Television cameras lingered on Mike Shanahan, seated inside a suite at Empower Field at Mile High.
Although his name sits in the stadium’s Ring of Fame — Shanahan was head coach of the Denver Broncos for 14 seasons and won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98 — he did not attend the Week 3 Sunday Night Football game to reminisce. His son, Kyle Shanahan, was on the visiting sideline for the first time during his sixth season as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
The NBC broadcast then cut to Paul Hackett, who spent more than 20 years as an assistant in the NFL. He looked on as his son, Nathaniel Hackett, navigated his third game as Denver’s head coach.
For Dr. C. Keith Harrison, the research leader of the NFL’s annual diversity and inclusion report, the images of fathers in the stands and sons on the sidelines was a striking visual of “an issue that is well-documented”: nepotism.
“We know how it happens,” said Harrison, a professor of sports business management at the University of Central Florida. “But how does it continue to happen?
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“So are (coaches) biased with their kids? Yes, obviously yes. They help their family members.”
What is nepotism in the NFL?
Nepotism is one the league’s most controversial issues. In some cases, like the Shanahan family, it can create paths to success, even Super Bowls. Conversely, it leads to bad hires, cronyism and can create a blockade for coaches of color.
“We still battle nepotism,” NFL executive vice president for football operations Troy Vincent told USA TODAY Sports during a discussion about the league’s diversity issues in coaching.
In 2022, 12 of the 34 NFL head coaches (counting two interim coaches) are related to current or former coaches in the league, according to USA TODAY Sports data and research. Other findings include:
- Of the 717 on-field coaches this season, at least 93 coaches (13%) have a father, son or brother who is a current or former NFL coach.
- Of those 93 coaches with connections, 76 are white (81.7%).
- Seven head coaches are either the son or father of a former NFL coach.
More than half the league’s coaches are white, with coaches of color less prevalent at the coordinator and head coaching levels. If one group’s family members are disproportionately hired, and they are not people of color, fewer people of color will be hired.
“People of color lack the legacy of integration that would allow them to “hook up their family members,” Harrison said of the much lower rate that scenario occurs among non-white NFL coaches.
Nepotism can impact a coach’s ability to gain a foot in the door.
According to a USA TODAY Sports analysis of 79 father-son coaching pairs in the NFL, nearly half of the sons (37) had their first NFL job on the same staff that employed their fathers. On average, sons worked 34.4% of their NFL coaching careers on the same staff as their father.
Other examples of nepotism exist that aren’t as obvious. Sean McVay’s grandfather, the late John McVay, was a longtime general manager of the San Francisco 49ers and helped arrange for his grandson’s first job under Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“If we want a society — sports society or general society — in which there’s some level of equal opportunity, then extreme nepotism runs counter to that,” American University sports law professor N. Jeremi Duru said. “One of the beauties of having different experiences is that you have different perspectives. Coach A and Coach A’s son both will have blind spots that the other cannot see.”
NFL executives identified nepotism as one factor that inhibits diverse hiring. According to the league, two of the 32 clubs have anti-nepotism policies in place, the Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons. The Cardinals declined to comment and the Falcons did not respond to multiple messages.
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Even if a father and son don’t coach on the same staff, the close-knit nature of the coaching community means a connection from the older generation may be inclined to hire a connection from the younger generation.
“I want (people) to watch and follow the legacy of families, particularly white Americans, and how they end up getting catapulted and get jobs before other people like Eric Bieniemy and others, Byron Leftwich, even get a first opportunity as a head coach,” Harrison said. “That’s where the inequity is at.”
Hall of Famer Tony Dungy witnessed nepotism from all sides as a coach in the NFL. He has strong feelings about it.
“For most of the history of the National Football League,” said Dungy, who is Black, “nepotism has been highly advantageous for white coaches, and disadvantageous to Black coaches. Because Black coaches haven’t been in a position to benefit from it.”
Yet Dungy has other strong feelings on nepotism, and what he also believes may surprise.
Dungy said nepotism is about relationships, is highly nuanced and as long as the nepotists are qualified, it can actually allow Black coaches to play the same game white coaches have throughout the history of the league.
“One of many reasons why we need more people of color in coaching is to increase the opportunities for relationship building,” Dungy said. “I want us (Black coaches) to benefit from the system the way white coaches have.”
“The system” Dungy refers to is the NFL’s complex myriad of personal relationships that he says can simultaneously be problematic and beneficial, just like in other professions.
Nepotism in football is a form of generational wealth, Dungy and other Black coaches believe. But instead of passing down a house or trust fund, it’s football power that transfers down the line. Historically, Dungy says, mostly whites, though not exclusively, benefited from these types of relationships.
Those familial ties also intermix with non-genetic friendships and create an extensive web of connections that traditionally exclude Black coaches. Those connections lead to job opportunities and large paychecks.
Dungy isn’t pro-nepotism. “I realize how problematic it can be,” he said. But he does see some benefits. It can be an entryway into coaching that otherwise wouldn’t be there because Black coaches still face extensive discrimination.
Dungy has seen all sides of it.
When he was an assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings, a 17-year-old Lane Kiffin, son of Monte, and a 19-year-old David Shaw, son of Willie, were always around the team. Kiffin now coaches at the University of Mississippi and Shaw is at Stanford.
“They both really followed football closely, worked hard to learn it,” Dungy said. “Did their last names help their careers? Yes. But they are also good coaches.”
Some coaches who had fathers precede them in the league perceive their last names as detrimental because others think that’s the reason they were hired or promoted.
Kevin Gilbride, who retired as the New York Giants offensive coordinator after the 2013 season, said he thinks sons of coaches have a disadvantage. His son, Kevin M. Gilbride, is currently the tight ends coach for the Carolina Panthers.
