Rooney Rule. He said he is eager to help Panthers ownership chart a course forward with diversity in mind.
“We’re disappointed to see Ron released. Ron is a fantastic coach, he had an incredible record there in Carolina and he did some outstanding things with that football team,” Graves said. “We do understand that it happens in the league, but the Fritz Pollard Alliance is very concerned about the dwindling numbers. At some point, we hope to have a conversation with the ownership in Carolina, and we expect that that will be soon.”
Graves has much to share on this topic, though none of it is encouraging about the state of diversity in coaching and senior management in football and business operations. When the 2018 season began, the league had eight coaches of color, matching 2011 and 2017 as the most it has had in any season. At the end of the 2018 season, there were eight head-coaching vacancies. Seven of those positions went to white coaches.
The league, which is commemorating its 100th season, has never had an African American team president. Kevin Warren, formerly the league’s highest-ranking African American in business operations while serving as chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, left the NFL to become Big Ten commissioner. Tony Wyllie, formerly the highest-ranking African American in public relations at the team level when he was a senior vice president with Washington, left for a position with Special Olympics. At the end of the 2016 season, the NFL had seven black general managers. Now, Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins is the only African American in that role.
The NFL’s on-field workforce is nearly 70 percent black. Commissioner Roger Goodell has acknowledged that the league isn’t satisfied with where things stand in coaching and senior management.
“The league is very aware of what the issues are with respect to diversity,” Graves said. “I would expect that as much as the league has talked about diversity, that this ownership [in Carolina], as well as all ownership, is well aware of what the issues are.”
Goodell largely views the awful optics as a pipeline issue, arguing that by doing more to help increase the pool of candidates of color for jobs, minority representation would improve from the front office to the field. We’re in an era in which owners overwhelmingly pick from the offensive side of the ball to fill head-coaching vacancies, effectively making the league’s offensive coordinators head coaches in waiting. Byron Leftwich and Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL’s only black offensive coordinators, and Leftwich is the only one of the two who has play-calling duties.
The other issue is that the pipeline argument doesn’t entirely hold water. Theoretically, the more qualified candidates of color there are for openings, the greater the likelihood more will be hired as head coaches. Last season, however, Bieniemy wasn’t a top candidate for openings despite the key role he played in helping to develop Kansas City Chiefs superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 Associated Press NFL MVP. For the NFL to effect positive change, owners must be truly interested in hiring those in the pipeline. Rivera could be back in it.
Presumably he would be an attractive candidate, having guided the Panthers to the playoffs four times in nine seasons. In 2015, Carolina went 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl. Rivera was selected the Associated Press’ coach of the year after 2013 and ’15 seasons.
“The talent that Ron has is not out there in abundance,” Graves said. “He has been a major contributor to league discussions, whether it’s regarding player safety or regarding rules. He goes so far beyond the city limits of Carolina. He’s well-respected in the league. A coach of his stature will be sought after, and I fully expect that if Ron wants to coach, he’ll find a job.”