Niyo: Lions' minority coaching program a positive first step

John Niyo
The Detroit News

It wasn’t his first job interview. If all goes well, it won’t be his last, either.

But it was a milestone of sorts for Billy Yates, back in the late winter of 2018, when he was asked to give a formal presentation to a room full of Lions coaches. Some he’d known for years — like the new head coach, Matt Patricia — and others he didn’t know at all, which made for an awkward setting.

“A little stressful, maybe,” said Yates, a former NFL offensive lineman who retired after an eight-year pro career in 2011. “I came in for an interview like a normal person. Suit and tie, all that stuff. Had to sit in front of coaches and get grilled a little bit: How much I knew, how much don’t I know. … But it wasn’t too bad. Really, you just get up and you have an opportunity to present yourself as a professional.”

Billy Yates

And, really, that’s what this is all about: Opportunity. Progress, too, at least in some small way in this big business of professional football that has struggled to make real progress when it comes to diversity in hiring practices.

Yates, who is African-American, got that job two years ago, awarded the first William Clay Ford Minority Coaching Assistantship in Detroit. He worked hard at it, too, quickly transitioning from the strength-coach job he’d held at three different college programs following his NFL retirement to an on-field role working initially with the Lions’ defensive line. And this past winter, Yates earned a promotion to position coach on Patricia’s staff, as an assistant offensive line coach.

Yates calls it “a dream job, to finally get to the offensive side of the ball,” where he made his living as a player and earned a Super Bowl ring in his first season in New England in 2004.

But it’s also part of a grassroots plan Patricia has championed and the NFL has endorsed to try to address racial inequities at the top levels of the sport. The Rooney Rule was adopted by the league in 2003 to increase opportunities for minority coaches, yet the NFL has come under fire again in recent years as gains that were made there have been given back.

The Lions, of course, have their own checkered history. The league fined then-president Matt Millen $200,000 in the first year of the Rooney Rule for failing to interview any minority candidates before hiring Steve Mariucci. Five years later, the team made Martin Mayhew only the fifth black general manager in NFL history. And six years after that, Mayhew hired Jim Caldwell, making the Lions only the second NFL team ever to be led jointly by a minority GM and head coach.

By 2018, though, both had been dismissed, replaced by GM Bob Quinn and Patricia. And fair or not, that’s a snapshot of the issue across a league where more than 70% of the players are African-American yet only two teams currently are led by black GMs and four by minority head coaches, the fewest since 2002. So, after another hiring cycle produced similar results, the league went back to the drawing board this spring to strengthen the Rooney Rule, expanding it to include executive positions and adding new requirements.

Teams must now interview at least two minority candidates from outside their organization for any vacant head-coaching job and at least one minority candidate for coordinator positions. Changes to the NFL tampering rules will make it easier to schedule interviews, while the league also is forcing teams to better define coaching and front-office roles to create “bona fide” job opportunities. All 32 teams also must establish a minority coaching fellowship program, creating full-time positions to provide candidates “with hands-on training in NFL coaching."

Building 'a better system'

But that’s exactly what Patricia set about doing 2½ years ago when he accepted the Lions’ top job, trying to create a more effective program than the part-time fellowships the league had promoted — but not mandated — over the years.

“My driving factor for all of this was … we need to develop our minority coaches better and we need to have a better system for it,” Patricia said, noting the changes in offseason calendars over the last decade — at both the NFL and collegiate levels — had made things more difficult as well. “And this was my way to just kind of think outside the box and say, ‘OK, we’re really gonna commit to this.’ This is not lip service. This is not checking the box.

“I just thought there’s a better way, and for me, it was like, ‘If we’re gonna do this, let’s really make a commitment to helping a good minority coach that needs an opportunity, that needs training and let’s really give him the foundation he needs.’”

The 40-year-old Yates, who spent nearly half of his eight-year NFL playing career in New England, was the first to make that leap here. And as Patricia notes, “To Billy’s credit, he’s the one who took a risk,” uprooting his family once more to sign up for a two-year commitment in Detroit.

Yates retired as a player in August 2011, and after a year volunteering as a high school coach back home Texas, he landed a job as the strength and conditioning coach at Texas A&M, where he’d captained R.C. Slocum’s team as a senior. From there, he moved on to similar roles at Texas Tech and Bowling Green, enjoying the work but feeling a bit pigeonholed, stuck in the sort of spin cycle minority coaches know all too well.

