DALLAS (AP) — Ryan Powles knew pretty quickly that he was interested in the path that led to his hiring as Chicago Bears general manager while Dallas Cowboys tight end Will McClay worked in arena football before being lured by scouts.
Both credit relationships built along the way to earning their spots in an up-and-coming diversity hiring trend in the NFL, which for years has suffered from poor opportunities for minorities in the coaching ranks.
Poles are among six minorities chosen to fill the last 12 CEO vacancies starting in early 2021, and McClay could push the ratio above 50%. Instead, he turned down several chances to win that title, opting to stay on as vice president of player personnel for Dallas owner, president and general manager Jerry Jones.
Relationships are critical to maintaining or expanding the role of minorities in office, and the efforts are endless, said C. Keith Harrison, lead author of the annual NFL Diversity and Inclusion Report.
“People say that time is money. Trust is money, and people invest in relationships they trust,” said Harrison, a sports business professor at UCF. “We have data that when you network and connect, interact with people who are different from you in terms of gender and race, you are more likely to become what we call upwardly mobile.”
McClay says ownership, which is overwhelmingly white in the NFL, plays a role in introducing minority prospects to organizations. McClay was the head coach of the Major League Soccer team owned by the Jones’ Cowboys before becoming a scout and has been with the club for 20 years.
“Jerry didn’t know me until I was able to spend time with him, talk to him, with him to find out how much I knew about football, how much I knew about relationships and trying to put it together,” McClay said. “He wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t gotten the chance.”
Poles was going to go into marketing after being released by the Bears, but instead took a job as an assistant at Boston College, his alma mater. Conversations with visiting professional scouts piqued his interest in the personnel side.
The 36-year-old Pole credits former Kansas City GM Scott Pioli with making it a priority to promote minority candidates.
“He always took a lot of pride in making sure there was a pipeline from the assistant scout to the scouting professionals in the region and to the directors, and then doing it right,” said Poles, who previously spent 13 years with the Chiefs. joining the Bears in January.
“So I was fortunate to have someone who was very aware of that, and my growth and development was probably more due to just the teachers who wanted to take the time to develop me as a person, as a staff member and as a leader,” Poles said. .
Five of the six recent minority Grandmasters are black: Poland, Washington’s Martin Mayhew, Minnesota’s Kwesi Adofa-Mensah, Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot and Detroit’s Brad Holmes. Pittsburgh hired Omar Khan, an Indian-American, in May. Overall, eight of the 32 GMs are minorities.
“That’s a lot of progress that’s been made,” Holmes said. “Hopefully this progress will continue.”
Fontenot, hired by the Falcons in early 2021 after 18 seasons in New Orleans under longtime general manager Mickey Loomis, said the goal should be to get to a point where race doesn’t have to be a factor for head coaches or personnel chiefs.
At its recent spring meetings in Atlanta, the league held a minority accelerator program in the coaching and front office, with two staff members from each club participating.
“The league shouldn’t have accelerator programs,” Fontenot said. “We should be able to do that with everyone — not just people of a certain skin color, a certain race, a certain gender. We have to be involved in all our processes.’
While Harrison said he’s optimistic about minorities having opportunities in some aspects of running NFL teams, that sentiment doesn’t extend to coaching.
In a league where 70% of the rosters are filled with black players, five head coaches are minorities. In 2011, there were eight of them. Whether the better recruiting results from grandmasters translate to coaching is a difficult question, Harrison and Powles said.
First, it’s hard to know how much influence a general manager will have over an owner, Harrison said, adding that a black general manager in charge of hiring a coach may have stronger ties to white candidates.
“It’s hard to simplify,” Harrison said. “There are only 32 teams. That’s why our sample sizes are so small and these positions are so challenging and elite. They’re just so competitive.”
The Cowboys’ Jones echoed that sentiment, while saying he’s not inclined to give up his title as general manager to keep McClay because he believes the role goes far beyond personnel. Jones said he respects McClay, who runs the draft on a club that has had recent recruiting success, and doesn’t want to downplay his role.
McClay said he stayed because he believes his voice is important to Jones and he has direct contact with the owner/GM. McClay also said he doesn’t feel pressured to take a general manager job elsewhere because he’s black.
“I’m a grown man,” said the 55-year-old man. “You have to do your job first, so I do my job first to the best of my ability. Then when the opportunity comes and I feel good about it, then it is what it is.”
McClay said the surge in the NFL’s hiring of minority generals will only make sense if it continues.
“If you continue the practices that are in place now, it will make a big difference because it’s a hot topic,” McClay said. “Instead of reacting to it, plan for it and give people an opportunity based on the quality of their work, rather than just saying, ‘OK, we’ve done it this time.’ It has to go on because it’s not something you can do right now and say it’s solved.”
AP sports writers Andrew Seligman, Larry Lage and Charles Odum contributed.