In addition to all the Jets' coaching staff elevations during the Senior Bowl, the club participated in the new minority coaching fellowship program. Morgan State HC Tyrone Wheatley and South Carolina State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jonathan Saxon were embedded with the Green & White throughout the week.
"I thought it was a great opportunity," Wheatley said. "Like anything else in life, everyone wants exposure. Not so much want, but you need exposure. Right now, with everything that's going on with the social climate and the rise of all the things that's going on in terms of minorities, not only in the NFL, but minorities in FBS football, FCS football, I thought this was a great opportunity to get this thing going and interjoined."
Wheatley, 50, who played 10 seasons in the NFL and was an assistant with the Jaguars and the Bills, just finished his third season at Morgan State. Saxon, an offensive lineman at S.C. State who earned his degree in 2011, has been working at his alma mater since 2014 after a stint on Louisville's staff.
"It's an opportunity for minorities to showcase your ability and showcase your brain," Saxon said of the Senior Bowl experience. "I was excited. They talked about it and just the opportunity to work with an NFL staff and learn some more football but also help mold these guys to get ready for a game."
The NFL currently has five minority head coaches: Robert Saleh (Jets), Mike Tomlin (Steelers), Lovie Smith (Texans), Ron Rivera (Commanders) and Mike McDaniel (Dolphins). The latest coaching cycle had nine teams making a coaching change — two were filled by minorities.
"There's a gap in generation and a lot of issues on these teams happens when there's a generational gap of understanding and consideration," Wheatley said. "So, as I said, when you open a door, it's like a breath of fresh air, give men like Sax a chance over here to come in and see it and understand it. Now, he says if this is what I want to be a part of, yes. If not, then he has the opportunity. But at least he has the opportunity to come in and see it for himself and say this is what I want to be a part of. The thing of it is, this is a group, that goes from high school to college to pros, and this is a group setting and I think sometimes the NFL separates themselves and doesn't open that door to let a little fresh air in or take advice of what's going on."
While terminologies and systems differ, there are quality coaches at all levels. Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of football operations, praised the Senior Bowl's fellowship program with HBCU coaches while emphasizing the opportunity for the coaches tocultivate relationships with an eye on the future.
"This is an opportunity where the spotlight has actually been on us too," Saxon said. "It's the initiative of the fellowship that started, this is something that can continue toand keep opening those doors to create that bridge where it doesn't matter what level you're on, football is football, and a good coach is a good coach. It's X's and O's, but one person may call curl flat red, but it's still the same thing, same meaning, same term. So, it means a lot, just bringing the spotlight to HBCU football at any level."
Wheatley, the No. 17 overall pick by the Giants in the 1995 NFL draft, played crosstown until 1998 after rushing for 4,187 yards at Michigan and totaling 53 TDs for the Maize and Blue. Green has been an adversarial color for most of his sporting life, but Wheatley said that he thoroughly enjoyed his time with Saleh's Jets staff.
"They say most times a team will take on a head coach's personality, and you know he's a quiet guy, but he's a stern guy," Wheatley said the NFL's first Muslim HC who began his coaching career at Michigan State in 2002. "He's an enthusiastic guy and I love his mantra All Gas, No Brakes and that's who he is. I worked with Ron Middleton with the Jaguars and Ron is kind of the same way. Ron gets after it, he gets going. Rudy [Mike Rutenberg] and those guys, it's good to see guys I've worked with before.
"But also now I'm not the staff, I get to take a step back and like Sax said, I get a chance to learn a bit more. As a head coach, you're not so involved so much in the day-to-day, you're on the other end doing admission work. But now, I'm here coaching so I get to see little tricks and some things that, even though I just stepped away from a couple years, you get to see it and learn."
Saxon's coaching education will continue next week at another college all-star game -- the HCBU Legacy Bowl will be played Feb. 19 at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans, LA. The Legacy Bowl showcases NFL draft eligible players from HCBU and will include a week-long celebration during Black History Month.
"Guys from different conferences all just go out there in front of NFL scouts and just put it on display," Saxon said. "The majority of the guys that were in the HBCU Combine will be coming down to play in this game, so the Bowie State staff and South Carolina State staff are coming together against the FAMU staff and Albany State staff. So, it's a big event. It's the first-time ever and we've been talking about putting a spotlight on it and continuing to let this thing grow. Keep on growing and growing. That's the next step for me and an opportunity to coach more football and also put a defense together myself, so that these guys can showcase their abilities in front of scouts."
Since January 2000, the team has had six full-time head coaches, including three minority members (Saleh, Herman Edwards and Todd Bowles). The league, however, has acknowledged the urgency of addressing the issue of more minorities in coaching. Wheatley believes programs like the Senior Bowl's minority coaching fellowship will not only help identify quality coaches but also the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
"The only way for it to continue to go in the right direction, is like any vehicle, it has to have fuel," Wheatley said. "So myself, Sax, and this interview, putting the game out there, people have to get behind it. They have to truly get behind it and fuel it. That's the only way it's going to grow. So yes, I'm very optimistic but as we're talking about the HBCU brand, a lot of people have to know about it. In order for them to now pay attention to it, and help it grow, you got to put it out there. So, I'm very optimistic."