Character Counts

In case the name is not familiar to you, Jack Easterby is the Executive VP of Football Operations for the Houston Texans; his name frequently comes up in various reports about the turmoil that supposedly exists in the Texans’ front office.  I have no idea what is going on there but there was a report this week that Easterby hired Dylan Thompson to be the “character coach” for the Texans.  Several points here:

  • Easterby had been the “character coach” for the Patriots prior to his arrival in Houston.
  • Easterby hired Thompson in that role after Thompson had been the “character coach” for the Lions under Matt Patricia’s regime in Detroit.
  • That means at least 3 teams in thee NFL (Pats, Lions and Texans) have “character coaches”.
  • When I read about this personnel decision, I had no idea what a “character coach” did for a living.

A not-so-thorough bit of research revealed that one of the more specific duties for the position is to assist young players in the transition to life as a professional athlete on the field, in the locker room and in society.  That is certainly not a bad idea although I would have no clue as to how to do that should anyone ask me to give it a try.  Evidently, these are some of the skills and abilities necessary for the job:

  • Be available as a guiding counsel for players and their families when issues arise in their mental/emotional lives.
  • Facilitate communication and relationship building among players, coaches and staff thereby creating unity and harmony.

I learned three things from reading about this hiring decision by the Houston Texans:

  1. I learned that at least 3 teams have a position known as character coach.
  2. I learned – sort of – what a character coach does with a team.
  3. I learned that I would last less than 8 hours as a character coach before leaving in a dense fog.

Sticking with the NFL, in one of his interactions with the press around the time of the Super Bowl, Roger Goodell expressed his disappointment with the outcomes of the most recent hiring cycle for head coaches – – referring clearly to the fact that only one Black man was hired for seven open positions.  Specifically referring to that hiring record, he said, “It wasn’t what we expected and it’s not what we expect going forward.”

The poster child for the successful Black assistant coach who cannot seem to land a head coaching job at the moment is Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator for the KC Chiefs.  Everyone who pays even fleeting attention to the NFL for the past several years recognizes the success that the Chiefs have had as an offensive unit – – and yet Eric Bieniemy will be back in his same job in KC again next season.  The most common conclusion drawn for that situation is that he has not been hired because of racial prejudice in the hiring process itself.

I am confident that racial prejudice is part of the “problem” here, but I think it is too easy to pass off the problem with a declaration that it is the entirety of the “problem”.  It is almost glib to say that NFL owners are predominantly white men of European ancestry and that they hire people “who look like themselves”.  There is a glaring counterexample from the sports world to that easily arrived at answer.

Donald Sterling was forced to sell his NBA franchise and was banned from the NBA for life after his obvious and odious feelings about Black people were made indelibly clear to the public.  At the same time, Donald Sterling hired – and retained for a long time – a Black GM (Elgin Baylor) and he hired/approved the hiring of about a half-dozen Black head coaches.  A man whose public image is far more tainted with “racial prejudice” than any current NFL owner found a way to hire people who did not look like himself.  I am not trying to justify Donald Sterling nor am I trying to justify the NFL hiring decisions for new head coaches in 2021.  All I am trying to point out is that this issue is not simplistic.

Moreover, because it is not simplistic, it is not something that should lead the NFL Commissioner to say that it did not come out “as expected”.  Things can come out “as expected” under two conditions:

  1. They are well understood and have been observed many times.  Example:  Drop a pencil off a desktop and it will fall to the floor and not rise to the ceiling – – as expected.
  2. Serendipity is at work.  Many complicated and generally unnoticed factors are at work and the outcome is the result of unseen processes and interactions.  Translation:  You may think you know why it happened – – but you do not.

It is easier for folks to seize upon the first situation here because it offers the comfort of letting folks think they understand the hows and whys of a complicated situation.  That convenience and that comfort level, however, do not make the first situation above necessarily correct.

According to reports, Eric Bieniemy interviewed for the Jets’ head coaching job and for the Texans’ head coaching job.  He probably interviewed for others as well, but those two are important to note here because both the Jets and the Texans hired a minority candidate in this hiring cycle.  But they did not choose to hire Eric Bieniemy – – so how might we come to think about that situation?  Let me offer two possibilities here while acknowledging that there must be several more factors involved:

  1. Eric Bieniemy interviews terribly.  I do not know that to be the case but given his record of success as an offensive coordinator and the fact that he was interviewed for jobs where minority candidates were eventually selected reduces the impact of the “racial factor” just a bit.
  2. There is a structural flaw in the NFL’s hiring system that has disadvantaged Eric Bieniemy as compared to other minority head coaching candidates.

Let us explore that second possibility.  Bieniemy’s success means that he is employed and working full time for a team in the playoffs for up to 5 weeks after the teams with “failed coaches” have fired their incumbents and gone looking for someone to come in and “change the culture”.  Coaching candidates who were unemployed at the time the coaching searches began could have been contacted/interviewed prior to the end of the previous season.  Coaching candidates on teams that did not make the playoffs could have been interviewed the day after the season ended.  Eric Bieniemy had a full time job with the Chiefs and could not be conveniently/thoroughly interviewed until after the AFC Championship Game three weeks after the season ended.

There is some pressure for a team to hire the new coach early in the process; that new coach needs to assemble his staff and the longer he waits the greater the chance that one of the assistants he wants will have taken a job elsewhere.  So, the process itself puts someone like Eric Bieniemy at a disadvantage.

The NFL has tried to encourage the hiring of minority coaches – and specifically Black coaches – for a while now.  The Rooney Rule and the Amended Rooney Rule which offers compensatory picks to teams that groom and develop minority coaches who get head coaching jobs are well meaning.  But there is a disincentive built into the whole process and it effects assistant coaches on the more successful teams; it penalizes success.

The obvious solution is to have a new rule – – call it Rooney Rule III – – that says there will be no hiring of new head coaches in the NFL until some time after the Super Bowl game.  Teams will still be required to interview multiple minority candidates and the compensatory picks can still be in place – – although I am on record thinking that is not such a good idea, but what the heck – – and then hiring season can be declared open.  The problem here is so obvious that I hesitate to mention it,

  • Good luck trying to enforce the delay in the hiring decisions.  There will be more accidental circumstances where team officials and coaching candidates just happen to bump into one another in the month of January than can be counted.  Coaching candidates will use so many “burner phones” that cell phone manufacturers will see an uptick in sales.

What is the solution here?  Frankly, I do not know.  What I do know is that if the powers that be in the NFL – – and to a much lesser extent in the NFLPA – – continue to make hiring decisions into transactional events and if it decries outcomes after the fact instead of stating what “ought to happen” before the fact, not a whole lot is going to change.

Hold on a minute; I have an idea …  Maybe the NFL needs to hire itself a “character coach”?  It can’t hurt.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



4 thoughts on “Character Counts”

  1. Jack,

    The best character coach — J.J. Watt — just left the building. Not a surprise down here — the problems go way beyond Bill O’Brien’s GM prowess.

  2. While not being available to be interviewed may have hurt Bienemy ( or Todd Bowles!) this year, it could work in favor of them another year – suppose Mahomes does another Brady – get hurt in the first quarter of game 1 and have the team miss the playoff. They will be available to be hired before Chad Whitebread, whose team goes to the Super Bowl. i don’t think that rule matters

    1. Ed:

      The rule is an equal opportunity penalizer; if you are a successful coordinator on a team that makes it to the Super Bowl, you are at a disadvantage. Does not matter if you are white, black or native American. Moreover, enforcing a rule that gets rid of that penalty will be VERY difficult. This is not a simple problem – – and it is not simply because the current crop of successful coordinators happen to be Black.

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