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Celebrating the Most Influential Black NFL Coaches in History

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To commemorate Black History month, examining the history of successful black coaches in the NFL and highlighting some of their achievements in the league is appropriate.

There have been some historically successful black coaches in the NFL. Some have rightly gotten the opportunity to coach because of their prowess in their playing days or their success in more junior roles as coordinators and support coaches.

Seeing more Black coaches rise through the ranks is excellent for the league’s culture, diversifying the opportunities for coaches of ethnic minorities.

Let’s take a look at some of the greats who paved the way for those who will get a chance to coach in the NFL in the future.

When is Black History Month?

In the United States of America and Canada, Black History Month is celebrated throughout February. The celebration focuses on many of the most influential African-Americans and their achievements and accomplishments throughout history.

Who Was the First Black NFL Coach?

Frederick ‘Fritz’ Pollard became the first black NFL coach in the history of the NFL in 1921 when he was named the co-coach of the Akron Pros. Fritz Pollard was a former running back at Brown University, who went on to play for the Pros, being named a co-coach early in his career.

The league was called the American Professional Football Association at the time before it got its NFL name in 1970.

Art Shell was named the first Black head coach in the NFL in the modern era, taking over as the head coach of the Raiders in 1989 and going on to coach over 100 games for the team.

How Many Black NFL Coaches in the 2022-23 Season?

The 2022 season featured three black NFL coaches in head coaching roles. Mike Tomlin, who has been the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2007, is the second longest-serving head coach in the NFL currently, behind only Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Todd Bowles took over as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2022, and Lovie Smith spent the season in charge of the Houston Texans after being promoted from the defensive coordinator role.

Jennifer King also deserves a very proud shoutout on this list. She is the current assistant running backs coach with the Washington Commanders and was the first black female NFL coach to be hired full-time.

King started as a wide receivers coaching intern with the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and has worked her way into a full-time role, where she was hired by the Commanders in 2021.

The Commanders coach follows Collette V. Smith, who was hired by Todd Bowles with the New York Jets in the summer of 2017 as an assistant coach, making her the first black female NFL coach in the league’s history, albeit in a temporary position. Smith now works to empower young Black American women.

How Many Black Head Coaches in NFL History?

There have been 25 black head coaches in the NFL in the modern era. Art Shell was the first in 1989 and has since been followed by 24 black head coaching appointments, including Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, and Dennis Green.

Other appointments include that of former NFL legend Mike Singletary with the San Francisco 49ers, who produced one of the league’s most sought-after personalities for an upcoming head coaching role in DeMeco Ryans.

Ryans has been one of the league’s best defensive coordinators for the past two seasons and will now get his opportunity as the new head coach of the Houston Texans.

Celebrating 10 Black Coaches in NFL History

In the spirit of celebrating the accomplishments of the NFL’s best black coaches, here are ten who have seen success during their time in the NFL, in no particular order.

Fritz Pollard

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 1921, 1925, 1928
  • Teams: Akron Pros, Hammond Pros, Chicago Blackhawks
  • Awards & Achievements: First black coach in NFL history

Fritz Pollard was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, where he would play football, baseball, and run track in high school. He became a standout football player at Brown University while majoring in chemistry. The talented running back was the first African American player at Brown and the first African American to be named to Walter Camp’s All-American team.

He went pro in 1920, joining the Akron Pros of the then-named APFA. The Pros won the NFL Championship that same year with Pollard’s help at running back. In 1921, while still playing running back for the Pros, Fritz Pollard was named co-head coach, making him the first black coach in NFL history.

Pollard continued to play until 1926, coaching again in 1925 with the Hammond Pros.

The former Brown University running back was also the first African American player in the NFL, alongside Bobby Marshall, who both went pro in 1920. Pollard is widely recognized for paving the way for those that came after him and is a member of both the Pro and Collegiate Football Hall of Fame.

