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When Al Davis hired Art Shell as the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989, Clarence Shelmon was a 37-year-old running backs coach at the University of Southern California.
Shell became the first African-American head coach in the modern N.F.L. For Shelmon, now the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, Shell’s hiring opened up possibilities he had dreamed of but never seriously imagined while growing up in Bossier City, La., in the 1950s.
For many aspiring African-American coaches, becoming a head coach in the N.F.L. seemed an insurmountable mountain.
“When you’re young, you think anything is possible, but you also look at what history had unfolded before,” Shelmon said in a phone interview last week. “Back then, there were not a lot of men of color in coordinators’ positions and head coaches, so while you knew it was a possibility, you didn’t see anyone in those positions. In the back of your mind, you’re wondering if you’ll ever have an opportunity.”
Shelmon said Shell’s hiring expanded his realm of possibility. “Unquestionably, without doubt, that gave me hope,” he said. “Not just me, but a lot of other guys.”
When Davis died Oct. 8 at 82, the N.F.L. lost a maverick willing to take on the very establishment to which he belonged and that he helped build.
Davis confronted the historically vexing relationship between the N.F.L. and African-Americans. From the 1920s until the late 1940s, blacks were excluded by a so-called gentleman’s agreement. Then quotas limited the number of African-Americans allowed to make a team, and black athletes were steered toward positions that supposedly required physical but not mental acumen and away from positions, usually on offense, that were believed to require intelligence.
In 1968, quarterback was the imposing mountaintop for African-Americans in football. Davis broke that mold by making Eldridge Dickey of Tennessee State the first black quarterback drafted in the first round, taking him that year over Ken Stabler, the Raiders’ second-round pick.
In 1989, head coach was the mountaintop; Davis hired Shell. And in 2006, Davis added Shell to the old boys’ network of recycled coaches when he rehired him.
“Al Davis was a visionary,” Shelmon said. ”He was guy who thought outside of the box and was way ahead of his time in management positions and coaching.”
But who will replace Davis as such a visionary? The N.F.L. seems to be in a self-congratulatory mode for improving the number of black and minority head coaches (there are seven), because of the Rooney Rule and the league’s collaboration with the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, requires N.F.L. teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation positions. The rule does not compel teams to interview minority candidates for other coaching positions, however, and it shows in two areas: coordinators and offensive line coaches, frequent waypoints on the path to head coaching positions.
Given the N.F.L.’s current numbers — two offensive coordinators, six defensive coordinators, two offensive line coaches and four defensive line coaches are African-American — in a league with a substantial black talent pool, the Rooney Rule needs to be extended to include coaching staffs.
John Wooten disagrees. “You can’t restrict a coach; a coach has to have his own staff,” said Wooten, a former offensive lineman who is chairman and co-founder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
The alliance was created to promote diversity and equality in opportunities for N.F.L. coaching, front-office and scouting positions and helped the N.F.L. establish the Rooney Rule. But Wooten doesn’t want it applied to all coaching vacancies. “We truly feel that a head coach should be able to put together a staff the way he wants it,” he said.
But that argument is the same one that created the need for the Rooney Rule: that organizations should be able to hire head coaches without interference.
A lack of pressure is one reason the number of minority coordinators remains so low.
“The other fact is that many black head coaches made their names on defense,” Shelmon said. “There’s a pipeline there.”
The pipeline was fashioned on stereotypes: blacks were better on defense, which required hunger, desire and physicality, while whites were better suited to offense, which required creativity and mental dexterity, especially at quarterback, guard and center.
Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris and Leslie Frazier were defensive coaches before becoming head coaches. Jim Caldwell, the Indianapolis Colts’ coach, is an exception, having been a quarterbacks coach. Of course, he worked for Dungy.
Shelmon’s extensive career illustrates the complex array of factors that contribute to success, including merit, hard work, good timing, nurturing relationships.
Shelmon began his career at Army in 1978, followed by stops at Indiana and at Arizona. Beginning in 1987, he worked at U.S.C., where he was on the staff for a year with Norv Turner’s brother, Ron. Shelmon’s first N.F.L. job was with the Los Angeles Rams in 1991. He moved on to the Seattle Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys before joining the Chargers in 2002.
Chargers Coach Marty Schottenhemier named Shelmon as offensive coordinator shortly before he was fired in 2007. Norv Turner took over and kept Shelmon in the position. He excelled in that role but was not thoroughly familiar with the N.F.L. passing game. Turner put him in the planning room, and Shelmon learned its nuances.
“You have to be in those meetings and know the small, subtle things that quarterbacks are being told in order to ascend,” Shelmon said.
How do minority and African-American coaches get into those rooms? Hard work and learning as much as they can about all facets of the offense beyond the positions they were hired to coach.
Then there is relationship-building. Preparation and hard work matter, but someone with power in an organization must open the door.
”A lot of that stuff goes with who you know,” Shelmon said. “Coaches who have worked on staffs together may bring you with them when they get a head coaching opportunity.”
Access is often based on relationships, including being fortunate enough to have a maverick in your corner.
That brings us back to Al Davis, who in his quirky way demanded that doors be opened if he thought it would benefit the organization. A black quarterback, Hispanic and black head coaches, black coordinators; Davis had them all.
“He did think of organization first, foremost and only,” Dungy said. “If he could get a edge, he was going to take it. We can all speculate about if he hadn’t hired Art Shell who would have done it, but nobody had done it before and he stepped out and said, ‘Forget about who’s been a coordinator and all this: this is the guy who needs to run our franchise.’ To me, that was a big step and a big statement.”
Davis set the tone for change. Will any of the current owners have the courage to do the same?