Colts' Jeff Saturday hire makes mockery of NFL's meritocracy creed and again moves goalposts for Black coaches

There were a lot of head-tilting moments during Monday night's news conference at Indianapolis Colts headquarters. While it was ostensibly meant as an introduction to Jeff Saturday the coach, it was a lot more about team owner Jim Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard, who seized on the moment to air their grievances with local media.

But one of the things Saturday said was laughable:

"You've got to earn your place here."

A man with no coaching experience beyond a meh 20-16 record at a small Georgia high school had just been handed one of the 32 most coveted jobs in pro football, by a man who simply inherited one of the most valuable properties in this country.

And Saturday had the audacity to talk about earning it.

Wealthy people handing out big jobs to wholly unqualified friends isn't new. The past and present are rife with C-suite inhabitants who got there solely because their daddy runs the joint or called in a favor.

But this transaction happened in the NFL, where we've been told ad nauseam that it's all about merit.

Your draft slot doesn't matter; if you can play, you can play, and if you can't, hand in your tablet.

You'll be considered to become a coordinator or a head coach only after you've put in the time climbing up the ladder, toiling for hours as a grossly underpaid low-level assistant, earning your bona fides as a position coach, and maybe getting to run a unit if you latch your fortunes to a guy who's one of the lucky ones and gets hired to coach an entire team.

And on Monday, in one embarrassing decision, one he attempted to justify with that comically bad news conference, Irsay laid the myth of meritocracy bare: Experience doesn't matter if you can hire your buddy.

Colts team owner Jim Irsay (center) and new head coach Jeff Saturday (right) are not ideal people to speak about
Colts team owner Jim Irsay (center) and new head coach Jeff Saturday (right) are not ideal people to speak about "earning" something like an NFL head coaching job. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Why there should be grumbling on remaining Colts staff

Saturday was tough as a player and a good leader as a player, and somehow in Irsay's mind that makes him the best candidate to take over a listless NFL team midseason as its head coach.

As colleague Charles Robinson noted, Monday night's availability with Irsay, Ballard and Saturday felt a lot less like an interim announcement — has any team owner in recent years held a news conference like that for an interim? — and a lot more like a coronation. Especially when Irsay showed his cards when he said Saturday was taking over for the final eight games of the regular season and "hopefully more."

And Saturday, who according to Ballard and Irsay had rebuffed their previous offers to join the organization as an assistant coach or with the front office, suddenly was interested in coaching when he was given a chance to skip all of the usual, allegedly required, steps and become head coach.

He didn't earn this place.

Great players don't always make great coaches. Brilliant people don't always make great teachers. The toughness an offensive lineman needs to play center for 14 years, as Saturday did, has no real value when you're the head coach and trying to lead a team.

It would be understandable if not every player is on board. It would be understandable if not every assistant coach is on board.

Irsay's seemingly rash pick is a slap in the face to every coach in the Colts' organization, several of whom have more than enough experience to try to hold the team together as it finishes out this season. It's also a slap in the face to assistants across the league, some of whom have worked for decades for any kind of chance to be a head coach, interim or otherwise, and prove that he has the mettle to lead a team.

Same old story for aspiring Black head coaches in NFL

And while we're on the topic of coaching and diversity in the NFL, the Saturday move is another example of how the league's ownership class truly feels about Black men. Just last month, the NFL offered up another tired theme of a Black assistant coach being asked to clean up a (usually white) head coach's mess in an interim role, only to more than likely be passed over for a full-time gig.

No amount of interview requirements, lies about the "pipeline," sermons about being patient or accelerator programs can change the fact that NFL team owners as a group do not believe Black men should be full-time head coaches.

In 2020, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank tapped Raheem Morris to be interim head coach and said Morris would "be a candidate" for the job if he led the team to an 11-0 finish after Dan Quinn was fired for an 0-5 start. In October, Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper said Steve Wilks would be considered for head coach if he did an "incredible" job over the final dozen games of the season.

Morris and Wilks have over 30 combined years of NFL coaching experience. Wilks was a head coach for one season with Arizona, then fired when Cardinals brass thought Kliff Kingsbury and his sub-.500 record at Texas Tech was a better hire. Morris, currently the Rams' defensive coordinator, was head coach with Tampa Bay from 2009-2011 and is still waiting for a second chance to lead a team. Meanwhile Josh McDaniels, who got his first head coaching gig the same year Morris did only to be mired in scandal and fired before he'd finished two seasons in Denver, is on his third chance as a head coach; he spurned these same Colts in 2018, pulling out of the job the night before his formal introduction, after getting others to sign on to be part of his staff, and was hired by the Las Vegas Raiders earlier this year.

A week before he was fired by Indianapolis, Frank Reich fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, even though it was Reich, not Brady, who called the plays during games. Brady, you'll correctly assume, is Black. He probably would have been a good option as play-caller with Reich fired. Instead Saturday reportedly chose assistant quarterbacks coach Parks Frazier, who is 30 and has never called plays at any level.

OK, then.

Jeff Saturday was gifted an interim job and, according to his boss, it's clear there's a not-small chance he'll get the job full-time gig come January. No lines, no waiting.

No earning it either.

Who needs merit when you're white and friends with the owner?