The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a Black, interim NFL coach, Steve Wilks never had a fair chance

Steve Wilks led the Panthers to a 6-6 record and into the chase for the NFC South crown. (Butch Dill/AP)
6 min

The story of Frank Reich’s hiring as the coach of the Carolina Panthers is not about Frank Reich. He’s a fine football coach and a good man.

Even though Colts franchise quarterback Andrew Luck retired suddenly before Reich’s second season in Indianapolis, he had a 40-33-1 record there — making the postseason twice — before being fired after a 3-5-1 start this season.

But the story isn’t about Reich or his coaching credentials. It’s about Steve Wilks and his coaching credentials. Wilks is yet another example of a Black coach in the NFL being given very little chance to prove himself — first by the Arizona Cardinals, now by the Panthers. And race is very much a part of this story, whether the NFL and its mostly White fan base admits it.

Wilks coached Arizona in 2018, after Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer retired. The Cardinals took Josh Rosen with the 10th pick in that year’s draft, and he proved to be a washout; he has now been with seven NFL teams in five seasons.

Not surprisingly, the Cardinals went 3-13 and Wilks was fired. He was replaced by Kliff Kingsbury, who had just been fired after amassing a losing record at Texas Tech (35-40) but who was alleged to be a quarterback guru. Having whiffed on Rosen, the Cardinals used the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft on Kyler Murray and handed him to Kingsbury.

Carolina Panthers hire Frank Reich as coach, passing over Steve Wilks

We’ll never know how Wilks would have done given the chance to coach Murray. What we do know is that Kingsbury went 28-37-1 over four years, with one winning season and one playoff appearance. He was fired this month after the Cardinals finished 4-13. Kingsbury is only 43. Bet this: He will get another head coaching gig. After all, he has the look. He’s White and attractive — he has been called “Coach Handsome” — and some NFL owner or college president will decide he looks like a head coach should.

Wilks finally got another “chance” at being an NFL head coach this season. When Matt Rhule was fired with a 1-4 record and the Panthers in chaos, Wilks was named the interim coach. At the time, Panthers owner David Tepper said Wilks would receive serious consideration for the position if he did “an incredible job.”

Tepper lied.

Wilks did an incredible job. The team was going nowhere with Baker Mayfield at quarterback. Wilks benched him (and eventually, at Mayfield’s request, released him) and started Sam Darnold. He shrugged off the team’s trade of Christian McCaffrey, its best player, and brought together a divided locker room.

The Panthers went 6-6 the rest of the way and were even in playoff contention with two weeks left in the season, albeit in the dreadful NFC South.

Although Wilks did incredible work — remarkable, amazing, fantastic, you choose the word — he had no chance, zero, to get the job. Even though Wilks technically interviewed twice for the position, it was clear Tepper was going outside. He interviewed just about anyone who had ever coached from the minute the season ended; Wilks interviewed twice, which purportedly made him a “finalist.”

Finishing second in a coaching search is irrelevant. It has also become the NFL’s way of claiming to comply with the Rooney Rule — “Oh, look, we seriously considered [insert Black coach’s name here], but he finished second.”

Ask Eric Bieniemy about that. Or Byron Leftwich.

When Black coaches do get hired, they are often on a shorter leash than White coaches. As The Washington Post reported last year, Black coaches since 1990 have been twice as likely as others to be fired after leading their team to a regular season record of .500 or better. Lovie Smith, who was just fired in Houston after one season, was fired after going 81-63 and taking the Bears to a Super Bowl with the immortal Rex Grossman at quarterback. The Bears were 10-6 in 2012, Smith’s final year. In the 10 years since, they’ve had one winning season.

Jim Caldwell went to a Super Bowl in Indianapolis, was fired two years later after an injured Peyton Manning missed the entire season and the Colts went 2-14, then was the offensive coordinator for the Ravens when they won the Super Bowl. He was hired as the Lions’ head coach in 2014 and went 36-28 in four seasons, including two playoff appearances. That was the best record for any Detroit coach since Buddy Parker in the 1950s.

The NFL loves ‘quarterback whisperers.’ Why doesn’t it love Jim Caldwell?

Still, Caldwell was fired after his second straight 9-7 season in 2017. Tony Dungy — the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, whom Caldwell had worked for in Indianapolis — watched the news conference in which team owner Martha Firestone Ford announced that Caldwell would not return.

“She said everything had improved under Jim,” Dungy said. “The team was better on the field; it was better off the field. The culture was better. And then she said they were making a change.”

They changed to Matt Patricia, who went a gaudy 13-29-1 over two-plus seasons. Dan Campbell came next, and in his second season he went 9-8, causing TV pundits to swoon at the mention of his name. Campbell’s a tough guy, full of enthusiasm and — apparently — a good coach. But in this “breakthrough” season, the Lions had a better record than one of Caldwell’s four Lions teams.

It is my guess that Wilks’s chances of getting hired were damaged by his joining Brian Flores’s lawsuit against the NFL and its teams. Flores was fired after three seasons in Miami. The Dolphins improved from 5-11 his first season to 10-6 and 9-8 in his next two. Not good enough.

The Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel, who identifies as biracial, to succeed Flores. The NFL, of course, likes to trumpet its “minority” coaches, including McDaniel; Ron Rivera, who is Latino; and Robert Saleh, who is Lebanese American.

But here’s the reality: In a league in which nearly 60 percent of players are Black, there are now two Black head coaches: Mike Tomlin, who has been in the league for 16 years, won a Super Bowl and never had a losing record; and Todd Bowles, who just finished his first season with Tampa Bay and made the playoffs, granted with an 8-9 record.

There are still four jobs open: Arizona, Indianapolis, Houston and Denver. All will publicize Black candidates. Heck, Wilks may get interviewed — the way Flores was interviewed by the New York Giants last year, after they apparently had already decided to hire Brian Daboll.

For the record, Daboll was a great hire. Reich may turn out to be a great hire, too. But at this moment, he wasn’t the right hire. The problem is, NFL owners don’t care. They are above the law — and above any racial morality.