Patricia was Yates’ position coach for a time with the Patriots, as was Jeff Davidson, whose retirement this past winter as the Lions’ O-line coach paved the way for his recent promotion. (Yates is now an assistant under Hank Fraley, who also was his teammate for a year in Cleveland.) And since Yates was a regular visitor in Foxborough after he retired — “I love Billy to death,” Patricia says — it was an easy call to make.

“I knew Billy wanted to be a football coach,” Patricia said. “I knew he wanted to be on the field coaching offensive line. And this is a great program for him, where he could actually take a step back and learn how to be a coach, because no one was really giving him that opportunity.”

For Leon Washington, now in his second year of the WCF Minority Assistantship, the connections were similar.

Leon Washington

A former All-Pro kick returner who played nine NFL seasons (2006-14), Washington had brief internships in Jacksonville (’16) and Atlanta (’18) through the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship, a program that dates back to the late 1980s and counts among its graduates a list of current or former NFL head coaches that includes Mike Tomlin, Anthony Lynn, Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith, and Hue Jackson. And in Atlanta, he also reconnected with his former offensive coordinator in Seattle, Darrell Bevell, who served as a consultant with the Falcons in 2018 before getting hired to run the Lions’ offense last season.

Yet while those internships gave Washington a chance to see if coaching really was something he wanted to pursue, it wasn’t long after he’d arrived in Detroit that he realized, “I still had a lot of learning to do.”

Coaching the coaches

That’s a common refrain from former players as they try to make the transition to coaching, entering a profession in their 30s rather than their 20s and trying to play catch-up. They know what a practice drill looks like, but scripting one is another matter. Same goes for breaking down game film, drawing in the playbook, creating and presenting a scouting report, and so on. Learning how to utilize XOS Digital software or Microsoft Visio and PowerPoint takes time. So does standing up in front of a classroom and teaching "and not doing too much rambling,” Washington adds with a laugh.

Patricia says he threw Yates a “curveball” when he started, insisting the former guard learn the ins and outs of the defensive line to better understand his own specialty. Yates accepted that challenge and more, arriving at the office in Allen Park by 4:30 a.m. daily for a simple reason: “Me being in the position I was in, I felt like the earlier I got here, the earlier I could get my work done and be of assistance to someone else.”

That’s part of the job description, because coaching is nothing if not a collaborative effort.

“(Patricia) really pushed me to learn more, to study more, to callous my mind to be a better coach,” said Washington, who also spent the 2013 offseason with the Patriots near the end of his playing career. “It has been great because Matt doesn’t hold back. He wants you to be a part of everything. He wants you to be a coach. He wants you in the meeting. He wants your input and your take on how you see things.”

That applies to matters beyond the simple X’s and O’s, too, something that was apparent in recent weeks as the Lions took a step back from football and focused their attention on the racial unrest in the country. Washington called the team’s emotional Zoom calls “some of the most powerful meetings I’ve been a part of in my entire life.”

And the “invaluable” presence of several African-American coaches in addition to the players speaking freely on those calls surely helped all “the listening and the learning,” Patricia said.

"It has definitely brought our team closer together," Washington said. "It has been great for us."

But so has this chance to get back in the game, adds Washington, who still wears his cleats out to practice — some habits are hard to break — and relates easily to the running backs he works with on the field and in meetings.

"I’m enjoying it so much because I know this is only gonna help me be a better coach down the road," he said. "And with Matt, it’s so gratifying to have a coach in that position making sure you’re learning the right tools as you grow in this business.”

It’s not an entirely unselfish pursuit. When Patricia, who added former Patriots defensive tackle Ty Warren to the staff as a WCF minority assistant this offseason, talks about the responsibility he feels to “coach the coaches” and develop them, he’s working from the same “grow your own” blueprint Bill Belichick has utilized in New England for the last 20 years or so.

But that’s also why Yates’ promotion this past winter meant a little more, perhaps. It’s proof the plan is working, in its own way.

And while real change will have to come from the top — from ownership — when it comes to the NFL’s glaring shortcomings with respect to the Rooney Rule.

"I think it is what you make of it,” Yates said. “And a lot of things just come down to people taking advantage when they get an opportunity.

“But there’s always a need for progress, period. And I think programs like this will help.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo