Sports

The Black Coaches Fraternity is stepping up for Brian Flores


Steve Wilks

Steve Wilks
Photo: Getty Images

An amendment to Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL was filed in the Southern District of New York Thursday, adding longtime NFL defensive coordinator Ray Horton and former Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks to the complaint.

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In the two months since Flores filed a lawsuit challenging the pervasive racial discrimination within the NFL’s hiring practices, Commissioner Roger Goodell has been in damage control mode. Soon after the NFL denounced Flores’ contract as one without merit, the league announced it was retaining outside experts to evaluate the NFL’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. In March, the NFL mandated all 32 teams to employ a woman or minority on staff as an offensive assistant.

Flores’ lawsuit has gained steam the longer it’s stewed in the public sphere. Privately, Flores’ legal team has been collecting receipts. The idea behind a class action lawsuit is to prove a similar group of people were harmed or suffered due to the other party’s actions. Flores’ legal team is well on its way to doing that by bringing a pair of distinguished coaches into the fold. Wilks and Horton potentially strengthen Flores’ case against the NFL by introducing potential testimony from multiple affected parties.

Wilks, who spent a year at Mizzou after 14 seasons in the NFL, is still an active coach, having been hired to serve in a dual passing game coordinator and secondary coach role. Aspects of Wilks’ complaint were included in Flores’ original filing, but more detail was added in their recent filing. Wilks alleges that the Cardinals only hired him as a “bridge coach” and that “[he was] dealt a difficult hand.” The difficult hand Wilks references was an allusion to general manager Steve Keim’s early-season four-game suspension for a DUI.

Keim hired Kliff Kingsbury to replace Wilks before the franchise drafted Kyler Murray. In his lone season as the Cardinals’ head coach, Wilks went 3-13. Kingsbury went 5-10-1 with the No. 1 overall pick under center in his first season at the helm.

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A decade ago, Ray Horton was a highly sought-after defensive mind. After becoming a head coaching candidate, he was put through the wringer twice. In 2012, the Cardinals defense he revamped finished with one of the NFL’s 10 best turnover percentages and third in scoring percentage, which calculates the rate of drives that end in a touchdown or field goal, despite Ken Whisenhunt’s offense faltering all season.

Horton was so crestfallen after the Cardinals hired Bruce Arians (while leading him to believe that he’d be the leading candidate, that he got into a public spat with Keim. However, Horton’s interview process with the Titans may be a crushing blow to the NFL’s defense. In 2014, Horton followed Ken Whisenhunt to the Tennessee Titans staff as their defensive coordinator. Ater Whisenhunt was relieved of his duties, Horton interviewed for the head coaching position. Instead, the Titans opted to go with interim head coach Mike Mularkey. Mularkey was a retread hire who’d won 18 of his 57 games in Jacksonville.

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Horton alleges that the Titans conducted a sham interview with him and then-Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in the filing. An unearthed Mularkey interview from 2020 on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast corroborates Horton’s allegations.

“And so I sat there knowing I was the head coach in 2016, as they went through this fake hiring process knowing … a lot of the coaches that they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that everything they could do and they had no chance to go that job,” Mularkey said, via the amended complaint. “And actually, the GM Jon Robinson, he was in an interview with me. He had no idea why he is interviewing me, that I have a job already. I regret it. … and I regretted it since then. I am sorry I did that, but it was not the way to do that. Should have been interviewed like everybody else and got hired ’cause of the interview not early on.”

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Mularkey’s regretful comments, stating his explicit awareness that he and Titans were screwing over other coaches, is even more detrimental to the league than Bill Belichick mixing up his Coach Brians. A confession right out of a prominent white man’s mouth will carry more weight in the eyes of the broader public and, more importantly, in civil court. Nearly two years after he retired from coaching, Mularkey has nothing to lose and no fear of being blackballed. Better late than never.

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For Horton, it’s too late as he retired in 2010. However, Horton stated his desire to improve conditions within the NFL for black coaches like Eric Bieniemy, Wilks, and Teryl Austin.

After getting passed over by the Titans, Austin interviewed for Jim Caldwell’s vacated job in Dec. 2017, before bouncing around the league. His only season in Cincinnati during the 2018 season was spent on Marvin Lewis’ staff and, in 2019, he joined the Steelers’ defensive staff in 2019. On Feb. 9, days after Flores’ lawsuit sent the league into a tailspin, Tomlin promoted Austin to defensive coordinator. Tomlin hired Flores to serve as a senior defensive assistant two weeks later.

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After Tomlin hired Flores in March, he explained his reasoning. Tomlin explained, “I didn’t want him [Flores] to feel like he was on an island. I think from a coaching fraternity standpoint, I owed him that.”

Flores initially took the Kaepernick path, pursuing this case against the NFL alone, but there’s strength in numbers.In Flores’ case, the black coaching coaching fraternity is showing solidarity against the NFL.

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