“I think (other coaches) view it as ‘That’s the reason he’s here,’” Gilbride said.
In Gilbride’s case, he says the opposite is true. He and his wife, Debbie, tried their hardest to keep their son out of coaching. It’s a difficult lifestyle with ups, downs, constant moving and precarious job security. Gilbride moved 13 times over the course of his coaching career — not all by choice.
Gilbride became head coach of the then-San Diego Chargers in 1998. His family, however, remained in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was previously offensive coordinator of the Jaguars under head coach Tom Coughlin. At the time, Gilbride’s son was a top high school baseball and football recruit. On the opposite coast and unable to oversee his son’s recruitment, Gilbride said Coughlin became guardian of the process and developed a relationship with his son.
“Tom saw him as a worker,” Gilbride said.
In 2007, when the younger Gilbride finished his first year of coaching at the collegiate level (Georgetown, receivers/tight ends), Coughlin — who was hired as Giants head coach in 2005 — offered him a job on staff as a quality control coach.
“Tom’s the one who called him. I didn’t get involved,” said Gilbride, who reconnected with Coughlin in New York and was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator prior to the 2007 season.
Kevin M. Gilbride did not immediately join his father, though. He had interviewed at Temple and was slated to be the receivers coach, and he felt compelled to honor that commitment, his father said.
“Dad, you know that people think that coaches’ sons have bad reputations?” Gilbride recalled his son telling him.
Coughlin came calling three years later, and this time the younger Gilbride accepted. Father and son won a Super Bowl in 2012, their second season together.
Dungy’s son, Eric, also coached in the NFL but eventually left the profession.
“I would have never put my son on my staff,” said Dungy, “but I had no qualms about asking someone to take a look at him. I don’t think we should penalize people for being related to someone.”
Dungy added: “Did Kyle Shanahan get opportunities because he’s Mike’s son? Of course he did. But look at how he’s proved himself.”
‘Tied to trust’
Nepotism is pervasive across society. According to the 2010 U.S. census, 22% of men whose fathers were present in their teenage years will work for the same employer at the same time as their fathers.
In the football industry, the practice also extends to front offices and into the broadcast booth. Teams passing from one generation to the next among owners’ families makes nepotism inherent to the industry.
“People prioritize families because it’s tied to trust,” Harrison said. “If you look at (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones, he has his family in the suite. He’s had his grandson in the suite since he was knee high. Are we acting like he’s not going to get a job at the family business? The family business is a billion-dollar sports team.”
The proximity can become an issue when results don’t show.
After the Seahawks missed the playoffs last season, Nate Carroll — son of head coach Pete Carroll — moved from wide receivers coach to senior offensive assistant.
And after the New England Patriots’ 3-4 start this season, NBC contributor and Profootballtalk editor Mike Florio ranted about nepotism during an appearance on the “Pardon My Take” podcast in October.
Seven-time Super Bowl head coach Bill Belichick has employed sons Steve (outside linebackers coach, 11 years on staff) and Brian (safeties coach, seven years on staff) for their entire NFL tenures.
“When you can’t hold your kids accountable,” Florio said, “you can’t hold anybody accountable.”
Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera hired his nephew, Vincent, as a football operations intern in 2017 while he was head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Vincent Rivera moved with his uncle following the 2020 season and is now in his second year as a defensive quality control/assistant linebackers coach with the Commanders.
“It’s that familiarity,” Rivera said in September. “It’s funny because if somebody’s gonna tell me something I need to hear it’s him. He’s not gonna shy away from it.”
Vincent Rivera started at the bottom of the coaching ranks and remains in a lower-level job. Rivera said if there were rules in place against hiring family members, then he would follow the letter of the law.
“I made it very clear that, if anybody’s gonna have to do it the right way, he is,” Rivera said, “just because of his last name. I told my brother, ‘Just tell him don’t do anything that’s gonna make me fire him.’”
Former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips was the son of ex-NFL head coach Bum Phillips (Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints) and hired his son Wes — now in his first year as offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings — in Dallas.
“I just don’t see (nepotism). I don’t see it,” Wade Phillips told USA TODAY Sports. “Because it’s just like the players. Whoever’s the best, plays. They’re all about winning, they’re not about who’s kin to who or whatever.”
It doesn’t hurt coaches’ offspring to have a preternatural exposure to the job.
“I didn’t know what an engineer did, but I knew what a coach did, growing up,” Phillips said. “You’re influenced that way.”
Brazenness and bright spots
Harrison believes a different question should be asked when it comes to nepotism.
“How come they’re so comfortable hiring their kids, or their family members? As we say in hip-hop, ‘putting them on,’” he said. “Why are they not even nervous about someone questioning if there was bias to hire them?”
Duru said those who have benefited from familial relationships have an obligation to pay it forward by hiring a racially diverse staff.
Through that lens, Kyle Shanahan should be the standard, Duru said. Two of the six non-white head coaches in the league (Robert Saleh, New York Jets; Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphins) served as coordinators on his staff and current defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will once again interview for jobs this offseason.
“He seems to have focused pretty conscientiously and intentionally on opening up doors for people of color, perhaps because he realized he had a leg up as he was seeking to build a career in the NFL,” Duru said of Shanahan.
Is there enough of that across the NFL?
“I can’t speak for what everyone in the NFL who has gotten a job because of a familial relationship is doing,” Duru said. “But I see when there are bright spots. And I see that in Kyle Shanahan.”
USA TODAY Sports reporters Tom Schad, Jaylon Thompson and Richard Morin contributed to this report.