A little over a month ago, Green Bay Packers assistant coach Jerry Gray helped orchestrate a defensive performance that should have put his name on the map.
Stepping in as emergency defensive play-caller in the absence of coordinator Joe Barry, who'd tested positive for COVID-19 days before a highly anticipated Thursday Night Football showdown with the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, Gray dazzled on the prime-time stage. Under his direction, the Packers forced one of the NFL's most explosive offenses into three turnovers while limiting Kyler Murray to a 67.0 passer rating in his worst outing of 2021 so far. Most importantly, Green Bay handed Arizona its first loss, a 24-21 result that could end up having serious seeding implications in the NFC playoffs.
And Gray's spotlight moment, knocking it out of the park on national television after 25 years of relative anonymity in the assistant coaching ranks, was the story of the night, correct? The Packers' defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator was the talk of the football world in the ensuing days ... right?
Nope. Not even close.
This bothered me, especially given the NFL's open acknowledgement in recent years that its minority hiring rate isn't where it needs to be. Gray, who is African American, deserved excessive plaudits across the league spectrum for that brilliant coaching job. But that just wasn't the case.
After stewing over this through the rest of the Week 8 slate, I went on NFL Network's Good Morning Football to voice my displeasure:
As I said in that segment, Jerry was a two-time consensus All-American at Texas, making the kind of immense impact that eventually landed him a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. He was a first-round pick. He earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors across multiple seasons as an NFL corner. He recorded six-plus interceptions in three separate campaigns. And he's spent the past quarter century as an assistant coach for six NFL franchises. This is an accomplished football lifer who deserves more. Gray's background merits serious consideration for a promotion, and his boffo relief effort in Arizona underscored that reality.
There are several well-known minority coaches with previous head-coaching experience; Todd Bowles, Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, Vance Joseph, Marvin Lewis and Raheem Morris spring to mind. And a few minority coordinators -- like Eric Bieniemy and Byron Leftwich -- continue to pop up in coaching-carousel discussions.
But if we really want things to change, we would do well, as a league and within the football community, to be even more expansive when it comes to minority coaches who are considered potential candidates for open jobs and promotions. Too many worthy individuals remain undervalued and overlooked.
So, as we approach another hiring cycle this winter, I'd like to personally vouch for some names you might not be as familiar with.
NOTE: This is not a list of buzzy names accumulated via second-hand information, nor is it a comprehensive rundown of every qualified minority candidate. I have made a concerted effort over the years to closely observe the following coaches in person and/or spend time with them. Thus, the two lists below provide just a slice of the innumerable minority candidates who deserve a closer look.
Candidates for NFL head-coaching jobs
Teryl Austin, senior defensive assistant/secondary coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
In his 18th season as an NFL assistant, Austin has served as a position coach for two teams that reached the Super Bowl (2008 Cardinals, 2012 Ravens). He's also logged five seasons as a defensive coordinator, with two of his Lions teams hitting the postseason under head coach Jim Caldwell, including the 2014 squad that boasted the league's No. 2 defense. When Caldwell was let go in Detroit following the 2017 season, Austin interviewed for the head coach vacancy. However, he noted at the time that he didn't think he had a real shot at the position.
Prior to his time in the NFL, Austin was a three-year starter at the University of Pittsburgh and began his coaching career shortly thereafter as a graduate assistant coach at Penn State, where he first worked with Caldwell. When Caldwell left the Nittany Lions to take over as head coach at Wake Forest, Austin followed along to become the Demon Deacons' secondary coach. He also had stints as an assistant coach at Syracuse and Michigan before moving to the NFL in 2003.
As a former part of the Atlanta Falcons' small leadership group -- along with owner Arthur Blank, CEO Rich McKay and then-GM Thomas Dimitroff -- I spent some time with Austin following the 2014 season during our search for a new head coach. Austin was very impressive, truly one of the best interviews we had.
Marcus Brady, offensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts
Brady played quarterback for seven seasons in the CFL and immediately became a coach upon retirement. He spent nine seasons coaching in the CFL, including six as an offensive coordinator, before joining the Colts in 2018 as an assistant quarterbacks coach under Frank Reich, assuming top QB coach duties in 2019 and 2020. In those three years, Indianapolis made the playoffs two times and boasted a pair of top-10 offenses. Now in his first season as the team's offensive coordinator, Brady has helped the Colts field a top-three scoring offense.
Jerry Gray, defensive backs coach/defensive passing game coordinator, Green Bay Packers
The No. 21 overall pick out of Texas back in 1985, Gray made four Pro Bowls during his nine seasons as an NFL defensive back. After retiring, he spent two years coaching DBs at SMU before returning to the league, where he's spent the last 25 years as an assistant, including eight as a defensive coordinator. During this span in the NFL, Gray has worked on 11 units that finished top 10 in passing defense and 10 that finished top 10 in total defense. Gray has interviewed for a few head-coaching positions, with the most recent being in 2012. I don't know a coach or player who has worked with Gray who doesn't respect his leadership, coaching ability and attention to detail.
Candidates for NFL coordinator jobs
Reggie Barlow, head coach, Virginia State University
After an eight-year NFL career during which he won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, Barlow returned to his alma mater, Alabama State, as the team's quarterbacks coach, before eventually taking over head-coaching duties in Year 3. Serving eight seasons in the big chair at Alabama State, Barlow posted winning records in his final five. As the Virginia State head coach since 2016, he's recorded three winning seasons. That includes the 2017 campaign, when the 10-1 Trojans claimed the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Championship and Barlow was named CIAA Coach of the Year.
Mike Caldwell, inside linebackers coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Caldwell, who logged 11 years as an NFL linebacker, is currently in his 14th season as an NFL assistant coach. Over the course of his entire NFL career, he's played for and worked under a series of coaching greats, including Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Andy Reid and Bruce Arians. This guy has paid his dues, cutting his teeth under some of the best minds in the game.
As a coach at Murray State in the early 1990s, I actually faced Caldwell during his playing days at Middle Tennessee State. I joined the Browns' scouting department as a pro personnel assistant in 1992, and one year later, we drafted Caldwell in the third round. During my three seasons with Caldwell in Cleveland, I always thought he was smart and thoughtful as a player; those traits have served him well as a coach.
Aden Durde, defensive line coach, Dallas Cowboys
Durde, a native of England, started carving his path toward the NFL as a player in the World League of American Football (later renamed NFL Europe). He also logged time on the practice squads of the Panthers and Chiefs. After his playing days, Durde spent six seasons as defensive coordinator for the London Warriors, who play in Great Britain's top American football league. He served a coaching internship with the Cowboys as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship, and then joined the Falcons in 2016, also as part of that program. I worked with Aden during this time in Atlanta and realized he has a tremendous eye for evaluating players and talent, a skill not all coaches possess. He is smart, hard-working and has the ability to connect and communicate with players while still maintaining a high level of accountability. Durde, who's in his first year as the Cowboys' defensive line coach, is one to keep a close eye on.
Tem Lukabu, defensive coordinator, Boston College
A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lukabu is in his second season as defensive coordinator at Boston College under Jeff Hafley, whom Lukabu worked with for two seasons on the 49ers. Lukabu has coached in some capacity since 2006, also working NFL gigs for the Buccaneers (2012-13) and Bengals (2019). Prior to coaching, Lukabu was a three-year starting linebacker at Colgate, earning the Patriot League's Defensive Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons.
Jerod Mayo, inside linebackers coach, New England Patriots
The No. 10 overall pick as a linebacker out of Tennessee back in 2008, Mayo spent all eight of his NFL playing seasons in New England, where he's now in Year 3 as a coach. Having consumed over a decade of knowledge from Bill Belichick, Mayo has impressed many around the league with his rare work ethic and ability to connect with players. In fact, he interviewed for the Eagles' head-coaching job in the last hiring cycle.
I spent time with Mayo during the draft process in 2008, my final year as vice president of player personnel in New England. I was amazed by how much time he spent in the film room, coming out of college and during his rookie season. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year and went on to earn a pair of Pro Bowl nods and a Super Bowl ring.
Fred McNair, head coach, Alcorn State
The older brother of former NFL MVP Steve McNair, Fred also played quarterback at Alcorn State before notching 12 professional seasons in the CFL, World League of American Football and Arena League. After his playing career, McNair began coaching at the high school level before returning to Alcorn State as the quarterbacks coach. Since taking over as head coach in 2016, he has won four SWAC division titles and two conference titles.
Marcus Robertson, defensive backs coach, Arizona Cardinals
After playing for 12 years as an NFL defensive back, Robertson eventually came back to the league as a coach. Now in his 15th season as a secondary coach, he's highly respected in NFL circles after spending time with the Titans (2007-2011), Lions (2012-13), Raiders (2014-16), Broncos (2017-18) and Cardinals (2019-present).