Diversifying Team Leadership

Before earning distinction as one of the most successful American athletes in history, the first post-segregation Black head coach of a major professional sports team and an important civil rights advocate, Bill Russell was just another West Oakland kid attempting to make the McClymonds High School basketball squad.

Although tall and athletic, Russell initially struggled with basketball fundamentals and received just one college scholarship offer. The University of San Francisco saw potential in the lanky teenager equipped with a warrior’s persona, and Russell joined K.C. Jones and Hal Perry on the first major college basketball team to start three Black players. 

With Russell at center, the USF Dons won the 1955 and 1956 NCAA championships and strung together 55 consecutive victories. It was the start of a legendary career that combined sports excellence and social justice advocacy. 

Russell soon took his winning ways to the NBA, but not until he led the 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal. When he finally reported to the Boston Celtics he guided them to a phenomenal 11 NBA championships.

Russell earned his first coaching position in 1966-67 as head coach/player for the Celtics. The following season he became the first Black coach to win an NBA title by leading Boston to victory over a Los Angeles Lakers team that featured future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In 1968-69 Wilt Chamberlain joined West and Baylor with the Lakers and Russell’s Celtics beat them again for the NBA title. During his three seasons as coach of the Celtics, Russell’s teams compiled a stunning .661 winning percentage and captured two NBA crowns. 

“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” his family stated at his passing in 2022, “From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmasking too-long-tolerated discrimination … to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom … Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo.”

One of Russell’s first public examples of social activism occurred in October 1961 when the Boston Celtics were in Lexington, Kentucky to play a preseason exhibition contest. Prior to game time, Sam Jones and Tom “Satch” Sanders, both Black players for Boston, were denied food service at a local hotel. In protest, Russell, Jones and Sanders refused to play in the game. It was the first boycott of a sporting event over civil rights, according to the Basketball Network. 

Russell continued to express his thoughts on civil rights when he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington D.C., then sat near MLK as he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1967, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali refused military induction during the Vietnam war as a conscientious objector, Russell joined several prominent Black men in Cleveland to meet with the heavyweight champion and offer support for his decision. 

For his dedication and activism on behalf of civil rights, President Barack Obama presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House in February 2011.

Russell’s incredible playing career was honored in 1975 when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Then, in 2021, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame a second time for his coaching career.

In 2022, Russell received the NBA’s ultimate honor when the league retired his #6 jersey league-wide, the only player in NBA history to receive the honor.

In 1979, Bill Walsh was hired as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the first NFL head coaching position for the San Jose State graduate and Stanford head coach.  At the time there were no Black head coaches in the NFL and less than half a dozen Black assistant coaches in the league. Walsh immediately hired two Black men to their first NFL coaching jobs: Dennis Green and Billie Matthews. Within three years Walsh also provided Ray Rhodes, Milt Jackson and Sherman Lewis with their initial NFL coaching positions.

“Bill Walsh just wanted the best people,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley and a 49ers consultant.  ”It didn’t matter if they were polka-dot or purple.”

Walsh’s inclusive eye for talent yielded success for the 49ers and the minority coaches he mentored. Green was eventually hired by the Minnesota Vikings in 1992 as just the second African-American head coach (after the Raiders Art Shell-1989) of the post-segregated NFL era. The Philadelphia Eagles hired Rhodes in 1995 as the NFL’s third Black head coach. He was named NFL Coach-of-the-Year in his first season at the helm. Matthews, Lewis and Jackson rose to the position of offensive coordinator in the NFL.

“I believe coaching, in a sense, represents the participants,” Walsh later said in a USA TODAY interview. “The racial-ethnic balance in football has turned over very rapidly in recent years, as has the interest and the involvement of so many men for the coaching profession. But we’re not seeing the upward mobility that we should be seeing.”

Walsh hired Dr. Edwards in 1985 as a consultant advising players, coaches and staff on race relations and social issues. In so doing Walsh brought the foremost thinker in the field of sports and social justice into the 49ers’ fold. 

“While talking about a contract we discussed what we could do for one another,” Edwards said. “We were both following the same road on social issues. This gave me the opportunity to help and get inside the organizations I had been critical of and work with them.”

Edwards’ initial role quickly expanded and Edwards organized programs on life management skills and financial planning for young players. Veterans considering retirement were offered clinics on post-career opportunities. The programs he developed for the 49ers soon were adopted by the entire NFL. Eventually the Golden State Warriors and Major League Baseball sought Edwards’ counsel on player personnel matters and on increasing front office opportunities for people of color.

Throughout his career Walsh generously offered his time to aspiring young coaches. He was a frequent speaker at clinics for high school and college coaches, and made a habit of inviting minority coaches to 49ers training camps to observe his methods. Walsh already had two Super Bowl rings and was working on his third in 1985 when he felt more could be done to increase the lack of minority coaches in the NFL. 

