When Lovie Smith was hired by the Houston Texans in February 2022 as the team’s new head coach, he said the NFL had “a problem” with hiring Black coaches and diversity.
“I realize the amount of Black head coaches there are in the National Football League,” Smith told reporters just under a year ago.
“There’s Mike Tomlin and I think there’s me, I don’t know of many more. So there’s a problem, and it’s obvious for us. And after there’s a problem, what are you going to do about it?”
Smith was fired Monday at the end of his one and only season at the helm of the Texans, finishing with a record of 3-13-1.
Smith is the second Black coach in two years to be relieved of his duties by the Texans, which fired David Culley at the end of the 2021 season.
Smith’s time in charge wasn’t full of wins and high points – though his parting gift to the organization was a last-minute Hail Mary victory over the Indianapolis Colts, which saw them relinquish the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft to the Chicago Bears. But his Texans team showed togetherness and competence, traits often desired by outfits undergoing a rebuild.
Houston general manager Nick Caserio said Smith’s firing was the best decision for the team right now.
“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to thank Lovie Smith for everything he has contributed to our team over the last two seasons as a coach and a leader,” Caserio said in a statement.
“I’m constantly evaluating our football operation and believe this is the best decision for us at this time. It is my responsibility to build a comprehensive and competitive program that can sustain success over a long period of time. We aren’t there right now, however, with the support of the McNair family and the resources available to us, I’m confident in the direction of our football program moving forward.”
But the firing of the 64-year-old coach, the Texans organization as a whole, and the measures implemented by the league to promote diversity have been heavily criticized by former players and TV pundits.
“The Houston Texans have fired Lovie Smith after 1 year. Using 2 Black Head Coaches to tank and then firing them after 1 year shouldn’t sit right with anyone,” former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III tweeted Sunday, when news of Smith’s firing broke.
On ESPN, Stephen A. Smith and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin also condemned the decision. Smith called the Texans organization an “atrocity.”
“They are an embarrassment. And as far as I’m concerned, if you’re an African American, and you aspire to be a head coach in the National Football League, there are 31 teams you should hope for. You should hope beyond God that the Houston Texans never call you,” Smith said.
Irvin said Black coaches are being used as “scapegoats” by the Texans.
“It’s a mess in Houston and they bring these guys in and they use them as scapegoats. And this is what African American coaches have been yelling about for a while and it’s blatant, right in our face,” he said.
When CNN contacted the Texans for comment, the team highlighted the moment at Monday’s news conference when Caserio was asked why any Black coach would consider working for the team, and his response was that individual candidates would have to make their own choices.
“In the end it’s not about race. It’s about finding quality coaches,” the general manager said. “There’s a lot of quality coaches. David (Culley) is a quality coach. Lovie (Smith) is a quality coach.
“In the end, each coach has their own beliefs. Each coach has their own philosophy. Each coach has their comfort level about what we’re doing. That’s all I can do is just be honest and forthright, which I’ve done from the day that I took this job, and I’m going to continue to do that and try to find a coach that we feel makes the most sense for this organization. That’s the simplest way I can answer it, and that’s my commitment.
“That’s what I’m hired to do, and that’s what I’m in the position to do. At some point, if somebody feels that that’s not the right decision for this organization, then I have to respect that, and I have to accept it.”
CNN has reached out to Lovie Smith for comment.
Increasing the diversity in coaching ranks
At the beginning of the 2022 season, NFL.com reported Smith was one one of just six minority head coaches in the NFL, a low number in a league where nearly 70% of the players are Black.
Since Art Shell was hired by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989 as the first Black head coach in modern history, there have been 191 people hired as head coaches, but just 24 have been Black.
However, the NFL has taken steps to increase diversity in the coaching ranks.
Notably, in 2003, the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule to improve hiring practices in a bid to “increase the number of minorities hired in head coach, general manager, and executive positions.”
But the Rooney Rule hasn’t been an unqualified success.
In 2003, the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 for not interviewing any minority coaches before hiring Steve Mariucci as their new head coach.
In response to criticism, the NFL announced it was setting up a diversity advisory committee of outside experts to review its hiring practices last March. Teams would also be required to hire minority coaches as offensive assistants.
Despite changes to the rule being implemented in recent years to strengthen it, a 2022 lawsuit alleges that some teams have implemented “sham” interviews to fulfill the league’s diversity requirements.
Last February, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a federal civil lawsuit against the NFL, the New York Giants, the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins organizations alleging racial discrimination.
Flores, who is Black, said in his lawsuit that the Giants interviewed him for their vacant head coaching job under disingenuous circumstances.
Two months after submitting the initial lawsuit, Flores added the Texans to it, alleging the organization declined to hire him this offseason as head coach “due to his decision to file this action and speak publicly about systemic discrimination in the NFL.”
In response to the lawsuit, the Texans said their “search for our head coach was very thorough and inclusive.”
The NFL called Flores’ allegations meritless.
“The NFL and our clubs are deeply committed to ensuring equitable employment practices and continue to make progress in providing equitable opportunities throughout our organizations,” the league said in response to the lawsuit.
“Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time. We will defend against these claims, which are without merit.”
But 12 months after firing their last Black head coach, the Texans have fired another one.
“How do you hire two African Americans, leave them one year and then get rid them?” questioned NFL Hall of Famer Irvin.
“You know the mess that Houston is,” Irvin added. “We get the worst jobs and we don’t get the opportunity to fix the worst jobs, just like this.
“I don’t know any great White coach that would take the (Texans) job unless you give them some guarantees. ‘You’re going to have to guarantee me four years to turn this place around.’ But the African American coaches can’t come in with that power because Lovie wouldn’t have got another job.
“This was his last chance to get back into the NFL and you have to take what’s on the table to try to change that.”
The Texans are now searching for a new head coach under general manager Caserio. The new appointment will be Caserio’s third coach in the role: It is almost unprecedented for a general manager to get the opportunity to hire a third head coach with the same team.
Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair said he would take on a more active role in the hiring process. The next head coach will be the organization’s fourth in three years.
According to the NFL, the Texans have requested to speak to five candidates already about filling Smith’s position, a list that includes two Black coaches.
After Smith was hired in March 2021, McNair said: “I’ve never seen a more thorough, inclusive, and in-depth process than what Nick (Caserio) just went through with our coaching search.”
At that introductory news conference, Smith spoke candidly about how to bring greater diversity to the NFL coaching ranks.
“People in positions of authority throughout – head coaches, general managers – you’ve got to be deliberate about trying to get more Black athletes in some of the quality control positions just throughout your program. If you get that, they can move up, that’s one way to get more.”
Smith continued: “It’s not just an interview, if you’re interviewing a Black guy. It’s about having a whole lot of guys to choose from that look like me. And it’s just not about talk. You look at my staff, that’s what I believe in. And letting those guys show you who they are. That’s how we can increase it, then it’s left up to people to choose. We all have an opportunity to choose, and that’s how I think we’ll get it done.”