The Carolina Panthers’ decision to overlook Steve Wilks and appoint someone else as their new head coach points to a “legitimate race problem in the NFL,” the former interim coach’s attorneys say.
The NFL franchise announced Thursday that Frank Reich will take up the reins as the franchise’s sixth head coach. The Panthers fired former head coach Matt Rhule in the middle of the season after a disappointing 1-4 start to the year.
Wilks, who is Black, took over as interim head coach and led the team to a 7-10 finish, but Carolina just missed out on a playoff spot after a defeat to its NFC South rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the penultimate week of the regular season.
Despite Wilks’ strong turnaround of the team, the Panthers opted for Reich, a White coach who played for the club in its inaugural NFL season in 1995, throwing the team’s first ever touchdown pass as the starting quarterback.
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into Playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the Head Coach position by David Tepper,” read a statement from attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis.
“There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
CNN reached out to the NFL and Carolina Panthers for comment but has not received a response from either.
Wilks wrote on Twitter Friday that he was “disappointed but not defeated” after being overlooked by the Panthers.
“Many people aren’t built for this but I know what it means to persevere and see it through,” he added.
“It was an honor for me to coach those men in the Carolina Panthers locker room as the interim head coach. Players, coaches and staff, thank you for your hard work and dedication. I took pride in representing Charlotte, a great city that I love so much.
“Thank you to my family, friends and the community for your overwhelming support.
“I do wish Frank Reich all the best. I will always be a fan of the Carolina Panthers Football Team.”
Last year, Wilks joined Ray Horton in Brian Flores’ racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL and several teams. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
Wilks claims he was “unfairly and discriminatorily fired” by the Arizona Cardinals after he served as the team’s head coach for the 2018 season, according to a court document.
Wilks was replaced by Kliff Kingsbury, who is White, after going 3-13 that year. In the suit, Wilks argues Kingsbury was given more opportunity and support, despite having no prior NFL experience.
New head coach
Reich was fired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in November 2022 following the team’s 3-5-1 start to the season. He had been in the role since 2018 and reached the playoffs twice, in 2018 and 2020, and finished with a record of 40-33-1.
But instability at quarterback didn’t help his tenure and he’ll look to nail down that position with the Panthers.
Reich won Super Bowl LII with the Philadelphia Eagles as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2018 and will now hope for similar success with a franchise he knows so well.