The NFL’s First Female Coach
First, Bruce Arians wanted to give thanks to Dot Murphy.
“She is the first woman to coach football,” Arians said Monday night, speaking of the wide receivers coach, a mother of three, at Hinds (Miss.) Community College, widely thought to be the first women’s coach in college or pro football when she coached in the nineties.
The Cardinals will announce the first woman’s NFL coach—an intern who will work in the Arizona training camp this summer—today. Jen Welter, 37, will work as an assistant coach with inside linebackers under linebackers coach Bob Sanders, alongside rookie inside linebackers coach Larry Foote, for the next six weeks. It is not a full-time job. But who knows what opportunities like this might lead to for Welter.
“I think it’s time,” Arians said from Arizona as the news tore up social media Monday night. “I am not afraid to step out and be different. Jen is a quality coach. She has earned this. I think she can help our players get better.”
Welter already has been a football trailblazer. In 2014 she played one game at running back for a professional indoor football league team, the Texas Revolution; the Cardinals said Monday night Welter was the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a pro game. This season she coached linebackers and special teams for the Revolution.
When Arians spoke positively last spring about the future of women coaching football, a Revolution staffer reached out and said if Arians was serious, he should meet Welter.
“So she came to one of our OTAs this spring,” Arians said. “I found her really passionate about football. I asked if she was serious about it, and if so, I would love to give you the opportunity to coach with us. She jumped on it. She loves to coach.”
Arians said he hoped the temporary hire of Welter would lead to other NFL teams giving more women chances to work in the NFL. And he praised the Cardinals for their efforts to promote diversity in hiring. In 2004, Arizona owner Bill Bidwill was the first owner to hire African-American men, Dennis Green and Rod Graves, as coach and general manager in tandem. Last season Arizona was the only NFL team with black coordinators on offense and defense (Harold Goodwin and Todd Bowles, respectively).
And this year the Cardinals are founding a fellowship program that gives minority coaches a two-year job on an NFL coaching staff, in the hope that it will help coaching prospects transition to the coaching lifestyle. The first coach to benefit is former NFL linebacker Levon Kirkland, who will get a two-year paid trial on Arians’ staff.
The Cardinals will announce the Bidwill fellowship appointment of Kirkland and Welter’s hire together in Arizona.
“My goal is the other teams in the league will adopt this as a policy,” Arians said of the expanded opportunities for both minority and female coaches, as more get into the game at all levels.
One of the questions Arians is sure to get today—and his players will get as camp practices start this week—is how a team of males with experience being taught by males only will react to a woman coaching them. Welter is not only a coach. She has a master’s degree in sports psychology and a Ph.D. in psychology.
“I don't think the players care, as long as they are being coached to get better,” Arians said. “With her background as a player, a coach and a psychologist, I think our players will realize she can help them. She has a ton of energy and intelligence. We’re looking forward to having her on the staff.”
Arians had one more point to make, because he knows some will look at the appointment of Welter and say, Why? Why risk the distraction that the attention of hiring a woman will bring?
That will be the common reaction. It will not be Arians’ reaction.
“This,” he said, “is not going to be a distraction. It’s going to be a benefit to our team.”
And a groundbreaking move in a country Arians is convinced is ready for it.