A plate-glass ceiling

The 49ers almost hired a black coach. But they just weren't quite "comfortable" with him.

Published February 14, 2003 1:10AM (EST)

Well, we've found the glass ceiling for black head coaches in the NFL, haven't we? It's 9.375 percent, three out of 32. That's how many black coaches there are after this offseason's round of hirings. There have never been four.

Roughly two of every three NFL players are black.

The last coaching vacancy was filled Tuesday, and rather than hire one of the three rumored front-runners -- all defensive coordinators, two of them black -- the San Francisco 49ers pulled an emergency switcheroo to a retread white guy, a successful college coach with a four-year record of mediocrity in the NFL, a fellow who says he had no idea he was in the running for the job four days before he got it. San Jose Mercury News columnist Skip Bayless called him "Dennis 'You've Got to Be Kidding' Erickson."

Whew! Almost had a fourth black head coach there.

There were five coaches hired this winter, and one of them, Marvin Lewis, is African-American. But he was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals, who are in the NFL only in the most technical sense. The Bengals, recently saluted by ESPN the Magazine as the worst franchise in North America, are run by Mike Brown, the most clueless idiot in all of sports -- and my rankings include Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, ESPN talk-show host Max Kellerman and myself. The eminently qualified Lewis is almost certain to fail. If he doesn't, he ought to get a real coaching job and a MacArthur "genius" grant.

Nobody's suggesting that any NFL team should be forced to hire a black coach when it feels it has the right man for the job and he's white. The woeful Detroit Lions found themselves in a position to hire Michigander Steve Mariucci, the successful 49ers coach who was fired because of office politics, and so they did. The Lions reportedly followed the NFL's new policy by inviting several blacks to interview, but, surely realizing such an interview would have been a charade, they all said no. Well, fine. Not ideal, and you can argue that maybe the invitees should have put in an appearance, just to keep the ball rolling, but let's be realistic. Mariucci is a lottery pick of a hire.

But the way the 49ers leaped at Erickson made it look as though his name had suddenly come up in a desperate 11th-hour meeting to solve the "we're about to hire a black guy" problem.

The leading candidates had been defensive coordinators Ted Cottrell of the New York Jets, Greg Blache of the Chicago Bears and the 49ers' own Jim Mora. Cottrell and Blache are black. They both were interviewed twice, a fact that the usually secretive 49ers made no attempt to hide.

Cottrell had emerged as the front-runner. He was the defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills in the late '90s, when their defense was among the best in the league. The Bills passed on him in 2001 in favor of Gregg Williams, who took over an 8-8 team and has led them to 3-13 and 8-8 records, with defenses that have been among the worst in the league. The 49ers were the seventh team Cottrell had interviewed with. He has said that four times the process was legitimate. The other three he's called "bullcrap," a token parading of the black guy.

He was gracious after the surprising announcement Tuesday, praising the 49ers' "professionalism" and saying he felt he'd gotten a fair chance.

But had he? The two words that emerged in the hours after the news broke were red flags: "experience" and "comfortable."

Peter King of Sports Illustrated, citing "a source close to the talks," wrote that Erickson was chosen over Cottrell "because of one trait and one trait only: experience."

That's the classic Catch-22 for black coaches: They don't have any experience because no one will hire them, so no one will hire them because they don't have any experience. So instead the 49ers go for Erickson, whose NFL experience is leading the Seattle Seahawks to three 8-8 records and a 7-9 and missing the playoffs all four years he was there. OK, the Hawks were robbed of a skin-of-their-teeth playoff spot by a famously bad call on a touchdown play, but 9-7 and a quick playoff ouster is hardly Lombardi-esque. The enduring image of Erickson's tenure in Seattle is of his players eating hot dogs on the bench during a game.

The 49ers are so big on experience that the last time they hired a coach who had any was in 1955. The last 11 Niners coaches, including Bill Walsh, George Seifert and Mariucci, were NFL head coaching rookies. But all of a sudden, it's important.

In that case, maybe the 49ers should have considered Dennis Green, who successfully coached the Minnesota Vikings for a decade, has a history with the 49ers, and said on national TV that he wanted the job. Or Art Shell, who less than two decades ago became the modern NFL's first black head coach, with the Los Angeles Raiders, and, despite being reasonably successful, has never been offered another coaching job. As long as we're talking experience, how about some guys who have experienced success?

Erickson also has lots of experience, and success, at the college level, though that's hardly a predictor of pro success. And he may even be overrated as a college coach. He won two national titles at Miami, but he was the caretaker of a system that had been built by Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson.

At Oregon State, he inherited a team from Mike Riley that was on the upswing -- 3-8 and 5-6 in the two years before he got there -- and, mostly with Riley's players, completed the process, going 7-5 and 12-1 in his first two years. With mostly his own players over the last two seasons, Erickson's Beavers have gone 5-6 and 8-5. His overall college record is 144-57-1, but the thing about college is that as long as you're not a doormat, you get to schedule some easy wins every year. Oregon State was 6-5 last year when it wasn't playing Eastern Kentucky or Temple. I don't mean to knock Erickson too much. He's a perfectly adequate college coach, but he's hardly a catch for a pro team. The 49ers' desperate, last-minute leap for him is ridiculous and sad.

The other word that came up was "comfortable."

"I honestly went to bed Monday night thinking Ted had the job," said Joe Linta, Cottrell's agent. But it turned out, Linta said, that 49ers general manager Terry Donahue had a problem. "He just didn't know Ted. Not that he didn't like him, but that he just wasn't as comfortable with him."

That's how the glass ceiling works, isn't it? It's only natural for a fellow to hire a fellow he feels comfortable with, and it's only natural to feel comfortable around your own, right?

Linta doesn't seem to be accusing the 49ers of racism or saying that Donahue and 49ers team director John York were uncomfortable with Cottrell because he's black. He's just saying they were uncomfortable because they don't know him. But why don't they know him? He's been in the league for the last 17 years. He's been a defensive coordinator for the last eight. They interviewed him twice. How well do you have to know a guy before you hire him?

Change is achieved by stepping out of your comfort zone. Donahue talks a lot about "character," yet he hired Erickson, whose Miami teams were notorious for their bad behavior on and off the field, and whose teams wherever he's gone have been undisciplined and soft -- have, to put it simply, lacked character. Donahue had said he was looking for a defensive-minded coach, but his late-breaking hire was an offense guy. It looks like Donahue doesn't have any trouble adapting to things with which he's less than comfortable.

But only certain things.

Two thirds black on the field, 9.375 percent calling the shots. The NFL has a long way to go.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

MORE FROM King Kaufman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------