Race and Leadership: Bears and Bruins Coaching Searches in NFL and the NCAA

Posted on January 28, 2013 by

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if Lovie was named O’Whitey and had 10 wins at the Catholic School for the blind……he’d be an NFL head coach today! – Dufus McDillweed on the ESPN boards

Its almost like fans want to believe in some coaches more than others.  I think that while it may be due in large part to track record and perception, I think either a leadership candidate, decisionmaker or fan’s race will predict how fans react.

Last year, the UCLA Bruins college football team fired it’s coach Rick Neuheisel and went on an extensive coaching search.  A fan-driven coverage source upon which I rely, Bruins Nation, disliked it because we seemed to be interviewing too many people, and they felt it wasn’t “methodical.”

This year, the Chicago Bears from the NFL fired it’s coach Lovie Smith and went on their own extensive coaching search.  A fan-driven coverage source, dabears.com, sort of liked the “thoroughness” of the search.

Both the Bears and the Bruins are my favorite teams in their respective leagues.  Both about some Bear animal teams.  Both with sub-par, juvenile and impatient coverage sources upon which I rely.

Both teams fired their coaches after relatively OK seasons.  The Bears fired their coach, Lovie Smith, after a 10-6 season after a hot 7-1 start in which the Bears couldn’t win against playoff teams and ultimately missed the playoffs;  The Bruins fired Rick Neuheisel after a 6-7 season which actually saw us win the Pac-10 South Division and play a bowl game, both of which we lost.

The differences between the Chicago Bears and the UCLA Bruins football team’s previous coaches are the following:

  • I liked Lovie Smith as a coach;  didn’t think much of Rick Neuheisel
  • Lovie Smith had a relatively successful body of work though in his later years we had trouble beating teams considered better than us, Rick Neuheisel, other than a few random upset wins, not so much.  Lovie Smith compiled a winning 81-63 record in 9 seasons that puts him within the top 50 in winning percentage in the all-time list and a defense that ranked #1 in takeaways since his arrival.  It’s the same as Tom Coughlin, but one person argues that the record compiled is not that significant a difference from a .500 coach. Rick Neuheisel compiled a losing 21-29 record in 4 seasons that makes him one of the worst coaches at UCLA ever.
  • Lovie Smith was a defensive mastermind and considered a relatively good coach by the majority of fans both in Chicago and outside;  Rick Neuheisel was considered good at offense, and at best, nowadays, a good UCLA alumnist.
  • Most importantly, and the key to any difference:  the men held responsible for firing each of them are viewed differently by their respective media sources:  Bears General Manager Phil Emery came to the job in 2011, and thus far has been celebrated for his “analytical, thorough” approach.  He’s being given a lot of the benefit of a doubt with only a year on the job, a few draft choices, and horn-rimmed glasses.  Meanwhile, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrerro, also responsible for the UCLA Basketball team and other sports came to the job in 2002, and has long been a favorite punching bag for the amateurish, rantfest website Bruins Nation.  They’ve got several nicknames for  Every move is mocked and questioned, including the hire of Jim Mora Jr., who recently finished 9-5, a season that ended on sour notes, but was viewed as mostly positive, credit not given to Guerrerro for the hire, but to Jim Mora Jr for being awesome.

As a fan who followed the news, rumors, discussions of both coaching searches, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between what was labeled an “expansive, thorough (read intelligent) search”, the adjectives describing the Chicago Bears recently-concluded search headed by Bears General Manager Phil Emery, and a “clusterfuck”, the noun apparently describing last year’s UCLA Football Bruins search headed by Dan Guerrerro.

From all this searching, I had a simple thought:

Whom most fans initially trust, whether its the person making the decision to hire (Phil Emery and Dan Guerrerro), or the person ultimately hired (Marc Trestman and Jim Mora Jr.), you can usually predict how fans are going to initially react based on the race of either the decision maker, the one being hired, or the fan’s race themselves.  The benefit of the doubt by the majority of fanbases were generally given to the smart white guys:  Emery, Trestman, and Jim Mora Jr.  The smart Mexican guy not as much:  Dan Guerrerro is not new to his job, and has had a mixed record at best, but some fans of a website are intent on replacing him by any means necessary.

