The NFL's coaching carousel has never been kind to African-American head coaches, but these band of brothers are carrying the torch, surviving the game and winning more than they lose.
1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
At the tender age of 43 and in his ninth season as HC of the famed Pittsburgh franchise, Tomlin is the only African-American coach out of the bunch with a Super Bowl championship to his credit. We know winning Super Bowls is hard (especially if you don’t cheat) and Tomlin backed up his c’hip at the age of 36 with an AFC Championship trophy in 2010, before Aaron Rodgers kept him from doubling up on the Lombardi Trophy before the age of 40.
Unlike the other members of his coaching band of brothers,Tomlin has never had a losing season, proving that his consistency, leadership skills, intelligence and capacity to manage a flagship and decorated NFL franchise is on par with the best of them. He holds the highest career winning percentage at .638 and is second in career wins with 90 to the longest-tenured black HC in NFL history Marvin Lewis (110 wins). Tomlin's journey to NFL head coach is that of legend and he will forever be the face of racial diversity and The NFL's Rooney Rule
2. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Lewis is No. 2 on my list and is the only black head coach on the list with over 100 career wins. Despite losing four Division Championships (at least it wasn't four Super Bowls), he’s managed to avoid the guillotine by surviving back-to-back losing seasons, the Chris Henry (RIP) Jailhouse Rock era, devastating playoff losses and intense fan pressure to oust him. He’s the Teflon Don and has stalked the Cincy sidelines with impunity since 2003.
The Bengals were coming for that No. 1 spot this season, before a first-quarter thumb injury sidelined star signal-caller Andy “Red Rifle” Dalton during a 33-20 home loss on Sunday to AFC North-rival Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5). His status moving forward is up in the air, but losing him for any extended period of time would be deadly to Cincy’s hopes of finally reaching a Super Bowl for the first time since the ‘88 season, when Joe Montana and John Taylor came through and crushed the buildings.
Like Tomlin, O.G. Lewis has an incredible aptitude for gaining a player’s trust and allegiance. This skill always reasoned into ownership’s thought processes when deciding to move on or retain Lewis. He also has a strong personality and is comfortable when he has his hands directly on the product. Instead of resisting his desires, ownership eventually relinquished the control he craved. This intricate and sensible faith in Lewis’ coaching acumen has helped the Bengals blossom into perennial playoff contenders going 41-19 and averaging 10 wins a season over the last five campaigns, including a 10-3 record (first place in AFC North).
Lewis has held this football fractured city like a broken baby and nursed it to health. For that, he gets much props. Eventually, however, he’s got to have one major conquest in order to maintain rule of his kingdom.
3. Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie is one of the most unheralded and underrated head coaches in the game period. In his 11 years coaching the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Bucs, he’s won more than 10 games four times and has a winning career record of 89-84. He’s been to three Division Ch’ips, took Chicago to the Super Bowl in 2006 and ironically lost to Tony Dungy, the first African-American HC to win a Super Bowl. Dungy’s lofty accomplishments overshadowed Smith’s great season and Smith’s team’s have lacked a consistency in performance and intensity over the years. To his credit, Smith has never had a talent at QB like Jameis Winston in all of his years with the QB-strapped Bucs, so his future is bright.
The crafty veteran knows how to do more with less and he's not a kettle bursting with steam. He's calm, patient and his conversational but assertive tone meshes well with Winston’s vocal demeanor, enthusiasm, anxiousness and confidence. Their intricate minds connect like buds in a trap house. The aged and the fresh combining for a most potent and multi-faceted football elixir.
Hopefully Tampa Bay can keep building a powerhouse around Winston and Smith and ownership isn’t quick on the trigger. With Winston’s arrival, the Bucs have already tripled last season’s win total (2-14 record in 2014) and at this rate, Lovie should get another shot at a Super Bowl ring in the upcoming years, which would go a long way towards validating him as one of the game’s top coaches.
4. Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
If Todd Bowles had more experience I’d place him ahead of Caldwell, who is probably my least favorite of these sideline generals. He inherited a loaded team from Dungy. The Colts went 14-2 and led by Peyton Manning cruised to the Super Bowl before Caldwell got history snatched from his grasps by Drew Brees and the Saints' air show. Caldwell went 10-6 that next season, but once Manning suffered the neck injury, everything fell apart. The Colts suffered through a miserable 2-14 season without the NFL’s all-time passing leader (71, 871) and Jimmy Boy was kicked to the curb at the end of that season. Caldwell rebounded in 2014 when he was named head coach of the tortured souls we call the Detroit Lions. He went 11-5.
But in keeping with the roller coaster results he’s accumulated during his five years as an NFL HC (41-36 record), this season Caldwell’s squad has performed below expectations and his pedigree as a QB/offensive guru has come into question with Matt Stafford’s declining performance. If he doesn’t have a strong finish and serious rebound year in 2016, Caldwell could be looking at the front door real soon.
5. Todd Bowles, New York Jets
So far, so good for the first-year head coach handling a team with more holes than a early-90s Jamaican shirt and doing it in a New York media melting pit that devours young coaches with unrealistic expectations and impatient desires.
The Jets are 8-5 and alive for some playoff love. Not bad at all for a newbie who has to battle with the Patriots and go at it with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB (no offense to the bearded wonder who has been balling but let’s be serious) and a defense that has been less than advertised. Once Bowles is able to settle in and select and develop players that fit his mentality as a leader and nabs a legit franchise QB, then his true evaluation process can begin. Right now he looks like a solid HC. He is a serene spirit, but his presence looms large in front of the ravenous, screaming fans of gladiator sport at MetLife Stadium.
His predecessor had great success, leading the Jets to back-to-back NFC Championship Games with a rookie QB. Eventually, it wasn’t enough to feed the beast and Rex Ryan can now be 6-7 with no flack in Buffalo, instead of coaching in a no-win media circus, which seemed to be his wicked addiction anyway.
Bowles is more laid back than that. On some Shaft-type sh*t. When I asked him at his initial press conference at the stadium, how he felt to be the second African-American HC in Jets history, he said, “he was just interested in being the best coach he can be period.” He’s not about shocking moments, weird habits and negative publicity. He seems serious about getting those W’s and his future's bright if he can handle the spotlight.