The Carolina Panthers announced the hiring of former Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich. This means interim Steve Wilks will not be the head coach, adding his name to a long list of Black coaches that have been released despite generating success.
Wilks was the interim coach after Matt Rhule was fired on Oct. 10. Rhule was dismissed after a Week 5 blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers, ending his tenure in Carolina with an 11-27 record. Wilks went 6-6 after Rhule’s lackluster start, and the Panthers were in contention to win the NFC South division over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Panthers’ run game improved significantly, aiding the subpar quarterback play from Sam Darnold and P.J. Williams. Their offense went from one of the worst in the league to a middle-of-the-pack group that gave opponents a run for their money. Considering Wilks’ history as a defensive specialist, it was impressive to see the team’s offensive improvement.
Carolina was officially eliminated from the playoffs in Week 17 but stuck around longer than most expected. Wilks earned the players’ respect, who sang his praises as the head of the team.
These pleas from players were not enough for Panthers owner David Tepper to bring back Wilks as the head coach. Some believe Tepper made the wrong decision, including George Hamilton III, a junior journalism student at Howard University.
“Wilks challenged the players on the field and off the field as well,” Hamilton said. “It was shocking to see that the Panthers hired Frank Reich. I understand he was the first Panthers quarterback in franchise history, but he just got fired from the Colts two months ago after a 3-5-1 start.”
This situation again highlights Black head coaches’ difficulties in maintaining positions in the National Football League. As of Feb. 2, there are only three in the league: Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers), DeMeco Ryans (Houston Texans) and Todd Bowles (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Black head coaches often have high expectations of unrealistic or immediate results. Many have to work with minimal talent or team structure, and Wilks’ tenure in Carolina illustrates this.
“We’ve seen so many times that teams are not willing to give interim coaches a chance to be the head coach, especially Black coaches,” Hamilton said. “We’ve seen coaches like Brian Flores get fired after having a good season, and coaches like Lovie Smith get fired this season after coaching a team that wasn’t very good.”
Troy Douglas, the defensive coordinator for the Howard football team, said he hopes Wilks finds another opportunity elsewhere. As a fellow defensive specialist and Appalachian State alum, Douglas expressed his support for Wilks.
“It’s a tough situation for him, but like he said in his statement, he is built to handle the disappointment,” Douglas said. “Hopefully he has done a good enough job that someone will recognize and reach out to him with a new opportunity.”
The 49ers are set to interview Wilks on Feb. 6 for their defensive coordinator position after Ryans was hired as the head coach in Houston.
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