The race of a perspective leadership candidate and/or decisionmaker is likely to predict the reaction of a fan.  At the outset, it seems the white coaching hire earns the benefit of a doubt, even excitement, while a black coaching hire earns at best a “mixed” reaction, sometimes even suspicion.

Exhibit A:  A mood of skepticism for the hire of Lovie Smith, who ascended into the position from a defensive coordinator position, the typical if not only route to take for most black coaches, after the Bears had a 7-9 season and 4-12 season the year before.  Exhibit B:  Trust for the hire of Marc Trestman (and decisionmaker Phil Emery), who ascended into the position from being coach in an obscure league, but has been seen as a “quarterback guru” of whom many quarterbacks have consulted after the Bears had a 10-6 season and 8-8 season the year before.

The Chicago Bears Coaching Search of 2013

I am always fascinated whenever there’s a coaching search.  People let their imaginations run wild about who would be a good pick based on nothing but appraisals from former players, coaches, winning-losing history in past jobs, and their impact on star players. The coaching search time is a sort of blissful period to imagine just how good a team can be.

We really won’t be able to evaluate the results of the Chicago Bears coaching hire until after the 2013 season is played.
Every judgment or evaluation of the Bears’ hire of Marc Trestman now until at least some games are played are based entirely on how things “sound” or “look.”  It’s somewhat annoying at how fans at these websites “know” or easily “dismiss” a coaching candidate, whose results won’t be known for another 12 months. For example, the Bear fans weren’t too sure of what they wanted, but they “knew” they didn’t want Mike Singletary.

Mike Singletary wasn’t that great a coach as a 49er, but neither was Bill Belicheck in his seasons as a Browns coach.  Yet Belicheck got another chance with the Patriots and has been wildly successful since.

We don’t really have much to go on about a coaching candidate, except rhetoric and imagination.   Everything is simply… prediction.  Prediction based on mostly perception.  Perception based on…track records, peer and player evaluations.  In this year’s coaching recruiting crop, we only have the track record of Andy Reid;  the rest of the coaches hired we have yet to see how they would actually perform at the NFL level.

The Bears coaching search has officially ended with the signing of Marc Trestman.  Trestman has been hailed a quarterback guru, has won championships in the Canadian Football League as Head Coach and is seen as the guy who can help Quarterback Jay Cutler.  The drawbacks are that Trestman hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2004; he drew the ire of both legendary receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice (though Rice had both career years and the worst under him); seems like a really risky pick especially with a veteran team. He’s seen as an “out-of-the-box” pick.

Currently, a solid majority of people are initially optimistic of what Trestman brings based on their trust of General Manager Phil Emery.  I’m giving him a chance only because there’s nothing better to do as a fan.   The racial skeptic in me says, of course people embrace him, Phil Emery and Marc Trestman are white and appear to be smart!

Of course this can all change if the Bears do worse than expected.

My problem as it is related to racial equality with the Chicago Bears hire is more of the structural nature in fan dismissal of black coaches by fans at large than on coach Trestman himself.   To be a black Head coach in the NFL, it seems you must have the perfect resume, usually directly from success as a defensive coordinator.  Black coordinators who become coaches usually follow the prescribed trajectory of most coaches, but that’s about the only pipeline that they can reasonably get a head coaching job.

White coaches usually do not have to follow as hard a trajectory:  they can be removed 8 years from the big leagues and still land a job;  could anyone imagine a coach of color doing such a thing today?

Adding injury to insult, unsuccessful black coaches (and players) are often jokingly seen to be unqualified to do anything else other than minimum-wage jobs.  Lovie Smith is no exception.

 

The typical pipeline of a black head coach is to come in through a position they coached on defense;  there are a paucity of black offensive coordinators, perhaps because there seems to be little trust that black coaches can make creative executive decisions.  Currently, a lot of rhetoric on the boards in this NFL coaching search season is that “offensive background” was the trend.  This leaves a lot of black coaches out of the loop.

