Minority Coaches in the NFL

The Rooney Rule is a decade old now. I won't use this space to opine on whether it's working or even whether it's a good idea. But it does seem to me that black coaches have to meet a higher standard to keep their jobs, and I wanted to find out if that was true.

I looked at every head coach who has lost his job since the start of the 2002 season. That includes coaches who resigned, retired, or took a different position, since it's not always easy to tell when such moves are voluntary. For simplicity, I've used the blanket term "fired," but that includes retirements, etc. Coaches who have been fired twice will appear twice, once for each job. There are several hypotheses I'm looking to test:

1. Black coaches have to prove themselves more quickly than white coaches, and teams tend to show less patience about firing them.

2. Black coaches who have a bad season are more likely to lose their jobs than white coaches who have a bad season.

3. Black interim coaches are less likely than white interim coaches to be hired full-time.

I'm writing this before my research, so I don't know whether any of those statements are true, but hopefully we can find a reliable way to test them all. Let's begin by separating interim coaches from full-time coaches. The "Prev" column below shows the team's record when the interim coach took over.


* retained as full-time head coach

Since 2002, about 17% of head coaching vacancies — 13 out of 78 — have been filled by an African-American. However, more than half of all interim coaching jobs go to blacks (9/16, 56%). I would suggest four reasons that might contribute to this phenomenon:

1. Most owners and GMs still prefer (consciously or unconsciously) to hire whites, but during the season they need to choose someone from the staff. Many assistants coaches and coordinators are black.

2. At a time when ownership wants to please employees who are upset by losing, they can do so by selecting an African-American interim coach who may be more appealing to players.

3. Owners can hire a black coach for three weeks and then spend the rest of their careers safe from charges of racism, because they once chose a black HC.

4. Interim coaches always get to interview for the permanent job, and black coaches satisfy the Rooney Rule.

The black interim coaches — Robiskie, Thomas, Singletary, Fewell, Frazier, Studesville, Tucker, Crennel, and Bowles — coached an average of 5 games, while the white interim coaches averaged 8 games. This supports the third and fourth ideas above: that management doesn't mind having a minority coach for a few weeks, but if it's a long-term situation, some clubs prefer white coaches.

The black interim coaches compiled a combined record of 20-26 (.435), compared to 20-36 (.357) for the white interim coaches. Three of the five interim coaches who kept their jobs after the season were black. Five coaches is way too few to prove anything one way or another, but let's throw my third hypothesis out the window: there is no evidence to suggest that black interim coaches are less likely than white interim coaches to be hired full-time. It may be true, but there's no meaningful evidence either way.

Now we'll examine "regular" head coaches; interim coaches will appear below only if they were re-hired following the season (Cable, Singletary, Crennel). The "Yrs" column below shows how many seasons the coach held that position. All partial seasons count as one-half.


Over the last decade, six teams have fired their coach after just one season. I hate that, and even after a miserable season like Shell's or Mularkey's, I don't think it's fair — or good for the team. But if there's one coach in this group who really has an argument that he got hosed, it's clearly Hue Jackson, who lost his job when Al Davis died and the new ownership brought in their own man (Dennis Allen).

Three of the six coaches fired after a single year were black, including Jackson. Their combined record was 14-37 (.275), compared to 8-40 (.167) for white coaches.


Let's briefly discuss the four coaches with winning percentages over .400.

Bill Callahan took over the Raiders when Jon Gruden got traded, got them to the Super Bowl, and totally lost the team the following season. If he hadn't inherited such a good team, he might not have lasted past the first season. Nick Saban left the Dolphins to take more money from the University of Alabama. Mike Mularkey has been hired as an NFL head coach twice, and lasted a combined three seasons. The poor guy got two HC jobs, but neither team gave him a real chance to prove himself. The Jaguars were terrible before he got there, and he had a better record in Buffalo than either his predecessor (Gregg Williams, .354) or successor (Dick Jauron, .421).

