Eric Bieniemy's journey shows frustrating plight of black coaches in NFL: 'Every year the standard changes'

·Senior NFL writer

Another head coach hiring cycle is about to close, and again the most embarrassing issue concerning the NFL has taken center stage.

I don’t say that lightly considering this is a league that has been navigating various clown shows for the better part of two decades.

Still, it was striking to see the visceral reaction of many pundits and former players on social media Tuesday once the New York Giants’ decision to hire Joe Judge and the Carolina Panthers’ choice to hire Matt Rhule became public.

Both those franchises chose those men to lead their organizations into the future, largely because they truly believed they were the best men for the job. Rhule is respected for his forward-thinking nature and ability to develop players and men, while Judge is a highly respected special teams coach who is regarded as a smart guy with good schemes and a “presence.”

In a vacuum, both men deserve a shot to show what they can do as NFL head coaches, and both teams are free to hire whoever they feel is the best fit for their organization.

In the minutes, hours and days after their hirings, however, the conversation surrounding Judge and Rhule quickly shifted to another coach who deserves a chance to show what he can do leading a club, one with a strong résumé — that includes a seven-year apprenticeship in pro football’s most fruitful coaching tree — a long list of players who love him and reputation for being a stickler for details.

That coach is Eric Bieniemy, and he is the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. He is African American, and in a league that’s 70 percent black, his inability to get a head coaching job, despite all his positives, is baffling to many.

“I think it’s discouraging, to say the least,” said Bieniemy’s agent, Brian Levy, who also represents several African American coaches in college and the NFL. “We’re really trying to find out what the standard is, and every year the standard changes. We’re just trying to swim against the current.”

The current is strong. People generally hire who they know, and when all but two of the NFL’s team owners (Jacksonville’s Shad Khan and Buffalo’s Kim Pegula) and one general manager (Chris Grier) are white, it helps explain why minorities have such a hard time breaking into leadership positions, despite résumés that should get them in the door.

Take Bieniemy, for instance. Over the past two years, the 50-year-old — who carved out a nine-year career as a running back — has helped the Chiefs finish first (2018) and sixth (2019) in total offense. He has helped coach the NFL’s reigning MVP in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and during that same period he had seven head coaching interviews. If he fails to land the Cleveland job, which is reportedly expected to be decided by the end of the week, he will go 0 for 7.

It’s a fate that has befallen far too many black assistants in this league, despite the large swath of interview opportunities that take place because of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for available head coaching and senior football operations positions.

Currently four of the league’s 32 franchises are guided by minority coaches — Rivera in Washington, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh, Anthony Lynn in Los Angeles and Brian Flores in Miami. And of the five new head coaching openings this offseason, three went to white men (Judge, Rhule and Mike McCarthy) while the fourth went to Rivera, who is Hispanic.

Even though the Rooney Rule has been in place since 2003, the fact we’re looking at another disappointing hiring cycle for African American coaches — not to mention the fact that we have only one more minority head coach (four) in 2020 than we did when the rule was first enacted — has led some to ponder whether the rule needs to be revisited or tweaked.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 06: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in a huddle with quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (15) and Matt Moore (8) in the second quarter of an NFL matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs on October 6, 2019 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in a huddle with quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Matt Moore on Oct. 6, 2019 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The latter can be explored. After all, almost everything can be done better. But it’s more important to remember that the actual problem isn’t the rule — the problem is the people doing the hiring, starting with ownership.

Sure, the Rooney Rule has not worked perfectly. But by simply putting a lot of black and brown faces in position to impress the people doing the hiring, the rule has certainly been a net positive for the African American coaches, despite frustration over the fact the people doing the hiring have yet to adequately tap into the pipeline of minority coaches who are ready and eager to relate to a workforce full of players who look just like them.

“There’s no doubt every interview is an opportunity,” Levy said. “Years ago, I worked with Mike Tomlin and everybody suggested the odds were stacked against him getting the Pittsburgh or Miami job. But in the end, you take those interviews because you go in there and blow someone’s doors off, you can get hired.”

As Tomlin was, at the age of 34. Since then, he’s won a Super Bowl and was a runner-up in another, posted a .642 winning percentage and earned a reputation as a superb leader of men who has a rare gift for reaching players.

Bieniemy’s wait for a similar opportunity has been much longer than Tomlin’s. He has been an assistant coach at the college and pro level for 19 seasons now. Levy is confident it will eventually come.

“His mentality is to keep moving forward,” Levy said. “Eventually there will be a team that’s smart enough to hire him, and they’ll reap the benefit.”

In the meantime, Bieniemy has been using the head coaching interviews as an opportunity for self improvement — another underrated benefit of the Rooney Rule.

“They can learn a ton about other organizations and how they're run, and expectations there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, in general, of assistants who interview for head coaching jobs. “That either gives them another opportunity down the road or something that they can file away, for whether it's this year or the following year.”

After last year’s round of interviews, for example, Bieniemy took the feedback he got and worked on his presentation, the organization of his thoughts and details of his coaching books.

“He’s learned something from every interview he’s had and he’s had some great people in it,” Levy said of Bieniemy. “He’s met close to 25 people in front-office positions in the last year that he has a connection with. Where else are you getting that exposure?”

Until Bieniemy lands a head coaching job, and more black coaches also get a shot at similar gigs, team owners can look forward to this being an annual topic every January, an ugly scar on the forehead of one of America’s stodgiest, most old-moneyed leagues during the most exciting time of the season.

And if that’s something the owners truly want to change in their precious game, it will have to go beyond potential Rooney Rule tweaks. It must first start with those in charge taking a long, hard look in the mirror.

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