Let’s play Six Degrees of Steve Wilks, a quick and easy way to connect the dots of racism in the NFL head coaching ranks.
— We’ll start with Kliff Kingsbury, a white coach who was fired by Texas Tech in 2018 and somehow wound up as head man of the Arizona Cardinals the very next season. He replaced Wilks, whose first NFL head coaching opportunity resulted in a single, doomed season. Kingsbury would be fired, too, but only after receiving three more years to prove himself than his Black predecessor.
— Moving on to Lovie Smith, a Black coach Wilks once worked for in Chicago. Smith was dumped after only one year coaching a Texans team that everyone knew would be awful in the wake of the Deshaun Watson debacle. That also provides a link to David Culley, a Black coach who received the same one-and-done treatment in Houston after the 2021 season.
— Which brings us to Matt Rhule, a white college coach touted as the next big thing in the NFL. Instead, he left behind a huge mess in Carolina before getting dismissed early in the 2022 season (and, of course, quickly landed another lucrative college job at Nebraska ). Wilks took over as the Panthers’ interim coach for the final 12 games and did a stellar job of cleaning things up.
— When the Panthers began the interview process for a permanent head coach, Wilks was in the mix. So was Jim Caldwell, a Black coach who once guided the Detroit Lions — the Lions! — to a pair of playoff appearances, which might be the most impressive line on any candidate’s resume. But Caldwell, at this point, is nothing more than a perennial interviewee, the guy who gives owners a chance to say, “Hey, we considered a Black candidate.” He never had a chance in Carolina. We’ll get back to Wilks in a moment.
— Now, the game gets a bit convoluted. Jeff Saturday took over as the Colts’ interim coach in November despite not a single minute of coaching experience beyond the high school ranks. He was totally overmatched in his new job, going 1-7, but that hasn’t prevented him from being one of the candidates for the full-time position. Saturday’s inclusion on the list of potential candidates has stirred such opposition that an Indy fan launched a petition drive demanding the team hire someone else.
— How does Saturday figure in the Six Degrees? Well, he’s a thoroughly unqualified white coach who took over after Frank Reich was let go by the Colts. Reich didn’t go without a job for long. On Thursday, he was announced as the new coach of the … yep, the Panthers. The white candidate beat out Wilks, who had overwhelming support in the locker room after going 6-6 and nearly leading Carolina to the playoffs, a huge turnaround from the 1-4 start under Rhule.
And here we go again.
After Houston’s firing of Smith and Carolina passing on Wilks, the NFL is down to two Black head coaches — Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles — in a league where the vast majority of players are Black. (There are three other minority coaches, including Miami’s Mike McDaniel, who has a Black father and identifies as multiracial.)
Even with four openings still to be filled, there’s little reason to be optimistic that much will change. Certainly not after the way things went down in Carolina.
Wilks, who is already part of a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the NFL’s hiring practices, will likely be adding Carolina to the case if the outrage from his attorney, Doug Wigdor, is any indication.
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by David Tepper,” Wigdor said. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
The situation could get even messier if Brian Flores is snubbed by the Cardinals, of all teams, in their search for Kingsbury’s replacement.
Flores, you might remember, is the guy who bravely took the league to court on the heels of being fired by the Miami Dolphins. Wilks joined that lawsuit, claiming he was discriminated against by Arizona in 2018 when he was hired with no meaningful chance to succeed. (Hard to disagree since he was stuck with Josh Rosen as his quarterback.)
Flores, who spent this past season on Tomlin’s staff in Pittsburgh, has been viewed as the front-runner to get another head coaching shot with Arizona. But former Saints coach Sean Payton has joined the mix, so it’s not farfetched to envision him getting the job.
The courthouse might be the only place where Black candidates have any shot at making the head coaching ranks more inclusive. Then again, the NFL has nearly limitless resources and a history of getting what it wants in the end.
After all, a concussion scandal did nothing to lessen the league’s popularity or prosperity. Neither did the banishment of Colin Kaepernick after he simply took a knee to peacefully protest police brutality and racial injustice.
The NFL is always playing the long game, and always finds a way to come out more dominant than ever on the American sporting landscape.
This will likely be more of the same. Some sort of settlement, perhaps, but no real change.
In the end, the Six Degrees of Steve Wilks probably won’t include a third chance for him to be an NFL head coach.
That game seems over.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org.
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