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Eric Bieniemy is head coach material – that he isn’t one is a travesty

This Sunday’s Super Bowl has been shaped by black coordinators. But the top jobs are usually offered to young, white coaches

By Andrew Lawrence | The Guardian | Thursday, February 4, 2021

here was no saucer-eyed staring, no hemming and hawing, no fevered talk about biting off anyone’s kneecaps. But then again Eric Bieniemy has always looked at ease in the spotlight for a man who never seeks it. Beaming in from Kansas City for his Super Bowl media day news conference earlier this week, the Chiefs offensive coordinator was the usual vision of cool, by turns relating his overarching strategies and philosophies on the game with an intense but understated passion that would make any listener want to run through a wall for him – whether they play football or not. Really, he looked for all the world like NFL head coach material. That he isn’t one yet is a travesty.

After a hiring cycle that saw black coaches left on the sideline, this was supposed to be a crowning season for Bieniemy, the NFL’s hottest assistant for three seasons running now. But this year seven head coaching vacancies came and went with the 51-year-old New Orleans native getting six interviews, but no offers. Not that he’s bitter or even disappointed.

“I did not ask to be the poster boy of this particular situation,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’ve had a great deal of success where I’ve been recognized to interview for some jobs. And so those interviews, for whatever reason, I have not been hired – which is OK. When it’s all said and done, I have a responsibility to the Kansas City Chiefs and our players to make sure we’re mentally and physically ready to go come game day.

Besides Urban Meyer (a three-time college champion now in charge of the Jacksonville Jaguars) and Robert Saleh (a conference championship-winning defensive coordinator now in charge of the New York Jets), the hiring pool was a who’s who of who’s that. There’s the new guy in Philly who turns words into equations, that other guy in Detroit who may need a rabies shot. It’s enough to make Adam Gase blink. David Culley, a former colleague of Bieniemy in Kansas City, now in charge in Houston, was the only black coach hired this offseason – and even that was done as a concession to the team’s disgruntled franchise quarterback for not bringing in Bieniemy in the first place.

After tying a record with eight coaches of color to kick off the 2018 season, the NFL is down to just five. Take Saleh (the league’s first Muslim head coach) and Rivera (the only Hispanic American) out of the mix, and that leaves Cullen, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Miami’s Brian Flores as the only black head coaches in a workplace where 70% of the players look like them.

“We talk about it a lot,” says Frank Clark, the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl pass rusher. “We all know the head coach runs the team. Why don’t we see more black coaches being put in charge? It could be tracing back to our roots. It could be things that’s happening in our current time. Some [team owners] might be scared to take that first step and give that man that platform. We speak on equality all the time, but is it really truly equal?”

The Rooney Rule was supposed to fix this. But rather than respect the 2003 initiative, which was intended to expand the potential hiring pool while giving black assistants much-needed interview experience, NFL team executives mostly treat it as a lip-service measure they grudgingly indulge before going with the “safer” bet – likely, a “Sean McVay-type”, a young, white coach with a sharp haircut (although few of them turn out to have McVay’s offensive smarts). When the Fritz Pollard Alliance and other advocacy groups pointed to the dramatically higher winning percentages of black head coaches like Art Shell, Dennis Green and Tony Dungy, NFL team executives bemoaned the lack of black assistants on the offensive side of the ball even as they boxed most of those prospects – Bieniemy included – into dead-end jobs as running backs coaches.

Bieniemy just gives these same team executives an excuse to do what they do best – contradict themselves. So he was a young hellion with a long rap sheet. Aren’t you the same suits who say, You can’t win with Boy Scouts? So Bieniemy doesn’t call the plays in Kansas City? Reid credits him with doing just about everything else – from running meetings and practices to drawing up cheeky plays like the “Four Tops” number Reid sprung on the 49ers in last year’s Super Bowl. So Bieniemy inherited a once-in-a-generation quarterback talent? So did Kliff Kingsbury. He had Patrick Mahomes from 2014 through 2016 at Texas Tech and barely managed to eke out one winning season. After two more losing campaigns, Kingsbury was fired in November 2018 after going 35-40 in six seasons. Two months later, the Arizona Cardinals made him a head coach at age 39. At the end of the day, well, he was a McVay-type too.

For the first time in history, the Super Bowl will feature two black offensive coordinators: Bieniemy and the Buccaneers’ Byron Leftwich – a former franchise passer who is likewise being undervalued for his work with the other star QB in this game. And to hear the DC native tell it, he never would have been in this position if Bucs head coach Bruce Arians, an oft-overlooked assistant in his day, hadn’t dragged Leftwich off the golf course five years ago to be a coaching intern in Arizona.

Today, Leftwich is one of three black coordinators on a staff that in addition to Todd Bowles – the former Jets head coach responsible for the Bucs’ top-rated defense –also boasts one woman coaching on the defensive line and the daughter of an Iranian refugee coaching in the weight room with a doctorate in physical therapy.

“This is not the norm,” says Leftwich, who didn’t get a head coaching interview this cycle. “It’s a blessing that [Arians] has the view that he has. I just hope no one believes he’s just giving us anything. Obviously, everyone’s doing their job. The fact is we’re here – with the players putting us in position to have an opportunity to win this football game.”

Super Bowl LV should have been the kind of all-out, coach-poaching fest that elicits comparisons to New England’s two-decades long brain drain under Bill Belichick. Instead, it’s an indictment of a league that talks out of both sides of its mouth while regularly betraying spectacular worker bees like Bieniemy – who, despite mounds of evidence and testimony to the contrary, has actually been labeled a poor interviewee. If he’s lucky, maybe Reid retires and Bieniemy ends up in the Chiefs’ big chair. But with the way the Chiefs under Reid are rolling that day may be some way off.

Alas, all Bieniemy can do for the moment is his job. It’s just too bad that when you’re a black coach in the NFL, doing that job well means rarely, if ever, getting a fair crack at a better one.

“One thing I heard Todd Bowles say is, You don’t ever want to be recognized for what you do by your race or your color,” says Bieniemy, who has a chance to join Norv Turner, Gary Kubiak and Charlie Weis on the shortlist of modern-era offensive coordinators who have won titles on the trot. “You want to be recognized for how great of a coach you are, or how much of a leader of men that you are, and how much of an influence that you can have on the people in that building that are working with you and for you. Those are the things that matter.”

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