Commentary

Keys for African-Americans in NFL

Doug Williams examines the state of the NFL for black QBs and coaches

Updated: February 3, 2011, 3:20 PM ET
By Donald Hunt | Special to ESPN.com

Michael Vick, Cameron Newton and Doug WilliamsUS PresswireMichael Vick, Cam Newton and Doug Williams represent the past, the present and the future of the NFL for black quarterbacks.

Now two decades removed from becoming the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Doug Williams is no less a trailblazer than he was on that historic day in 1988. Breaking into the pro coaching ranks, however, has been harder than breaking through the Denver Broncos' defense for 340 yards and four touchdowns in his MVP-winning performance for the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII.

Yet Williams has been undeterred, showing the tenacity and drive that were the hallmarks of his 11-year playing career. He started small in 1991, as head coach at Pointe Coupee High School in New Roads, La. Two years later he took over as head coach at Northeast High School, in his hometown of Zachary, La., and led Northeast to a 13-1 record. Williams was back in the pros shortly after, as a scout for the Jacksonville Jaguars and then as offensive coordinator for the World League's Scottish Claymores.

In 1997, Williams was named head coach at Morehouse College. One season later, Williams' college coach, the legendary Eddie Robinson, retired after 56 seasons and 408 victories at Grambling State. Returning to the site of his own storied collegiate career, Williams was hired to succeed his former coach, and led the Tigers to three straight SWAC championships from 2000 to 2002.

I'm a firm believer in guys who are not starters. I applaud the Pittsburgh Steelers for believing in the Rooney Rule, especially the quarterback side of it. … They have two African-American quarterbacks who are backups.

With his head-coaching credentials established, Williams moved on again, setting his sights again on the NFL. He was hired in 2004 as a personnel executive by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- returning to the team that drafted him 17th overall in the 1978 NFL draft -- and in 2009 was promoted by the Bucs to coordinator of pro scouting. He left the Bucs in 2010, and later that year was named general manager of the Virginia Destroyers of the upstart United Football League.

When it comes to breaking barriers, Williams has both figuratively and literally written the book on the subject -- his book "Quarterblack: Shattering the NFL Myth," was published in 1990. And since the day he hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the progress African-Americans have made in both the coaching and quarterbacking ranks in the NFL has been undeniable. Four black head coaches have led their teams to the Super Bowl, and this Sunday, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin will try to become the first black head coach to win two Super Bowls.

Yet there are miles still to go. Since Williams' big day in Super Bowl XXII, only two other black quarterbacks have started in the big game: the late Steve McNair in 2000 with Tennessee, and Donovan McNabb in 2005 with Philadelphia. And Williams remains the only black quarterback to have won a Super Bowl.

In celebration of Black History Month, we sat down with Williams to get his take on the progress the NFL has made with regard to opportunities for African-Americans:

It's OK to be a backup: "I'm a firm believer in guys who are not starters. I applaud the Pittsburgh Steelers for believing in the Rooney Rule [which requires NFL teams to interview African-American candidates for head-coaching and senior-level opportunities], but also the quarterback side of it. They have two African-American quarterbacks [Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich] who are backups. If you look around the league, that's hard to find. For the most part, if you're not a starter, you don't get a second chance."

Black QBs need to be developed: "You have to be willing to let the black quarterback be your third guy. If you go down the rosters of NFL teams, there aren't many third black quarterbacks. Joe Webb was up in Minnesota, and Tarvaris Jackson is the backup. We have to get more backups in the hopper, which will lead to more opportunities."

Black quarterbacks need to be trusted: "Coaches have to sit down and talk realistically to black quarterbacks and tell them what to expect. There's a lot of work to be done, and expectations are bigger than you imagine. There's a trust there and the guy has to believe in you. We've made progress with Michael Vick getting a second chance. Then again, some of the scrutiny that Donovan McNabb went through, as much as he's done over his career, I think that's a little unfair."

Management needs to be more understanding: "When black quarterbacks get a chance to compete, I think coaches and coordinators have to be a little more forgiving. Everybody is not the same; people grow and develop at different stages. Some people, no matter who they are, handle people well. Then you have some people who don't have the patience to watch a kid develop."

There is added pressure as a black quarterback: "We just witnessed one of the greatest [seasons] for a college player, from Auburn's Cam Newton. I don't know if he has gotten the respect for the things that he has done. We have made some progress, and I think we all will attest to that."

Allow ex-players back in the fraternity: "Think about how many interviews [Vikings head coach] Leslie Frazier went through to get his job. [Dolphins assistant head coach] Todd Bowles has been interviewed. [Giants defensive coordinator] Perry Fewell will do some interviewing this year. Those three come to mind right away. I'm a firm believer there are a lot of ex-players who want to get in the game who are not allowed in. At the same time, some ex-players are not willing to pay the price. The economics of the game has changed. Ex-players have to be willing to put in time to be a coach. You can't wait six, seven, 10 years after retirement to get back in the game."


Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His HBCU Notebook on ESPN.com can be found here. Got a story idea for Hunt? E-mail him at dhunt37261@aol.com.