Art Shell

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 1989-1994, 2006
  • Teams: Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders
  • Awards & Achievements: 1990 NFL Coach of the Year

Art Shell had been with the Los Angeles Raiders since 1983, coaching the offensive line for the same team that had drafted him to play that very position. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Shell played college football at Maryland State and was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in the third round of the 1968 draft.

He featured in a wealth of playoff games during his playing days, spending all 15 seasons of his playing career with the Raiders. During that time, he helped them to two Super Bowl titles and was named to eight Pro Bowls as an offensive tackle.

Shell retired from playing the game in 1982 and took over as the team’s offensive line coach in 1983. He was promoted to head coach in 1989, which made him the first black head coach in the modern era of the NFL.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame that same year for his playing career and went on to be named the NFL Coach of the Year in the 1990 season, having led the Raiders to a 12-4 regular season record and a place in the AFC Championship game.

Tony Dungy

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 1996-2008
  • Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts
  • Awards & Achievements: Super Bowl Champion, George Halas Award

Originally from Jackson, Michigan, Tony Dungy became one of the most successful in the history of black NFL coaches. He had spent three seasons in the league as a safety, winning a Super Bowl ring in his second and final year with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1978.

Although his playing career was short, Dungy went straight into coaching at a young age, serving as the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the NCAA. He was just 25 years old at the time and did such a great job that he was hired by the Steelers to return as their defensive backs coach in 1981.

Dungy then worked his way through the ranks, eventually being promoted to defensive coordinator in 1984, a role he served in until 1988. Following a coaching change, Dungy moved on to the defensive backs job with the Kansas City Chiefs for three seasons, then moved to the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator in 1992, which would be his last stop before being offered the head coaching role of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tony Dungy was taking on a challenging role. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a miserable team who had a reputation for being bad. The team hadn’t had a winning season for 15 years, and Tony Dungy was the man who turned it all around.

When you hear ‘Tampa 2’ in the NFL these days, that is the defense built by Tony Dungy during his time as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s a very commonly used defense in the modern-day NFL, but it was invented by Dungy and his staff. While he gets the credit for the concepts, Dungy has openly admitted that he learned a lot of those ideas from his coaching days in Pittsburgh.

The Buccaneers were a winning team again in just the second season of the Tony Dungy era and made the playoffs four times in the next five seasons. The narrative around the team had completely changed, and Tony Dungy led them as far as the NFC Championship game in 1999.

While he couldn’t quite get the team to the Super Bowl, the Buccaneers won one in the first year after Dungy’s firing in 2002. Jon Gruden was hired as his replacement, immediately leading the team to a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. While Dungy might not have been the head coach, he gets a lot of credit for the team he had constructed that went on to win that championship.

Dungy himself moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, installing his defense and rebalancing a team that had a lot of talent offensively but was pitiful on the defensive side. It took a while to get it right, but eventually, Dungy tweaked the defense and nailed it, and with the help of an offense led by Peyton Manning, the Colts won the Super Bowl in the 2006 season.

Tony Dungy is now a proud member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, inducted in 2016 for his coaching efforts. His 148-79-0 record is amongst the best records of black NFL coaches. He is also a vocal supporter of bringing more opportunities to African American coaches.

Dennis Green

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 1992-2001, 2004-2006
  • Teams: Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals
  • Awards & Achievements: Super Bowl Champion (as Wide Receivers coach)

Dennis Green had spent a successful spell as the head coach of Northwestern University from 1981-1985 before taking the job as the wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers in 1986. It was Green who called the play in Super Bowl XXIII that led to John Taylors’ touchdown catch from Joe Montana in the final minute of the game.

He went on to another college head coaching role at Stanford before answering the call to come back to the NFL as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 1992. In doing so, Green followed the first black coach in the NFL, Art Shell, into a head coaching role four years later.

Green was a very successful coach in Minnesota, coaching many different quarterbacks but still leading the Vikings to the postseason eight times during his 10-year tenure in charge of the team.

He returned to spend three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals after taking a break in the early 2000s and ended his coaching career with a 113-94 record. He was a very well-respected coach who looked after his players and coaches and was a fundamental part of the progression of African American coaches in the NFL.

