Steve Wilks

For every step forward that the NFL takes, it also seems to take two backward. On the general manager front, the recent hiring of Ran Carthon by the Tennessee Titans increased the number of Black general managers in the league to eight, with six of them having been hired within the past year. But just as the league was taking bows for making progress in that  area, the Carolina Panthers reminded everyone that when it comes to head coaching jobs, there still remains an unwillingness on the part of ownership to give deserving Black candidates a fair shake. 

Steve Wilks took over a team that was 1-4. He guided them to a 6-6 mark as an interim coach. While that’s not an overwhelming record, it isn’t a losing season either, and Wilks kept them in contention for the NFC South title until the final week. Yes, the NFC South was along with the AFC South the worse divisions in the NFL. But he made a bad team competitive, and that’s about all anyone can ask of a coach who takes over five games into a season and has had zero input in personnel decisions.

However Wilks apparently wasn’t ever given serious consideration for the head coaching job. Names and potential candidates were being floated throughout his 12-game tenure, and the Panthers made it official last week when they picked Frank Reich as their new head coach.

For those keeping score, since 2000 there have been 41 interim coaching stints following a firing or resignation. Only 14 times did the interim lead their team to a record of .500 or better and, of those 14 coaches, nine were not retained. Of the 41 interim coaching stints, 15 featured Black coaches and 26 featured white coaches. Black coaches went a combined 33-53 (.398). White coaches went a combined 57-119 (.331).

Despite the rate of retention being nearly the same since Romeo Crennel was hired in 2011, the number of white interim coaches is double the number of Black interim coaches during that time, and the two white interim coaches hired have been much more recent (Doug Marrone, hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2016 after a 1-1 interim record, and Mike Mularkey, who was hired a year earlier after a 2-7 interim record with the Tennessee Titans).

For the record, Reich has been a good head coach elsewhere. He guided the Colts to the playoffs twice and this isn’t really about him. He’s qualified for the job, but so is Wilks. Considering that the team decided to trade his best player away in Christian McCaffrey, he did a credible job. 

“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,” attorneys John Elefterakis and Douglas H. Wigdor, who represent Wilks, said in a statement. “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.”

That these are also the attorney’s representing Brian Flores, an assistant coach in Pittsburgh, who sued the NFL and accused it of racial discrimination regarding its hiring practices, hasn’t been lost on anyone. Because Wilks later joined the lawsuit and alleged that after short stint as head coach of Arizona in 2018 he was a “bridge coach” and never had a serious chance of getting the job full-time, there are many who feel that played a role in the decision not to retain him as well.

The unfortunate thing here from a legal standpoint is there is no verifiable proof that racial discrimination was involved in this decision. Tepper basically gave so me generic statements about the situation, giving Wilks sparse praise while claiming he wanted a head coach with substantial experience.

For Wilks, it’s his second time getting a raw deal. He got forced out after one season at Arizona. It’s hard to argue he hasn’t gotten a fair chance either time at being a successful NFL head coach. But then that makes it the same old story in the NFL where Black head coaches are involved. Time will tell when the hiring cycle is completed if anything will change, but right now the outlook isn’t very good.