KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Paul Tagliabue was NFL commissioner, Willie Lanier was among the first men he recruited for the Players Advisory Council, a select group of 10 retired players formed by Tagliabue in 1990.
Lanier was a building block in part because of the credibility conferred by his trailblazing career as a Pro Football Hall of Fame middle linebacker for the Chiefs and in part because of his broader vision and wisdom so embodied in a renowned business career.
Initially engaged to help salve a history of management-labor acrimony, over time, the council came to feel a sense of guardianship over the NFL itself and, Lanier said Tuesday, “discuss all things relative to the sport.”
One day when it was noted that a national search firm had been retained to boost African American coaching prospects, Lanier raised his hand and said, “I want to make a point.”
Then Lanier told a story about working with a firm that had 14 African American brokers out of some 1,400 in the company. A director had approached him and asked, “Willie, what do we need to do to get more Blacks into the firm?”
Lanier paused as if he was pondering great thought.
Then he said, “Hire them.”
A generation-plus and hundreds of turns of the coaching carousel later, variations of the Rooney Rule notwithstanding, those words still hover in vain over the NFL.
As of its annual coaching purge, it features just two Black men and three minorities overall (including Washington coach Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic) in those 32 jobs.
This is visible and fertile terrain in the matter of equal opportunity and equality itself, Lanier says, as he wonders aloud “how long does it take for a society to change itself?”
Which brings us to Eric Bieniemy, now in his third season as offensive coordinator of the Chiefs — the defending Super Bowl champions who followed that up with the best regular-season (14-2) in franchise history to enjoy a bye week before beginning the playoffs.
Seven times in the last few years, Bieniemy, 51, interviewed for head-coaching jobs. Seven times he’s been passed over.
So with six jobs open as of Wednesday afternoon, including at least four for which he is believed either to have interviewed for or the Chiefs have been asked permission for him to interview, this seems to be the moment of critical mass for his candidacy.
Or the moment that it’s incontrovertible that there’s something curious, if not rotten, at play when it comes to someone who has the credentials, currency and endorsements that seem borderline ideal.
Take a listen to a few reviews from recent weeks.
Coach Andy Reid, who has nurtured a number of assistants into head coaches (including the last two men in Bieniemy’s current job), was asked the other day what message he would give a prospective employer of Bieniemy:
“Well, listen, I think he’s top-notch. At the risk of being redundant, I have not seen many guys that are as great a leader as he is of men. And in this business, that’s huge. You’re never going to have to worry about Eric Bieniemy, never — on the field, off the field. He’s going to be honest with you and straightforward, and then he knows the offense … He’s ready to make the move.”
Or as tight ends coach Tom Melvin said last week:
“The thing that Eric’s got that sets him apart from a lot of people is he has a great feel for human beings. Knowing what makes guys tick, how to talk to them, when to talk to them, when to leave them alone, and I think he’s got a really good feel for that and you could tell that with the players that play for him.”
Then there was this from Patrick Mahomes in his weekly interview on KCSP (610 AM):
“If you see how our offense has produced over these last few years he’s been one the most vital pieces of that. Obviously I want him to be here, but I understand that he deserves a chance to go out there and coach his own team and run his own organization. I mean he’s a guy that will hold everybody in that organization accountable, he’s going to build the culture the right way. And obviously he knows how to call the plays and do that stuff and produce on the field, and so there’s no real negative about it.
“So I don’t understand why he wouldn’t get one (head coaching job) in this kind of cycle.”
None of that guarantees success for Bieniemy as a head coach, of course. And Lanier noted when we first spoke about this a year ago that anyone hiring has the right to decide “who they define in their prism as … the Cinderella at the prom.”
Accordingly, every team has had its reasons for its choices. Good or bad as they ultimately were, it’s unfair to suggest anything sinister in any specific decision.
Perhaps Bieniemy didn’t connect in interviews in the past, for instance, when others have wowed.
Just the same, the cumulative statement already has been problematic. And it could become all the more troubling depending on how this plays out now.
Because plausible deniability blurs in the collective picture, doesn’t it?
At least when you think of it the enlightened way Lanier puts it when he says “hire them” at the same failure rate that you do for others.
And a point he only offers, he added, “to offset having to be twice as good just to be considered.”
So it might all be considered this way:
Accenting how imperfect hiring practices are, plenty who don’t have the resume or overall credentials of Bieniemy have gotten hired to, essentially, just be given a chance.
That’s all Bieniemy seeks and quite arguably deserves.
But maybe even after all this time it’s like Clint Eastwood said in “Unforgiven” as his William Munny character shoots Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett:
“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Years and years and years now since Lanier raised his hand in that meeting (and even as he has continued to be a valuable voice in a variety of ways for current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell), at some point someone just has to make such hires to enable more equal opportunities.
Or … they don’t.
“There’s nothing to explain,” Lanier said. “Whoever it was had an opportunity and chose not to do it. … You can call it what you want to call it. They didn’t make the hire because they chose not to. Period.”