Ron Rivera would be the first to tell you that he wouldn’t be the two-time NFL Coach of the Year without the help of his assistant coaches.
He mulled over them carefully when he selected them in 2011, and he has been careful in picking new coaches when there is a rare turnover.
Did you know that Rivera and the Carolina Panthers have the most racially diverse staff in the entire NFL?
I knew they were diverse and near the top, but a recent ESPN.com story on the (lack of) diversity in coaching staffs showed the Panthers, at 55.6 percent, have the most racially diverse staff in the league.
In fact, only two other franchises – the Jets and Steelers – are at 50 percent or more.
“The truth of the matter is,” Rivera told me Thursday at the HoopTee Celebrity Golf Classic in Ballantyne, “I’m pleased with that fact but I didn’t realize it. At the end of the day I really tried to bring in who I thought were the best guys.”
Of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage, Rivera is one of six minority coaches in the NFL. Had the Panthers won Super Bowl 50, he would have joined former Raiders coach Tom Flores as the only coaches of Hispanic descent to win a world title.
Rivera interviewed for head coaching jobs no fewer than nine times before earning the Panthers gig in 2011. Some of those interviews were helped by the Rooney Rule, which the NFL established in 2003 requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for a vacant head coaching position.
The ESPN.com article laid bare the statistics in NFL coaching. There have been 22 first-time head coaches selected since 2012, and only one – the Jets’ Todd Bowles – is black. That 21-to-1 mark is equal to the 22 first-time hires between 1997-2001 – years before the Rooney Rule existed.
NFL franchises have, in recent years, gone after head coaches with an offensive background or experience as a coordinator. According to ESPN, 80 of the 85 current offensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches or offensive quality control positions are white. And 23 of the 32 defensive coordinators are white.
For Carolina, offensive coordinator Mike Shula and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are white. But of the 18 coaching positions on Carolina’s staff, 10 are minorities. They are Rivera; Steve Wilks, assistant head coach/secondary coach; Ray Brown, offensive line coach; Curtis Fuller, assistant defensive backs/nickels coach; Al Holcomb, linebackers coach; Thomas McGaughey, assistant special teams coach; Sam Mills III, assistant defensive line coach; Richard Rodgers, assistant defensive backs/safeties coach; Jim Skipper, running backs coach; and Eric Washington, defensive line coach.
“You go right down the list of all these guys and they’re the guys who I think are some of the better coaches in this league,” Rivera said.
Rivera said the numbers presented in the article detailing the lack of diversity in the league’s coaches did not surprise him. But he expects that as more former players go into coaching – almost two-thirds of the league’s players are black – those numbers will improve.
One thing that didn’t exactly sit right with Rivera was that some positions seem to be slotted for minority coaches. For example, black assistant coaches fill the running backs and defensive backs coaching positions with greater frequency than other position groups.
Rivera pointed out that the Panthers had Bobby Babich, who is white, as a defensive assistant specializing in the secondary when he took over in Carolina because “he was the best suited at that position for us at that time.”
The topic of race and the NFL has come up occasionally during Rivera’s time with the Panthers. He has been clear with me on those occasions that he longs for the day when the labels stop.
He said “we need to get past” labels such as black quarterback for Cam Newton, and just call him a quarterback. And he hopes the rest of the league looks for the best fit in coaching, whatever their race may be.
“I just think that we can get past that point to where we can look at people for what their qualifications are,” Rivera said, “as opposed to what their color is.”