SPORTS

Just one room at the top

Willie Wood is the only black head coach in pro football

Ken Becker June 29 1981
SPORTS

Just one room at the top

Willie Wood is the only black head coach in pro football

Ken Becker June 29 1981

Just one room at the top

SPORTS

Willie Wood is the only black head coach in pro football

Ken Becker

When he left the University of Southern California in 1959, he was a twice-honored allconference quarterback. He was not drafted by the pros but signed as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers—as a defensive back, a “black position.” Willie Wood is black.

When he finished his playing career after 12 years with the Packers—five times on a championship team, eight consecutive times (1964 to 1971) an allpro, a member of the National Football League’s (NFL) mythical “all-decade” team of the ’60s, an articulate and savvy craftsman—he landed a job as an assistant coach, responsible for the San Diego Chargers’ defensive secondary, “black positions.” He wanted to coach and it was a start. It led to one precarious season (1975) as head coach of the Philadelphia Bell in the now-dead World Football League. When the Bell died, so did Willie Wood’s head coaching career in the United States. He scouted a year for the Oakland Raiders but didn’t like being that far away from the field. But if he wasn’t going to get a head coach’s job in the NFL, why be in football, he figured. And he wasn’t going to get a top job. He is black, remember. A black never has led an NFL team. Not then. Not now.

Willie Wood went into the construction business in his home town of Washington, D.C. He became a season ticket holder, a fan, an observer at Washington Redskin games. He was bitter and disappointed. He spoke out against race prejudice in the hierarchy of the NFL and its 28 member teams. It didn’t improve his chances of landing the job he sought, the head coach’s cap he believed he was qualified to wear.

“I decided I had to get down off my soapbox and take care of my life and my family,” he says now. His wife, Sheila, and sons, Andre and Willie Jr., needed a breadwinner, not a crusader. Wood, now 44, resigned himself to a lifetime in the construction business.

Then, in 1979, Forrest Gregg, a former Packer team-mate of Wood’s, was named head coach of the Canadian Football League (CFL) Toronto Argonauts. He called Wood and offered him a job. He turned it down. Then a major

construction project turned sour. Gregg called again. Wood accepted: assistant coach; defensive secondary. He needed the job. When Gregg resigned after one season, bolted back to the NFL, Wood got the top job. Last year, he became the first black head coach in the history of the CFL, the one and only black head coach in North American football.

Lew Hayman, president of the Argos, says the decision was easy. “We wanted to stay in the organization and keep the continuity started under Forrest. Even if Willie was white I would have hired him.” The Argos received a number of anonymous hate calls. It didn’t bother Hayman: “I hired the first black player [Herb Trawick, for the Montreal Alouettes, in 1946] and now I’ve hired the first black coach. Whether it’s a player or a coach all I’m concerned with

is: if he can help us, that’s the guy I want.”

“Sure I felt the pressure of being the first,” Wood was saying in his office at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto last week. “I feel I’m the one who’s going to be used to measure the performance of a black head coach. I get the impression I’m constantly being monitored.”

Willie Wood knows he is on the spot. He knows there are those in pro football who would like to see him fail, who would like to say, “I told you so.” When asked about the allegations of prejudice against black players, he reaches for a report on a shelf in his Argo office. It is titled Institutional Discrimination: A Study of Managerial Recruitment in Professional Football. It was commissioned by the NFL Players Association and released last fall. It details system-

atic discrimination against black football players, stereotyping of skills and attributes. It says that black players are pigeonholed into playing “black positions”—running back, wide receiver, defensive back. And that white players are assumed to have the skills of leadership positions: quarterback, centre, linebacker, guard.

Blacks make up 56 per cent of the players on NFL rosters last year; CFL estimates put its percentage at 35. And most of them, in the NFL, were playing “black positions.” According to the report, “black athletes were overrepresented at less central positions thought to require strength, quickness, emotion, instinct and speed; and were underrepresented at central positions believed to require intellect, leadership, poise under pressure, finesse, technique and control.” It said that the qualities assumed to be white traits were the same as those sought in a professional coach, creating a rather frustrating Catch-22 for aspiring black NFL coaches.

The NFL’s response to the study was that it assumed all NFL head coaches were groomed through the playing ranks, while pointing out that 70 per cent of its coaches, both former and non-players, served an apprenticeship coaching a major university. It did not say why no black has been among the other 30 per cent who vault from player to head coach, men like Wood’s former team-mate, Bart Starr, a former quarterback, now head coach of the Packers; nor did it say how many major universities, dependent on overbearing alumni for athletic contributions, were hiring black head coaches.

Nor did the NFL respond to the initial thrust of the report: that the league stereotypes players from the time they are drafted. Not only was Wood assumed not to be a pro quarterback, despite his college credentials, but Wood’s current quarterback, Condredge Holloway, a black, acquired from Ottawa in the off-season, found a life in the CFL mainly because the NFL refused to consider him as a quarterback when he graduated as an all-conference from the University of Tennessee in 1974. “The New England Patriots drafted me as a defensive back,” says Holloway. “Ottawa wanted me as a quarterback, which made the decision easy.”

Holloway says Wood is the first black coach he has played for since his father was tutoring him as a kid. But he would not compare Wood to white coaches. “I’ve still got to play in this league,” he said. “You can’t expect me to get into that—not now.”

Willie Wood is understanding. He knows how Holloway feels. He has seen men like himself and the late Emlen Tunnell of the New York Giants, the first black assistant coach (in 1963),

passed over when the pressure was on. “I don’t think the players have a problem with it,” Wood says. “I think it’s the owners and big business. Would a company buy 100 season tickets in Chicago if the Bears had a black hed coach?” Would he accept an NFL head coaching job if one were offered?

“Right now, I just want to win here,” he says, a challenging enough task considering the woeful recent past of the Argonauts. “If we won here and I was offered a job in the National Football League I’d probably turn it down because, even if I were offered a job, I’d never get the control down there that I have up here. Here I feel in control of my own destiny. If I failed down there I would be a failure as a black coach, whether it was my fault or not.”

Well, will things change in the NFL?

“I don’t think it’s ever going to change. I don’t think anybody really gives a damn.” lt;£>