Green, who was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had a block of the street he grew up on named ‘Dennis Green Way’ after him to recognize his accomplishments and reputation.

Lovie Smith

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 2004-2012, 2014-2015, 2022
  • Teams: Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Houston Texans
  • Awards & Achievements: 2005 NFL Coach of the Year

Lovie Smith had a very successful year under dire circumstances in the 2005 season, his second in charge of the Chicago Bears. Smith had been hired in 2004, and quarterback Rex Grossman suffered an injury that season that derailed any hopes of a successful opening campaign for the newly hired head coach.

The following year, Grossman went down again, this time in the preseason, ruling him out of the upcoming campaign. Despite losing his starting quarterback again and things looking rather bleak to start off with, Smith turned a 1-3 start into an 11-5 season with backup quarterback Kyle Orton and the help of defensive coach Ron Rivera.

Lovie Smith was named the NFL Coach of the Year that season and went on to coach the Chicago Bears for a decade before spending two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In 2022, the Texas native who was born in Gladewater took the head coaching job of the Houston Texans, helping them through a complex year with a very poor roster in the early stages of a total rebuild. He was succeeded in the role by Demeco Ryans, who will be the Texans’ head coach for the 2023 campaign.

Jim Caldwell

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 2009-2011, 2014-2017
  • Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions
  • Awards & Achievements: 2x Super Bowl Champion (as Assistant Head Coach/Quarterbacks Coach and Offensive Coordinator)

Jim Caldwell was the Assistant Head Coach to Tony Dungy when the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. He joined Dungy’s staff in Tampa back in 2001 and followed him to Indy when Dungy took the head coaching job. Caldwell was the quarterback’s coach for Peyton Manning during that era, helping the all-time great QB to his first Super Bowl win.

In 2009, Caldwell got an opportunity as the head coach of the Colts and became just the fifth rookie head coach to take his team to the Super Bowl. The Colts would lose to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, but Caldwell holds the tied NFL record for success as a rookie head coach, with 14 regular season wins.

Tough luck signaled the end of Caldwell’s tenure with the Colts, who slumped to a 2-14 record in the season that Peyton Manning missed due to neck surgery.

Caldwell would return as a head coach in 2014 with the Detroit Lions, becoming the team’s very first African American head coach. Once again, he led the team to an impressive record in his rookie season, with the Lions going 11-5 and making the playoffs.

While he might not have won a Super Bowl as a head coach, the Wisconsin native has been a crucial part of two winning staffs, winning with Tony Dungy in Indianapolis in the 2006 season and as the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens in the 2012 season.

Mike Tomlin

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 2007-Present
  • Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Awards & Achievements: 2x Super Bowl Champion (as Head Coach and Defensive Backs Coach)
Photo: Alamy

Mike Tomlin, who grew up in Hampton, Virginia, also came from the coaching tree of Tony Dungy. He joined as the defensive backs coach under Dungy in Tampa in 2001, where he picked up the Tampa 2 defense that Dungy had implemented. After five seasons in Tampa, including a Super Bowl title as part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that won under Jon Gruden, Tomlin took the job as the defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings and was offered the job as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach just one season later.

Tomlin became the Steelers’ first African American head coach, and team owner Dan Rooney was the owner who proposed the Rooney Rule, which now requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for the vacant head coaching roles.

The long-term Steelers head coach is now the second longest-serving head coach, and in 16 seasons in charge, he has never allowed the Steelers to have a losing record, which is an NFL record amongst head coaches.

Tomlin led Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl title in the 2008 NFL season, making him the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl, aged 36. He has taken the Steelers to the playoffs 10 times in his 16 years in charge and is considered to be one of the best in the history of black NFL coaches. He is heavily respected by both Steelers and NFL fans in general.

Mike Tomlin is, of course, the longest serving amongst current black NFL coaches, but post 2022 campaign, he is now also tied for the longest-serving African American head coach all time, tied with Marvin Lewis at 16 seasons.