Mike Singletary is the only black coach on this list. From 2003-07, the 49ers went 25-55 (.313). When they started the '08 season 2-5, the team fired head coach Mike Nolan and replaced him with Singletary. The Niners showed clear improvement, finishing the season 5-4, and Singletary was retained as head coach. In '09, the team had its best season in six years, 8-8. Ownership was so disappointed by a 5-10 record the following season that Singletary was canned with one week to go. Jim Harbaugh replaced him the next year, and has seen far more success with largely the same players.


Four of these 15 coaches are black: Green, Edwards, Caldwell, and Morris. They went a combined 76-116 (.396) before losing their jobs. The 11 white coaches combined to go 179-338 (.346), so the black coaches were fired despite a significantly higher winning percentage.

Those numbers are closer if you exclude Mora and Caldwell, the two coaches over .500. Caldwell took over a very successful team, and he counts for 25% of the black coaches' total, compared to about 10% for Mora among white coaches. But even if you exclude them, the black coaches are still ahead, .347 to .326. However, in their last seasons before getting fired, the black coaches went a combined 13-51 (.203). The white coaches were 48-108 (.308), and that's a significant point in their favor.

Forty-seven of the 85 coaches fired since 2002 lasted three years or less. Fourteen of those 47 were black (30%). If you exclude interim coaches, eight of the 36 (22%) fired within three years were black. Those numbers are roughly in line with what we'd expect, so this doesn't prove any bias. The black coaches, however, guided their teams to a combined record of 125-198 (.387), while the white coaches' combined mark was just 317-648 (.328). The black coaches were fired early despite significantly better records — nearly 20% better — than their white counterparts.


Crennel is the only black coach in this group. His .375 winning percentage is below the .439 average, but with a sample size of one, this obviously isn't significant data. This is also a weird group, because you've got two legends who retired voluntarily (Parcells and Gibbs), one expansion coach (Capers) and another who might as well have been (Davis), plus one who was fired with a winning percentage over .600 (Phillips).


Again, there's only one minority coach in this group, Edwards. He has the second-worst record among these six, but he's also the only one whose team made the playoff three times. Jauron's Bears and Vermeil's Chiefs only played in one postseason apiece, both losing their first game. Wannstedt, Schottenheimer, and Childress all made the playoffs twice with these teams, where they went a combined 2-6. Edwards led the Jets to the playoffs in 2001, 2002, and 2004, going 2-3.


Tony Dungy is the only black coach in this group. All of the white coaches had records between .450 and .625, all but Haslett reached the postseason more than once, and none except Gruden won a Super Bowl. Dungy, who retired voluntarily, won by far the most games, had by far the best winning percentage, made the playoffs every year, and did win a Super Bowl. He doesn't really fit in this group.


Other than Del Rio, all these coaches won more than half their games, and all led teams to the Super Bowl. Smith, the only black coach in the group, was fired after a 10-6 season. His teams finished 7-9 or better every year after his first season, winning three division titles. Smith was a combined 29-19 in his last three seasons, the second-best record in this group (Cowher, 34-14).

It's hard to draw conclusions when there are only one or two black coaches in most of these groups. But we can look at larger data. Excluding interim coaches, we find that black HCs fired since 2002 had a combined record of 337-346 (.493), while white coaches fired during the same period combined to go 2206-2319 (.488). Obviously this doesn't prove anything. We do find, however, that black coaches were retained for an average of 57 games (about 3½ years), compared to 74 games (almost 5 years) for white coaches. This is significant for two reasons:

1. It suggests that black coaches are held to a higher standard, or kept on a shorter leash, than their white peers. Despite virtually identical winning percentages — actually a little higher for African-Americans — their coaching terms are shorter by more than a season.

2. New coaches usually take over bad teams, and are seldom successful in their first year or two. Since the black coaches were fired more quickly, more of their time was spent in the re-building phase, dragging down their records. This implies that looking at the respective records may underrate African-American coaches.

