CHARLOTTE, NC — Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, despite hiring Frank Reich over Steve Wilks as the team’s sixth head coach, insisted on Tuesday he’s doing what he can to break up the “old boys’ network” in the NFL.
The old boys’ network of mostly white owners has a history of not putting minority candidates in positions of power, particularly as it retains to head coaches.
There are currently only three Black head coaches in the NFL: Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and DeMeco Ryans of the Houston Texans, who hired him Tuesday. In addition, Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins identifies himself as biracial.
The Panthers hired Reich, who is white, over Wilks, who is Black. Tepper insisted that the race had nothing to do with the decision.
He pointed to his executive team which includes: his wife, Nicole, the chief administrative officer; Kristi Coleman, the chief administrative officer; Kisha Smith, a Black woman who is a senior vice president that oversees human resources; and Tanya Taylor, a general counsel who is a Black woman.
“We have probably the most diverse executive team in the NFL right now,” Tepper said. “We are probably a minority of white men on our executive team right now. That’s where it starts. That’s America.
“How do you break that old boys’ network? How do you break that process? You break the process by trying to get the best people possible in every role you can do. Whether it’s the new [general counsel] we hired, who happens to be an African American woman. Whether it happens to be Frank Reich, who is a Caucasian male.”
Tepper insisted the decision to hire Reich, 61, had more to do with his offensive background. The coaching search supported that. Seven of the nine candidates had an offensive background, and all but Jim Caldwell was white.
The two defensive-minded coaches were Black.
“Every year we get in these NFL meetings, and every year they put in some new rules to benefit the offense … every single year,” Tepper said. “And it’s never going to end. It’s never going to end.
“And the reason for that is, scoring brings eyeballs. That’s what the league is about, getting eyeballs to watch the thing. So, I can tell you again, the new rules will be offensive-minded rules. So, you have that challenge, first.”
Reich is the first offensive-minded coach hired in team history, which began in 1995, when Reich was the starting quarterback for the expansion franchise for the first three games.
Tepper never addressed whether the defensive-minded Wilks had a legitimate shot at the job because of the direction of the search. Wilks led Carolina to a 6-6 finish after Matt Rhule was fired following a 1-4 start.
General manager Scott Fitterer did, however.
“He had a legitimate shot,” Fitterer said. “He did a heck of a job leading this team. He’s a great man.”
Fitterer said what separated Reich from Wilks and other candidates was the interview process when he was “dialed in” with his plan and his “second-level” thinking.
He also recognized it’s an advantage hiring an offensive-minded coach in today’s NFL.
“If you want to go offence, there are some advantages to that,” he said. “And there are advantages to playing aggressively on the offensive side of the ball. … You saw it this past weekend [in the NFC and AFC Championship Games, where all four head coaches were offensive-minded].”
The law firm that represents Steve Wilks in the discrimination lawsuit he joined against the league after being fired as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals after one season (2018) saw things differently. Wigdor LLP put out a statement saying it was “shocked and disturbed” by Carolina’s decision to hire Reich over Wilks.
“There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days,” the firm said on Thursday after Reich was hired.
Reich kept the focus of his news conference on the challenge he faces taking over a team that has gone 29-53 since Tepper purchased the organization in 2018.
He didn’t commit to calling the plays, saying the trend in the NFL is going away from the head coach doing that. He said whether that happens depends on his offensive coordinator.
“Obviously, I have always enjoyed doing that and felt like I’ve had a good bit of success doing that,” he said.
One of Reich’s first jobs, outside of hiring a staff, will be finding a starting quarterback. The Panthers have had five different starters since 2020. Reich went through seven starters in four-plus seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before being fired in November.
Reich is thankful for another opportunity so fast after his dismissal.
“It’s a passing league, but you have to be able to run the ball to become a championship team,” he said. “That’s one reason I’m excited about this roster. I know we can do that. We’ll get the pass game right, but I know we can run the football.”