Anthony Lynn

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 2017-2020
  • Teams: LA Chargers
  • Awards & Achievements: 2x Super Bowl Champion (as a player)

Anthony Lynn got his opportunity to be an NFL head coach in 2017 after building his resume as a support coach since 2000. Lynn started with the Denver Broncos in 2000 as a special teams assistant, the team he won two Super Bowl rings in 1998 and 1999 as a supporting cast running back and special teams player.

Over the next 17 years, Lynn grew as a running backs coach before becoming an assistant head coach with the New York Jets in 2013 under Rex Ryan. He was considered for the head coaching role of the Jets after Ryan’s departure in 2015, but they elected to hire elsewhere. Ryan took the head coaching job of the Buffalo Bills, and Lynn followed him to retain his role as the assistant head coach and running backs coach.

Texas-born Lynn served as the Bills’ interim head coach in 2016 after Rex Ryan was fired and took the head coaching job of the Chargers ahead of the following season, the same year they relocated to LA. He was the first African American head coach in Chargers franchise history.

Lynn spent four seasons with the Chargers, totaling a 33-31 record, and is currently the running backs coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Aged 54, Anthony Lynn is likely to get further coaching opportunities in his career in the NFL.

Ray Rhodes

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 1995-1999
  • Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers
  • Awards & Achievements: 5x Super Bowl Champion (as Assistant Coach), 1995 NFL Coach of the Year

Ray Rhodes, born in Mexia, Texas, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a player before he went into coaching. Having played for the San Francisco 49ers in the last year of his playing career, he joined them as an assistant coach for the following season in 1981.

Rhodes was the team’s assistant defensive backs coach for his first two seasons before being promoted to defensive backs coach in 1983, where he spent the next eight seasons. During his tenure with the Niners between 1981 and 1991, the franchise won four Super Bowls, and when Rhodes returned as the defensive coordinator in 1994, they won another one.

Five days after the Niners won Super Bowl XXIX in February 1995, Rhodes was named the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He was then responsible for one of the Eagles’ most successful seasons in his first year, leading the team to a 10-6 season and a spot in the playoffs, where they faced the Detroit Lions, and beat them 58-37, the fourth most points scored in a playoff game in NFL history.

Rhodes won the NFL Coach of the Year award in 1995 from the Associated Press, Sporting News, UPI, and PFW.

Marvin Lewis

  • Years Active as Head Coach: 2003-2018
  • Teams: Cincinnati Bengals
  • Awards & Achievements: 2009 AP Coach of the Year, Super Bowl Champion (as Assistant Coach)

Marvin Lewis had been a linebackers coach from 1982 to 1995 at various Universities before taking internships in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. He was hired as the linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992. Lewis was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania, and got his first coaching job in the NFL with his hometown team.

Lewis made a name for himself as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens from 1996 to 2001, where he would eventually help them to a Super Bowl title. Lewis was a key part of the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, building a defense led by Ray Lewis that allowed the fewest rushing yards and points per game in the regular season during the 2001 season.

In the 2001 Super Bowl, Marvin Lewis’ defense never allowed a single point from the Giants’ offense. The only score of the game for the Giants in the 34-7 drubbing came on a kickoff return.

Lewis was promptly launched into the list of favorites for future head coaching roles and was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003.

After 8-8 finishes in his first two seasons in charge, Lewis helped the Bengals to their best finish and first playoff appearance in over 15 years during the 2005 season.

He was named the AP Coach of the Year for his performance during the 2009 season that saw the Bengals go 10-6 and return to the playoffs after a couple of tough years.

Then in 2011, Lewis took the Bengals on a five-year run of consecutive playoff appearances. His only fault was not winning any of those playoff games, with Cincinnati crashing out each time they made the postseason. He coached for 16 seasons, tied for the longest tenure by a black head coach with Mike Tomlin, and ended his tenure with a 131-122-3 record while in charge of the Bengals.

Featured Image: Alamy
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