The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NFL owners have a problem hiring coaches: They’re lousy at it

David Tepper and Jim Irsay both entered the 2023 offseason in need of a new head coach. (Chuck Burton and Darron Cummings/AP)
7 min

For wry amusement, nothing beats an NFL hiring cycle, the seasonal game of billionaire owners running in chicken circles in their hapless hunts for a “great football mind.” Every year, one owner declares certainty in his heart that he has found a true organization-builder in a flop-haired neophyte who just happens to look like his son, while another announces that the change agent his franchise needs is a third-chance retread who’s barely above .500.

How is a talented Black coach supposed to elbow into this spin cycle of replicant-recognition? He has to hope the owner of the worst club in the league says, “Here, hold this job for a second,” and then perform better in a shorter window than his White peers.

Good for brilliant young DeMeco Ryans for extracting a six-year contract from the Houston Texans — and he will need every year of grace to fix the bubbling mess he stepped into. The McNair family would deserve more credit for minority hiring if they weren’t on their fifth head coach since 2020 and hadn’t treated Lovie Smith like a car valet. The main reason the NFL fails in its attempts to engineer better diversity is that the owners are generally horrible at hiring anyone.

Key findings from ‘Black Out,’ The Post’s series on Black NFL coaches

They’re amateurs who mistakenly equate wealth with intellect. They conduct personal interviews of coaching candidates who brandish codexes of material utterly unintelligible to those doing the hiring. What other billion-dollar business conducts management-leader searches in this way? Almost none, according to Jed Hughes of executive search firm Korn Ferry. “CEOs and board members do things in a precise, orderly manner,” he says. “Normally, people in sports don’t follow a prescribed way.” One head coach newly minted within the past two years told me he interviewed with six different franchises and no two of them conducted searches the same way — sometimes it was a meeting with a solitary titan in his private home, sometimes it was a video call with a full board room, and sometimes it was an interview with an entire family, including the brothers who staffed the front office.

Most owners couldn’t detect the difference between a great playbook and a pointillist painting on the wall, yet each year they fire up to a quarter of the profession and make fresh hires like revelations as if they have found the closest thing to Sun Tzu. In appraising their actual managerial judgment, ask yourself this: How often do you see a team confidently promoting someone from within?

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper got stupid rich on big hedge fund bets, for which he apparently paid tribute to himself by keeping a set of brass testicles on his desk.

In 2020 he personally identified Matt Rhule as the next great coaching find who would make the franchise a winner “for the next 30 to 40 years,” though Rhule had never led anything bigger than a roomful of Baylor boys. When asked his reasoning, it turned out Rhule reminded Tepper of … himself. “He dresses like me, so I have to love the guy.” Tepper gave Rhule a seven-year contract for $62 million and total control, and he proceeded to go 5-11, 5-12 and 1-4 before Tepper fired him five games into his third season.

Then Tepper’s organization hired Frank Reich’s daughter, who announced her new position roughly 90 minutes after the season ended for interim Steve Wilks, whose six victories despite Tepper’s organizational idiocy and Rhule’s 1-4 start were one of the coaching feats of the year. After Tepper secured Hannah Reich’s father as his next coach, he had the temerity to brag about ending the “old boys network.” His main consultants in bringing in Reich? White GM Scott Fitterer, who is a former minor league pitcher; White assistant GM Dan Morgan; and Tepper’s wife, Nicole.

When Fitterer was asked what made Reich the man for the Panthers, he cited Reich’s “second level” offensive thinking. Left unexplained: Why is Reich more of a “second level” offensive genius than the passed over Jim Caldwell, who made Peyton Manning a Super Bowl champion? It seems obvious Tepper zeroed in on Reich, the popular former Panthers quarterback, as the safe reputational-rescue hire from the start and coaxed Caldwell into serving as a token interview among a pool of candidates that was otherwise whiter than an atrium. If there is any justice, Tepper’s brass testicles will drop on his foot.

In Denver, the new ownership group is hoping Sean Payton will bail the Broncos out of the franchise’s misadventures of the past year, which included hiring Nathaniel Hackett, who couldn’t figure out how to manage 30 seconds and three timeouts, much less 53 players. Rebuilding will be difficult because the Broncos spent a package of draft picks and a $245 million contract on Russell Wilson, then had to surrender first-round and second-round picks to get Payton.

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

And yet when the NFL home office or the Fritz Pollard Alliance tries to scold owners for their blatant and chronic casual racism, their response amounts to, “No damn regulator is going to tell me how to run a business.”

High churn rate and rare organic talent development: These are the signatures of NFL owners in hiring. Only rarely do they undertake a truly professional vetting, and it’s usually thanks to a search firm expert such as Hughes, whose company identifies coaching competencies using the same methods it identifies corporate expertise with and tries to match them with franchises they’re most likely to have successful backing in. Hughes hardly bats 100 percent, but he helped match-make Andy Reid with Kansas City and Bruce Arians with Tampa Bay, thus delivering Super Bowls. Two years ago, he thought he had a deal to place Caldwell with the Texans, but it blew up. This year he’s not involved with any of the five teams that were seeking new coaches, and he believes it’s just as well. “This year, the question was, ‘Is there an attractive job?’ And I would say not.”

A central fact seems to totally elude most owners: The player pool is not just the labor pool. It’s potentially the best pool of future head coaching talent; the men who emerge from the league’s ranks and ascend to an NFL assistant coaching staff have devoted their entire lives to mastering the game, from the playground dirt to the most elite level. Yet in a league in which 60 percent of players and 35 percent of assistant coaches are Black, just three head coaching jobs are filled by Black men. Meanwhile, owners continually go panting after some collegiate hot shot or inexperienced phenom rather than a Caldwell.

The guy who went 1-4 with the Panthers was still owed more than $30 million and sailed back to the college ranks with an exorbitant contract from Nebraska, and Reich has a shiny new desk after getting gassed midseason by Jim Irsay for starting 3-5-1 with the Indianapolis Colts. Meanwhile Wilks, who went 6-6 with the Panthers — without Christian McCaffrey, mind you — is still looking for work, and so is Caldwell, who reached a Super Bowl and has a record of 62-50. Explain that. You can’t, except to say that bias is not just contemptible; it is profoundly dumb.

In truth, owners can’t really “know” how any of their favorite son candidates will perform, for the simple reason that real leadership emerges only in action, under pressure and in specific emergencies, and in the face of resistance. Yet owners blather on with hazy, inexact, elusive terms about finding a coach with “vision,” squawking indistinctly as they deflect examination of their utter hackishness.