After being fired following his only season as an NFL head coach, Steve Wilks is guiding a team again.
Well, sort of.
Carolina Panthers franchise owner David Tepper fired Matt Rhule on Monday amid the team’s 1-4 start and, on an interim basis, promoted Wilks, who was in his first season as the Panthers’ defensive pass game coordinator/secondary coach. During the 2018 season, Wilks led the Arizona Cardinals.
The Panthers were downright unwatchable in two-plus seasons under Rhule (11-27), whom Tepper bestowed with a ridiculously lavish contract for a longtime college coach who had little exposure to the pro game. More on that in a bit.
Wilks becomes the latest Black man to inherit a hot mess as an interim coach, and he’ll have to push multiple boulders uphill simultaneously to have a snowball’s chance of settling into the coach’s office. Amid myriad roster problems, the Panthers lack even a competent quarterback, let alone a standout one.
In the NFL, winning without a quarterback is like trying to cut grass without a lawn mower. Good luck with that.
But in a 32-team league with only three Black head coaches, Black assistants can’t afford to decline jobs – no matter how bad they may look on paper, several Black coaches and Black executives told Andscape recently.
Wilks has been in a similar position before.
For years, Wilks rose steadily through the league’s ranks and emerged as a top coaching candidate while serving as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator in 2017. The next year while at the Cardinals’ helm, Wilks went 3-13. Clearly, the team fared poorly under him.
The problem is, one season isn’t enough time for a coach to implement his vision and establish the culture he wants, especially when things are as unsettled at quarterback as they were with Arizona at that time. When one reflects on Wilks’ brief tenure with the Cardinals, the term “they did him dirty” comes to mind.
Wilks agrees. In April, Wilks was one of two Black coaches who joined former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit against the league – which seeks class-action status – alleging in the amended complaint that he was “not given any meaningful chance to succeed” in Arizona. For most Black assistant coaches, becoming an interim coach also isn’t a path to long-term employment.
According to research by The Washington Post, Black coaches have held interim roles 14 times since 1990. They were retained permanently just three times.
Just facts. And they illustrate the historic challenge Wilks faces to revive his career fully after his awful experience with Arizona, said N. Jeremi Duru, author of the definitive book on the struggle that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule, Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.
“In both the short- and long-term history, the stats do tell us that there are headwinds facing Black candidates … that results in them having to seize every [position] to strengthen their candidacies,” said Duru, a professor of sports law at American University and a longtime observer of the NFL’s hiring practices.
“That doesn’t mean that he won’t get a real opportunity there [with the Panthers]. But I suspect he is aware … that he’s swimming pretty much upstream given that history in the league.”
Wilks knows the deal. Still, declining the offer never entered into his thinking.
“Not to the point where I even debated the situation,” Wilks told reporters on Tuesday. “I want to be part of trying to turn this thing around.”
Wilks has an opening, such as it is, because Tepper made a colossal mistake in hiring Rhule and giving him a market-reshaping, seven-year, $62 million contract.
Although Rhule performed admirably in turning around two college programs, his only NFL coaching experience came during one year as an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants. Exactly why Tepper believed that Rhule, having served just one season as a relatively low-level assistant in the league, was both the right person to lead a rebuild and deserved such a massive contract to be a first-time NFL head coach, well, it’s a mystery.
After word of Rhule’s contract emerged, many Black coaches pointed to the stunning deal as yet another example of the disparity between them and their white counterparts. Not only do franchise owners ignore qualified Black NFL candidates for head coaching positions as if they’re paid to do it, several Black coaches have told Andscape, they also reward white college coaches who haven’t cut their teeth in the league in a substantial manner. Former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer is high on that list, too.
Wilks has proven he knows the NFL game. And regardless of the team’s win-loss record from now on, Wilks will be a calming force within the organization, said Rod Graves of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
Graves, the executive director of the independent organization that advises NFL leaders on diversity, equity and inclusion, believes Carolina will be better off for having promoted Wilks.
“He understands the game, he understands players and he’s very communicative,” said Graves, formerly both an NFL general manager and a high-ranking official in the NFL commissioner’s office.
“He’s also familiar with the division and the conference. He knows what’s needed to be done, and he’s very capable of providing the leadership that’s needed … to lead a professional football team. This provides him a great opportunity to reestablish himself in a positive light.”
And as NFL history has proven, Black coaches don’t get enough opportunities to waste any.