From Fritz to Shell NFL Void of Black Coaches is Shameful

Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard was an American football player and coach. He was the first African-American head coach in the National Football League.

In less than two weeks Inglewood will host the Super Bowl when the Rams take on the Cincinnati Bengals for the championships of the NFL, but before that game unfolds the foul history of the league will be put on full blast for its inept disregard for hiring Black head coaches.

Because the game will be played during Black History Month, the NFL will not be able the hide from its blatant unfair hiring practice of Black coaches which as of this article stands at one with Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin.

I was in the room in 1989 when Al Davis made the groundbreaking hire of his offensive line coach Art Shell to become head coach of the then Los Angeles Raiders.

My late mentor Brad Pye, Jr. was close friends with late Raiders owner Davis and while I am certain that he and his longtime confidant had some conversations about Shell, the hiring at the time came out of left field.

Shell wasn’t even a coordinator, normally one of the prerequisites for becoming an NFL head coach, but he was a Raider through and through, a mild mannered man with an even temperament who if successful could have been a blue print for future head coaches of color.

A decorated player who was a massive offensive lineman for the Silver and Black, Shell was a Hall of Fame offensive tackle who eventually became a two-time head coach of the Raiders in Los Angeles and Oakland.

He became the first Black head coach during the modern era following in the legendary footsteps of Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard who was the first Black head coach in the National Football League.

Pollard wasn’t just the first Black coach, but he and Bobby Marshall were the first two Black players in the NFL in 1920.

A member of both the NFL Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame, Shell holds the distinction of becoming the second Black head coach in the history of professional football, and the first in the sport’s modern era, but if not for Al Davis likely would have never been hired.

Shell compiled a record of 54 wins, 38 losses, and was named AFC Coach of the Year in 1990, when the Raiders won the AFC West division with a 12–4 record, and advanced to the AFC championship game in the playoffs, thus becoming the first Black coach to lead the team to the Conference Championship game. Davis called firing Shell after a 9–7 season in 1994, a mistake and rehired him in 2006 when the team returned to Oakland, but fired him again after tumultuous 2-14 campaign in 2007.

Shell would go on to land other NFL jobs such as coaching positions with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, before serving as a senior vice president for the NFL, in charge of football operations.

However, today Shell is just a mere footnote in a league that is represented by 70 percent of Black players, but not a single Black owner.

Its ownership group is a country club of billionaires distant from the social issues that plague American society and not deterred by systematic racism that has dominated our country for over 400 years now.

This week when former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores courageously sued the NFL, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants and the Denver Broncos in a wide ranging class action case that challenges the foundational racism that permeates the league it peeled back the band aid on an ugly wound the NFL has not done enough to heal.

Al Davis was a maverick, but even when I asked him how he felt to be the man who hired the first Black coach during the modern era he was not embracing of the history. He shunned the question as if it was an insult.

Art Shell was as safe a hire as Jackie Robinson.

With Jackie Robinson it was Branch Rickey, Shell/ Davis.

We don’t know just yet if Flores action will lead to any changes in NFL, but if it does he would become the first Black instrumental in land mark alterations in major sports.


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