By 1986 Walsh was ready to offer a more formalized approach to his coaching clinics and The Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship was born. It began as a collaborative effort between Walsh, Edwards and 49ers public relations executive Rodney Knox. They also had the unfettered support of team owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. and vice president John McVay.

The primary goal of Walsh’s fellowship was to provide talented minority coaches the opportunity to work alongside the 49ers staff and expose them to NFL practice methods, training techniques and offensive and defensive philosophies. Graduates of the program would receive formal evaluations and letters of recommendation. 

“Bill (Walsh) had a strict set of ideals and standards he used to evaluate candidates for admittance to the program,” Edwards said. “He was looking for bright coaches with the ability to teach and who exhibited ‘executive command.’” 

According to Edwards, Walsh’s definition of executive command meant they possessed:1. Respect  – gained through technical proficiency and a clear grasp of a designated coaching discipline; 2. Affectionthe skill to push others to do more than they believe is possible; and 3. Authoritythe ability to ensure that the appropriate standards are met.

The program also offered participants a myriad of networking opportunities. In the up-and-down world of football, a coach’s career depends on connections. The fellowship provided numerous up-and-comers the chance to openly exchange ideas. 

Lovie Smith was a college linebackers coach when he attended one of Walsh’s first fellowship programs. He claims the exposure he received redirected his career and in 2004 the Chicago Bears hired him as their head coach. Two years later, he guided the Bears to Super Bowl XLI where he and opposing head coach Tony Dungy (another Walsh protege) of the Indianapolis Colts were the first African-American head coaches to face off in the Super Bowl.

“I am a big believer in what it can do for young college coaches who are searching for an avenue into our league,” Smith said of the minority coaching fellowship. “As a participant in the program, I learned so much about what goes into the business on the professional level. The experience and networking opportunities that I had during my time had a very big impact on my career path.” 

Smith is one of a bevy of future head coaches who used the fellowship as a springboard to the NFL. Other participants include Marvin Lewis, Leslie Frazier, Mike Tomlin, Hue Jackson, Anthony Lynn and Raheem Morris, all graduates of the program who went on to become NFL head coaches. Tyrone Willingham, a head coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington was another participant.

Tomlin led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl title in 2008. At the age of 36, he was the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl ring until the Rams’ Sean McVay’s Super Bowl victory in 2021. Entering his 16th season with the Steelers Tomlin has never recorded a losing season.

Katie Sowers, a 49ers assistant coach from 2017-2020, is the first female openly gay coach in NFL history. After working for the Atlanta Falcons, she began her career with the 49ers after earning a spot on the staff as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship in 2017. After working as a seasonal offensive assistant for two years she was hired as a full-time offensive assistant in 2019. The 49ers won the NFC championship that season and advanced to Super Bowl LIV where Sowers established herself as the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl.

The Bill Walsh coaching universe is well-known throughout football. An astounding 17 Super Bowl winning teams have been led by a member of the Walsh coaching line. But by providing coaching opportunities for minorities his impact on football is further amplified. According to Dr. Edwards, Walsh was “one of the greatest influences on social issues in sport in the past half-century.” 

“He was THE brightest person I ever met,” Edwards said. “He was also one of the greatest teachers and a man of compassion. He would go out of his way to help players, coaches, friends who were in need. He once told me if we don’t look out for one another we have nothing.”

The concepts introduced by Walsh and Edwards continue to resonate throughout the NFL. The programs they pioneered became the model for a league-wide initiative that now includes all 32 NFL clubs. Their shared vision on social justice and equality, whether on the athletic field, in the classroom or in executive offices, helped open a new path for modern athletes and coaches. 

The Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship soon became the standard followed by other collegiate and pro teams to attract minorities to leadership roles. 

The Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders celebrate a long history of creating opportunity. In 1979 Raiders owner Al Davis hired Tom Flores as just the second Hispanic head coach in the NFL (after Tom Fears 1967-1970, N.O. Saints).

Flores, the son of a Mexican immigrant father from Durango and a first-generation mother from Jalisco, was the  first NFL coach with Mexican roots to win a Super Bowl in 1980. Three years later he led the Raiders to another championship at Super Bowl XVIII. Flores also earned a Super Bowl ring as an Raiders assistant coach in 1976. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2021.

Davis also hired the first Black head coach in the NFL’s modern era when he named Art Shell, an eight-time Pro Bowl tackle with the Raiders, as the head coach. In 1990, Shell was named the NFL’s Coach of Year. 

Amy Trask was appointed by Raiders owner Al Davis in 1997 as the NFL’s first female non-owner CEO. She began her tenure with the Raiders in 1983 as an intern in the club’s legal department and moved through the front office ranks before serving as the Raiders CEO for 15 years until 2013.

