Tony Dungy on NFL's lack of minority head coaches: Owners 'need to be looking for leaders'

Interview season is in full swing. Over the coming weeks, six ownership groups are looking to fill head coaching vacancies. Questions will abound regarding each hire and the candidates involved.

One of the biggest during many cycles: Why aren’t more minorities elevated? There were eight head coaches of color in the NFL just two years ago. But with the Chargers’ firing of Anthony Lynn this week, there are now just three.

Hall of Famer Tony Dungy, the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, said that’s partly a product of owners overlooking an essential trait, one that doesn’t favor a certain demographic but can be easily identified in the most successful coaches of the past and present — leadership.

“I think we had a cycle where we hired some good people, we hired a lot of defensive coaches, and then for some reason everyone thought that in order to be successful you had to have a young, offensive coach,” Dungy told NFL Network’s Steve Wyche and Jim Totter on the latest episode of the Huddle & Flow podcast. “You had to have a quarterbacks coach, despite the fact that Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll are winning Super Bowls year after year. And because most of the people who coach quarterbacks and offensive coordinators are white, that’s what led to that. Now we got a situation where we do have some young minority offensive coaches, but we got to get the owners to understand that they need to be looking for leaders. Leadership is what wins for you.

“Sean McVay is a great offensive coach, but Sean McVay is a leader. Bill Belichick is a leader. He’s a great coach. He doesn’t have to coach quarterbacks but he can win Super Bowls, and that’s what we got to get people to understand.”

Dungy’s guidance, of course, once turned the Buccaneers into contenders and the Colts into champions. His success surely opened doors for coaches of color, but not all of them. Ten teams still have never had a minority head coach in the Super Bowl era. With work still to do, Dungy remains an unofficial ambassador for the league 12 years after retiring as a coach.

A Super Bowl winner as a player and coach, he often cites the wisdom he gleaned about 40 years ago in Pittsburgh — where he briefly played before becoming the youngest assistant in NFL history and soon after the youngest coordinator — since it still holds up.

“I always go back to Dan Rooney, who was my mentor in Pittsburgh, I think he hired three coaches in 50 years because he had a formula,” Dungy said. “He said Pittsburgh is a blue-collar town with cold weather, we’re going to be rough and tumble. So I’m looking for defensive-minded coaches, and I want a young guy because I want somebody that’s going to be here 15 or 20 years and somebody who understands Pittsburgh. That was his formula.”

That philosophy is what led Rooney to hire a 34-year-old Mike Tomlin, once an assistant under Dungy, in 2007. Only Belichick has coached his current team longer than Tomlin among active coaches, and only Belichick and McVay have won at a higher clip.

The Steelers’ model, built by the Rooney family and responsible for eight Super Bowl appearances and six titles, might be particular to Pittsburgh. But it also leans on a very simple premise, and it’s applicable to the Falcons, Lions, Texans, Jaguars, Chargers and Jets amid their current coaching searches: What are you looking for?

That’s a question Dungy believes every NFL owner should know the answer to before hiring a head coach.

“I’ve been frustrated in the times Commissioner [Roger} Goodell has had me talk to someone, or people just call me and say, I’d like some recommendations,” Dungy shared. “And my first question is, what are you looking for? And you’d be surprised that 80 percent of the time they can’t tell you.

“Many of these owners cannot tell you that, they don’t know what they’re looking for, so they don’t end up hiring the right person, and then when they do end up hiring someone they don’t stick behind them because they really weren’t their guy. They were the media’s guy or they were some search firm’s guy, and then when you hit a little bump in the road, they don’t want to stand behind them. So it’s a two-way street. But I think the first step is really defining what you’re looking for.”

You can hear the full episode of the “Huddle & Flow” podcast hosted by Steve Wyche and Jim Trotter on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast provider.

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