Given the NFL's history, the Panthers' interim coach should get more than a glance
The Carolina Panthers, in the midst of a dismal season, are in the market for a new head coach. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, says the pool of candidates is bigger than the NFL seems to think.
It’s not Matt Rhule I’m worried about.
Yes, he got fired last week as coach of the Carolina Panthers, and yes, that must have been painful, and yes, he earned it. He was 1-4 this season and 11-27 in his time with the Panthers. A sportswriter friend who came through town a few weeks ago said Rhule was one of the most decent people in sports he’d ever met. But decent doesn’t pay the bills in the NFL.
Rhule will be fine. He’ll be a coveted college coach. And who knows? He might work his way back to the NFL. Because he has one huge advantage: He’s white. And when it comes to NFL coaching, it’s a lot easier to be white and mediocre than Black and mediocre.
The Washington Post had a big investigation a few weeks ago on how hard it is for Black candidates to get and keep head coaching jobs in the NFL. As a whole, Black coaches have to work longer as assistants before getting a chance to run a team. And when they do get hired, they get fired faster than white coaches with similar records.
They also tend to get named as interim coaches — a role that’s often temporary until the team owner finds somebody they like better.
Which brings us to Steve Wilks, the Panthers’ new interim coach.
Wilks is a local guy made good — he went to West Charlotte High and played at Appalachian State. He spent almost 20 years as a college and NFL assistant before the Panthers hired him as defensive backs coach in 2012. He was assistant head coach on the Panthers’ best team ever, the 2015 team that made it to the Super Bowl. That made him a hot candidate for a head coaching job — and he got one, with the Arizona Cardinals.
He went 3-13 in his first year. He didn’t get a second one. The Cardinals fired him. He returned to the Panthers this year, and now he’s likely to have the head job for the rest of the season.
A few Black coaches have been kept on after terrible starts. Hue Jackson went 1-31 over two years with the Cleveland Browns before the Browns let him go in his third season. But by and large, coaches like Matt Rhule — who went 5-11, 5-12, and then 1-4 — get to stick around longer than Black coaches with comparable records.
I have no idea if Steve Wilks is a good head coach or not. I do know he’s stuck with a team that might have been the worst in the league even before quarterback Baker Mayfield was injured. Still, history says he’s likely to be judged more harshly than a white coach would be.
Wilks is part of a federal lawsuit filed by black coaches who say the NFL and its teams have discriminated against them. Now he’s a test case of that very notion. The Panthers don’t owe him the full-time job if he’s awful in the interim. But if he makes the team even halfway decent, given the lump of clay he’s been handed, that should count as success.