In 2022, the team named Sandra Douglass Morgan the NFL’s first ever Black woman team president.

The Golden State Warriors were early trailblazers in hiring under-represented groups to leadership positions. In 1968, Franklin Mieuli, owner of what was then called the San Francisco Warriors, named veteran guard Al Attles as a player/assistant coach under head coach George Lee. Known as “The Destroyer” because of his penchant for hard-nosed defense, Attles was a dynamic on-court leader when he assumed the Warriors head coaching position midway through the 1969-1970 season. He joined Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who was hired by the Celtics in 1966, as the second Black head coach in NBA history. 

In 1975, Attles led the Warriors to the NBA championship, just the second Black NBA coach (after Russell) to earn an NBA title. After retiring as the Warriors skipper in 1983 with 588 career wins (including playoffs) under his belt, Attles moved into the franchise’s front office and never left. Attles has served the Warriors as a player, coach and team executive for over 60 years, believed to be the longest uninterrupted streak of any person for one NBA team.

Mieuli recorded another NBA milestone in 1969 by selecting the first woman in the NBA Draft. In the years prior to the passage of Title IX, the Warriors picked Denise Long, a high school senior from Iowa, in the 13th round of the NBA Draft. Unfortunately, league commissioner Walter Kennedy had other ideas. He vetoed the Warriors pick claiming the NBA is not allowed to select high school players, nor does it draft women. 

Despite Kennedy’s rebuff, Mieuli was committed to women’s professional basketball and organized his own four-team league. The women’s teams played their games before the Warriors contests and often put on exhibitions at half time. Mieuli also took Long under his wing and helped pay her tuition at University of San Francisco.

Continuing the organization’s leadership, Rick Welts joined the Golden State Warriors as president and COO in 2011 not long after coming out as gay in an interview with The New York Times. He was the first prominent American sports executive to come out as openly gay. During his time with San Francisco, he helped turn the Warriors into a perennial contender, winning four NBA titles since 2015.

The San Francisco Giants have a legacy of inclusion on the baseball diamond and in the coaching ranks. During their inaugural season on the west coast the Giants opened the 1958 campaign with, clearly, the most racially diverse roster in Major League Baseball. 

At a time when most clubs employed 2-3 minority players at best, over 35 percent of the Giants roster consisted of people of color. And, in the Giants 1958 opening game shutout of the L.A. Dodgers, they featured five Black or Brown players in the starting lineup.

The Giants roster included future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and fellow Puerto Rican natives catcher Valmy Thomas and pitcher Ruben Gomez, all opening day starters. OF Felipe Alou, who was born in the Dominican Republic, played six seasons in San Francisco and later was joined in the outfield by his brothers Matty and Jesus. Venezuelan born starting pitcher Ramon Monzant posted an 8-11 record in 1958. Bahamian native Andre Rodgers provided a bat off the bench and slick glove as a utility infielder.

And the heart of the Giants lineup consisted of several African-American stars including Willie Kirkland, Bill White, Leon Wagner and the incomparable Willie Mays, one of the greatest players of all time. White, a first baseman, began his career with the New York Giants and was part of the franchise from 1956-1958. He went on to become the National League president from 1989-1994.

The Giants pedigree as a progressive-minded employer led to several important coaching hires by the club, including Frank Robinson (a basketball teammate of Bill Russell at McClymond’s HS) as manager in 1981. Robinson earned distinction as MLB’s first Black manager in 1975 after being hired to lead the Cleveland Indians. Giants owner Bob Lurie pursued Robinson and signed him to manage San Francisco from 1981-1984. 

Peter Magowan took over as team president in 1993 and hired Dusty Baker as San Francisco’s second Black manager. In his first season at the helm, Baker led the Giants to an incredible 103 wins but the Atlanta Braves won 104 to nudge San Francisco out of the playoffs. 

Magowen also hired Felipe Alou, the team’s first Latino manager to replace Baker from 2003-2006. Alou guided the Giants to the 2003 National League West title and coached his son, Moises, in San Francisco in 2005 and 2006. 

While the Bay Area has been home to many significant examples of what sports organizations can do to create space for the people of color who belong in its executive and coaching ranks, there is still a long way to go in creating true equity. 


To engage this topic further, check out: 

PRO Sports Assembly – https://www.prosportsassembly.org

Fritz Pollard Alliance foundation –  https://fritzpollard.org

Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship – https://operations.nfl.com/inside-football-ops/players-legends/nfl-player-engagement/support-for-players-on-and-off-the-field/bill-walsh-diversity-coaching-fellowship

Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship – https://operations.nfl.com/inside-football-ops/players-legends/nfl-player-engagement/support-for-players-on-and-off-the-field/nunn-wooten-scouting-fellowship/