Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith was fired late Wednesday night after spending just two seasons with the team and only one with the No.1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston. Smith went just 8-24 in two seasons, posting a 2-14 record the first season and a 6-10 record this season. But Smith wasn’t fired because he was Black. He was fired because there is no room in the NFL for Black coaches who don’t win.
Did Smith deserve to be fired? Absolutely, if you’re holding him to the same standards used to evaluate all coaches, but my problem is that Smith’s firing only perpetuates a culture in the NFL in which Black coaches are truly expected to immediately produce extraordinary results.
I get that the NFL promotes a “what have you done for me lately” attitude and based on Smith’s performance he hasn’t done much at all. But how could he? He hasn’t had much to work with and he didn’t have adequate time to turn things around. The learning curve for most head coaching positions is a minimum of three years so they can develop a system, draft the right players, and implement strategies. Even Chip Kelly, former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, was granted that amount of time before ultimately getting the boot.
It takes time to turn a team from a pretender to a contender. That process doesn’t happen overnight. But for some reason White NFL coaches are allotted the space to “get things right,” whereas Black NFL coaches face higher expectations with shorter leashes. Now, this is not to say that no White coach in the NFL has ever been fired after two seasons, but somehow they seem to land squarely back on their feet.
It’s difficult being an NFL head coach, and even harder sustaining that job. After the season ended, seven out of 32 coaches were canned. Out of the remaining 25 head coaches, only four are Black: Cincinnati Bengals’ Marvin Lewis, Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, Detroit Lions’ Jim Caldwell, and the New York Jets’ Todd Bowles. After another losing season in Detroit, Caldwell faces the real possibility of being let go again— the first time occuring when he was coach of the Indianapolis Colts and pending the Bengals results in this year’s playoffs, Lewis might see his 12-year run in Cincinnati as his last.
In the 48-year history of the Super Bowl, there has been only two Black coaches to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy—Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin. Ironically, in 2007, when Dungy led his Colts to the Super Bowl, it was against another Black coach in Smith. Never before had not only one, but two Black coaches make it to the top game. At the time, Smith was head coach of the Chicago Bears, whose quarterback was Rex Grossman. He was ultimately fired at the end of the 2013 season, in large part because his team underperformed, which has as much to do with player personnel and the front office as it does with coaching.
I’m not race baiting or trying to insinuate there is some ulterior motive to undermine Black NFL coaches. I’m fully aware that this season’s “Black Monday,” saw seven (six of which are White) head coaches lose their job. But let’s examine the facts, in particular, the case of former New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who was afforded the opportunity to resign, as opposed to having the stain of being fired on his resumé.
Coughlin spent 12 seasons with the Giants. In four of his last five seasons as head coach, the Giants missed the playoffs. In 2007, the Giants secured their first Super Bowl championship under Coughlin against the New England Patriots. Fast forward four years to 2011 and the Giants make the playoffs again, defeating the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Normally, you would think that two improbable Super Bowl runs would be enough justification for bringing Coughlin back even in between losing season after season. But, it amazes me how people conveniently forget that the Giants had the worst defense in the history of their franchise, had a losing record, and managed to blow numerous fourth quarter leads under
Coughlin. Instead of firing him flat out, Coughlin was able to resign on his own volition. He’s the coach who will forever be remembered in NFL lore because his Giants team knocked off the undefeated Patriots. But to celebrate a coach who enjoyed marginal success in the totality of his career is a bit excessive and extremely questionable.
In the same city, same building, former NY Jets coach Rex Ryan was given numerous chances before the Jets finally decided they had enough. I suppose two AFC championship game appearances early in his tenure helped to minimize Ryan’s failures. Then quarterback Mark Sanchez imploded right in front of his eyes. The Jets continuously missed the playoffs and Ryan proved to be more hot air than anything else. Ryan’s biggest downfall was his bravado. Yet, even after being fired, he became one of the most coveted free agent coaches on the market. Ryan is currently head coach of the Buffalo Bills, who finished 8-8 after his guarantee that they would make the playoffs.
Again, how many Black head coaches could sustain copious seasons of missing the playoffs and perpetual losing streaks? The answer is none.
We know that owners face a lot of pressures to put a competitive, relevant football product on the field but Smith’s firing makes him the third coach to be let go by the team in the last seven years. There’s a pattern where the organization has a history of quickly getting rid of coaches and it doesn’t look good that one of Smith’s predecessors who was also fired happens to be Black. Since Raheem Morris’s departure from Tampa, he has bounced around the league, serving as the defensive backs coach for the Washington Redskins and the assistant head/defensive backs coach for the Atlanta Falcons. To this date, Morris has yet to receive another head coaching opportunity in the NFL.
I’m not accusing the NFL, or the Buccaneers specifically, of unfair firing practices, but rather highlighting inconsistencies I observe when it comes to how Black coaches are viewed through a different lens than their White counterparts. Each organization is different and is entitled to run things the way they see fit. It appears, however, as if the margin of error for White NFL coaches is considerably larger than it is for Black NFL head coaches.
Marcus Lamar is a New York-based sports journalist. Read more from his blog at letsaddressthis.blogspot.com Follow him on Twitter @iam_marcuslamar.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the number of Black coaches to win the Super Bowl. It has been changed to reflect the correct number.