So, the Tennessee Titans interviewed Pep Hamilton in their search for an offensive coordinator and Teryl Austin in their search for a defensive coordinator. That means they did what they had to do.
After they promoted Todd Downing and Shane Bowen to those spots, however, it also appeared that franchise officials already knew what they were going to do.
That is not the case. Team sources unequivocally stated that both interviews were legitimate and that Hamilton and/or Austin could have been on staff for the 2021 season.
Still, at a time on the calendar when diversity in the NFL always is a prominent issue it is not a good look for a franchise that at the end of the regular season was one of seven that never has had a person of color as its head coach or general manager. That number is now six after the Atlanta Falcons named Terry Fontenot their general manager and includes Dallas, Jacksonville, the L.A. Rams, New England and New Orleans, according to a recent USA Today analysis.
Last May, NFL owners approved an expansion of the Rooney Rule to mandate that – among other things – at least one minority candidate for coordinator openings. Enter Hamilton and Austin, both of whom had options. Hamilton accepted an offer to become Houston’s quarterbacks coach and Austin remains a part of Pittsburgh’s staff, where he is a senior defensive assistant.
To be fair, coach Mike Vrabel, general manager Jon Robinson and controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk did not create this situation. They inherited a league and franchise-wide culture that existed for decades before they assumed their current roles, courtesy of owners past and present whose hiring practices showed little interest in putting minorities in positions of significant authority.
To say the Titans remain mired in that mindset is blatantly false. Adams Strunk took control of the team nearly six years ago and has expanded the thinking and operation of the organization in myriad ways, including diversity. Currently, the front office includes two African Americans as senior vice presidents and 58 percent of the functional leadership is comprised of women or people of color. According to in-house research, the coaching staff includes more African Americans than roughly three-quarters of the NFL’s 32 clubs. That group includes five position coaches, none of whom have been coordinators in the NFL.
It is also a fact, however, that the majority of franchises have done more to address the issue over time. Sunday, for example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play in Super Bowl LV with the NFL’s most diverse coaching staff, one that includes African Americans as offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator as well as assistant head coach/run game coordinator. The Buccaneers also have two women, an assistant defensive line coach and an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
Founded as the Houston Oilers in 1960 as an original member of the American Football League, the Titans have had just three black coordinators – period – all within the last decade.
Two of them had their authority undercut during their tenures. Mike Munchak hired Jerry Gray as his defensive coordinator in 2011 and then two years later brought in Gregg Williams as senior assistant/defense presumably to work alongside Gray but who ultimately took a leadership role that season. Ken Whisenhunt had Ray Horton as his defensive coordinator for two seasons (2014-15), but after one season the legendary Dick LeBeau was added as assistant head coach/defense.
Terry Robiskie ran the offense under Mike Mularkey for two seasons (2016-17) without incident.
There also was Craig Johnson, who started with the Titans in 2000. After 11 years as a position coach, he was promoted to assistant head coach/running backs coach/quarterbacks coach, theoretically to help position him for a bigger opportunity. That turned out to be Jeff Fisher’s final season in charge, and Munchak chose not to retain Johnson, who has been a position coach for two other franchises since, which is no fault of the Titans.
Vrabel’s current coordinators got their opportunities despite limited – if any – experience in those roles. Downing was the Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator in 2017. Bowen never has been a coordinator, although he effectively did the job in 2020. Special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman filled that same post for the San Diego Chargers in 2016 before he spent 2017 as an assistant special teams coach with Tennessee. When Vrabel was hired in 2018, Aukerman not only was retained, he was promoted to his current position.
In three years in charge, Vrabel unfailingly has demonstrated his desire to help those in his orbit advance their own careers.
Thus, his decision to promote Downing and Bowen is consistent with how he has operated in that regard. Yet it also did nothing to promote diversity within a franchise that, to date, cannot say it truly is inclusive at all levels.