Who was the first African-American head coach in the NFL?

Pollard's Grandson stand next to Fritz Pollard's bust
Suryaraj Jain
Modified 06 Feb 2021

Fritz Pollard is consudered to be the first African-American coach in the NFL. With the 2021 offseason ongoing, several teams had head coaching vacancies to be filled. As always, several key coordinators were rumored to leave their respective teams to become head coaches elsewhere. A few include San Francisco 49ers' DC Robert Saleh, who became the first Muslim-American to be a head coach.

We also saw Baltimore Ravens assistant HC David Culley get hired by the Houston Texans, beating out coordinators like Kansas City Chiefs' OC Eric Bieniemy. Both coaches are African-American and while Bieniemy has had success leading star QB Patrick Mahomes, the Texans chose Culley over Bieniemy despite QB Deshaun Watson asking the organization to interview Bieniemy.

This all brings up a question, who was the first African-American head coach in the NFL?

The first African-American NFL coach is a slightly disputed topic

While most hardcore fans believe that Art Shell was the first African-American head coach in the NFL, that is not necessarily true. The absolute first head coach when the league was first created (known as the American Professional Football Conference) was Fritz Pollard. Pollard was the first African-American head coach in the APFC, who coached the Akron Pros in 1921.

Pollard would then go on to coach the Hammond Pros, which would eventually be dissolved by the NFL. He would then create his own team known as the Chicago Black Hawks, where he was not only the owner and coach but the QB and RB for the team. The Black Hawks team consisted of only African-American players and would face mostly white teams around the country.

As for Art Shell, he should be considered the first African-American head coach of the modern era, since the creation of the AFC and the NFC and the modern day format of NFL. Shell became the HC of the then Los Angeles Raiders in 1989 and coached the team through 1994.

Fast-forward to the present day, there are currently only two African-American HC's: Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin and Miami Dolphins' Brian Flores. The Los Angeles Chargers had let go of Anthony Lynn in the 2020 season, leaving Tomlin and Flores as the only two African-American coaches.

Published 06 Feb 2021, 09:05 IST
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