All this focus on offense despite the fact that 6 out of the 8 coaches fired had backgrounds in offense.  This, despite the fact that 3 of the Head Coaches 4 coaches in the 2013 NFL Conference Championships have defensive backgrounds, the Bears decided to follow the trend of the other teams who lost a coach, and hire someone with an “offensive” background.

The Bears hire of Marc Trestman isn’t that bad.  He doesn’t seem like a bad guy, and hopefully for the Bears’ sake he’s actually good.

UCLA Bruins Coaching Search of 2012

Dan Guerrero’s search last year was much maligned.  His search wasn’t seen as “thorough”, but rather a “mess.”

Yes, Guerrerro’s coaching hires have had a mixed track record in the big basketball and football sports, which fans on the site have reacted negatively too.  So perhaps THAT played a role in BruinsNation’s evaluation of him.  But he’s also helped its other athletic programs achieve a lot of wins.

Personally, I don’t know how he’s doing, because I don’t understand what a “good job” would be in comparison to other Athletic Directors:  at best, it seems all athletic departments serve different purposes.

However, while it is sort of plausible that his race, as a decisionmaker subjects him to doubt and trust, I observed something more interesting in fans’ reaction to the race of the coaching candidate.

I documented the difference last year between these fans’ reaction to the coaching hires of Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel.  Both played in college for the UCLA Bruins, but even at the end of their respective coaching terms despite having an inferior record, Rick Neuheisel was still considered “more of a Bruin” than Dorrell.

Last year, the hysterical ranting was pushed against the possible hire of black coach Kevin Sumlin.

I’ve been puking for days, with no objective source for it, ever since Petersen became “unlikely.” All this time we were lead to believe that with major changes in approach UCLA had the interest of “big names.” If DG hires Sumlin, who comes in as the 9th best coach at best in the conference, I will probably lose my interest in UCLA football forever. Neither I nor many of us long-suffering fans can take another 5 years of hopelessness. The thought really horrifies me, because UCLA sports has been one of the few sources of potential escapist joy.

If we go through with this Sumlin hire, or a similarly asinine choice, I honestly don’t know how I’d react when I run into Guerrero again. I might curse him out like a loon; I might puke on him (without being able to help it). The fact that he let Leach go to WSU is something I will never be able to live down as a fan — unless a great coach is hired now. – comment by bluebland

There was lots of celebration when Sumlin wasn’t hired.  They even took time to take a joking shot at a former defensive coordinator, who is black, and seen as not qualified to be head coach.

Great news Just filed to ESPNLA.com: Houston coach Kevin Sumlin is no longer considered a candidate for UCLA football job.by MBRUIN on Dec 4, 2011 2:13 PM PST via mobile

The doughnut hole is still open for DeWayne Walker!

Kevin Sumlin recently coached Texas A&M to an 11-2 season in the SEC, a Cotton Bowl victory and presided over a redshirt Freshman’s rise to the Heisman trophy.

Gee, UCLA seemed to have redshirt Freshman too and all we did was get rocked in the Holiday Bowl.  Seems like we could’ve used some of Sumlin, though I do actually like Jim Mora Jr. and hope that his success continues.

However, fan reaction likes to attribute any success achieved not to the decision Guerrerro made, but rather to the coach, Jim Mora Jr. himself.

When things are going well, it’s because of the job Jim Mora Jr. is doing, but when it isn’t, it’s the fault of Dan Guerrerro and not giving him enough.

 

The Takeaway

Though it won’t be openly admitted and the tide is turning, it still seems like fans still don’t trust people of color in overall leadership positions. Leadership positions being that of owners, managers, coaches, quarterbacks.  White coaches can fail over and over and get re-hired, but black coaches fail once, and that’s the end, especially in NCAA football.

The “default” idea of leadership in the NFL and NCAA, and many areas resides in what white folks do.  White identities are likely racial identities of “default” people seen to be in control.  The idea is nothing more than just expectation of what a leader should do and should be.

Coaches of color generally have to follow a more defined pathway en route to their positions as head coach.  The only way blacks or other people of color get jobs as the big bosses is through relying on formal pathways:  it’s not likely for a black coach to jump from a head coach in the CFL to head coach in the NFL.