In a state that is overwhelming white, the new coach of the Denver Broncos
is black. Vance Joseph was named Wednesday as the 18th African-American head coach in the NFL’s 96-year history, not counting interim hires. Does that matter? Oh, heck yeah. Let me tell you how much. I called the old football coach who brought Vance Joseph to Colorado more than 25 years ago and got to break the happy news to Bill McCartney. “Wow!” said McCartney, the joy spilling out of him. “You’re the first to tell me he’s the next coach of the Broncos. And I’m glad you did. Because it’s awesome. People are going to love this guy. Vance Joseph is a leader of men.” Race is an issue in America. Always has been. Always will be. It became a sticky issue, impossible to shake throughout the 2016 NFL season, as black players, including Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall
, kneeled in protest during the playing of the national anthem before kickoff. It’s a big deal a black man is now entrusted with rebooting the Broncos and returning a proud franchise to the Super Bowl
John Leyba, The Denver Post
John Elway, executive vice president of football operations and general manager, sits with the Denver Broncos new head coach Vance Joseph during a press conference January 12, 2017 at Dove Valley.
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“You hit a nerve with me right there. You hit on a topic that most people don’t want to talk about or don’t understand,” said McCartney, who has long pushed for more minority coaches to ascend to key leadership positions. “It has always been frustrating to me that people have unwittingly ignored the lack of opportunity for black coaches. This is important stuff.” I firmly believe the locker room is more about W’s and L’s than black or white. But the fact the new face of the Broncos is African-American? Important stuff, indeed. The coach of the local NFL team might be the most high-profile leader in town. Here’s betting the face of Joseph will appear more often on television during 2017 than the Denver mayor and Colorado governor … combined. “It’s incredibly humbling to be part of an organization like the Broncos, with so much history and success,” said Joseph, who served as the Miami Dolphins
’ defensive coordinator last season. Who we see in a leadership role matters, because it shapes our worldview. Since the Broncos first took the field in 1960, they have played more than 900 games during the regular season and playoffs. Prior to hiring Joseph, who beat out Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Kansas City special-teams guru Dave Toub for the job, the Broncos have only been led on the field by a black coach four times, when Eric Studesville served as interim head coach at the sad conclusion of the 2010 season.
Alan Diaz, The Associated Press
Vance Joseph, right, watches Miami players during practice at the team’s training facility, Monday, June 6, 2016, in Davie, Fla. It does McCartney proud to see a protégé, the teenage quarterback he recruited to Boulder from Louisiana in 1990, now represent CU on the sideline for the Broncos. But does it matter just as deeply in McCartney’s heart that a black coach has been given a chance to shine in the pro football arena?
“Oh, yes. It matters,” replied McCartney, the enthusiasm in his voice booming like a big bass drum. “I will tell you why it matters: White folk generally don’t understand the plight of the brother in America. And that makes us insensitive. I’m not saying people are mean-spirited. They’re just clueless. You don’t know what you can’t know about.” McCartney is now 76 years old. He has mellowed, but only a little. His memory sometimes fades, but his vision remains strong and lucid. A coach who led the Buffaloes to their lone football national championship has never been afraid to tackle controversial issues, whether it was taking a stance on abortion or lobbying on behalf of Bob Simmons, an African-American assistant on the CU staff, to take over the program when McCartney abruptly retired in 1994. Long before Joseph began building his coaching resume, he arrived in Colorado as a standout prep quarterback with big dreams. But here’s what you should know. On a talent-stacked Buffs roster, Joseph threw only 61 passes in four seasons. What impressed McCartney about Joseph: Rather than get frustrated by lack of playing time, it drove him to discover new ways to lead. And one more thing. Take Our Poll
“Boulder is whiter than any place in Colorado,” McCartney said. “It’s no slam dunk an African-American young man was going to get through four years without being discouraged. But you could see the strength of his character, his drive, his ability to lead.” Despite the presence of the Rooney Rule, established more than a decade ago to encourage greater opportunity for minority candidates, 21 of the 22 NFL head coaches hired during the five hiring cycles from 2012-16 were white. That’s the definition of absurd. The Rooney Rule, however, did nudge open the door at Dove Valley for Joseph to interview two years ago, and when general manager John Elway
suddenly realized on Christmas Eve the Broncos were going to need a replacement for Gary Kubiak
, the instant front-runner to fill the vacancy was Joseph. When Marshall kneeled at Broncos games during the national anthem, hoping to raise awareness for social injustice, he attracted cameras, created waves and fostered discussion, often heated. When Joseph leads the Broncos out of the tunnel for the season opener in September, then stands at attention as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays, it will remind us America can be the land of hope and possibility.