Among the 12 black head coaches in our sample (again, we're not counting interim coaches), a third were fired in under two seasons. Another third were fired after three seasons. The chart below shows what percentage of coaches in the sample began that number of seasons as an NFL head coach:


White coaches have gotten longer terms as HCs than African-Americans, but that is not necessarily evidence of bias. Maybe black coaches were less qualified or performed at a lower level. We've already shown the overall records to be similar, but there's another way to look at this, as well.

In their final seasons — that is, the season during which or immediately after which they were fired — black coaches went a combined 60-131 (.314), while white coaches were 288-587 (.329). In the season before (when applicable), blacks were 80-67 (.544) and whites 426-485-1 (.468). I have four thoughts on those numbers:

1. There is a big difference between .544 and .468. This data supports my second hypothesis, that black coaches who have a bad season are more likely to lose their jobs than white coaches who have a bad season. Among coaches with a track record of success, black coaches tend to get fired after one bad year, while white coaches are more likely to get a second chance.

2. Both black coaches and white coaches tended to perform very poorly in the seasons that prompted their firing. Even if black coaches had done well earlier, they generally were doing very badly when they lost their jobs.

3. There are only 12 lines in our sample of black coaches, and Tony Dungy (who left on his own terms) may be skewing the sample. This could also apply to white coaches like Bill Cowher and Dick Vermeil, but in a sample of 61, that doesn't have as much impact on the averages.

4. If white coaches are more likely to survive a bad season or two, they could also be more likely to get the axe after a mediocre season like 6-10, getting fired for a pattern of mediocrity rather than a single terrible showing. That would drive up the last-year averages while hurting the overall numbers, which is consistent with the data we've seen. Does it hold up? In a word, no.

Beginning in 2002, we find that when teams finished 4-12 or worse, 58% of black coaches and 58% of white coaches got fired. That's 7/12 blacks (58.3%) and 23/40 whites (57.5%). There is absolutely no evidence that teams are more likely to retain white coaches after a season that bad.

The samples we're dealing with are not large, and there are other factors that can influence the data. For instance, are teams that hire black coaches more, less, or equally patient as far as when they choose to change head coaches? I suspect the opposite is actually true, but maybe the same factors that make management more likely to hire a minority coach also make that team more likely to change coaches quickly if things don't turn around right away.

Having acknowledged that we can't control for all relevant factors, let's return to the three hypotheses I made at the top:

1. Black coaches have to prove themselves more quickly than white coaches, and teams tend to show less patience about firing them.
2. Black coaches who have a bad season are more likely to lose their jobs than white coaches who have a bad season.
3. Black interim coaches are less likely than white interim coaches to be hired full-time.

The third point is inconclusive. There's not nearly enough data to draw conclusions at this time. However, the evidence above suggests that the first two ideas may be true. Among black coaches, a much higher percentage were fired before completing two seasons, and more were fired after one bad year, even if they'd done well the season before. Despite similar overall winning percentages, black coaches average about 17½ games less than white coaches.

To my mind, the most important data here concern:

* Percentage of black interim coaches vs. full-time coaches. More than half of all interim coaches are black, so there are obviously qualified minority HC candidates. But under 20% of all long-term hires are black. Unconscious bias, conscious discrimination, or inequities in the interview and hiring process deprive African-Americans of head coaching opportunities.

* Length of coaching term. Black coaches were retained for an average of 57 games (about 3½ years), compared to 74 games (almost 5 years) for white coaches, even though their winning percentages were a little higher. 25% of black coaches were fired after just one season, compared to 7% of white coaches.

* Second chances. Across racial lines, most fired coaches got really terrible results in their final seasons. But black coaches largely did well (.544) in the season before they were fired, while white coaches were much less successful (.468). Black coaches usually get fired the first time they have a bad season. White coaches usually get fired the second time they have a bad season.

Those are statistics, and they don't change depending on how we feel about them. None of this necessarily proves any racial bias, but the numbers we've examined support the idea that to keep their jobs, black coaches need to perform to a higher standard than white coaches. When we combine that with the barriers to getting hired in the first place, it's an uphill battle for minority coaches, and for the league in its efforts to promote diversity in the head coaching ranks.

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