The Carolina Panthers announced Frank Reich as the team’s next head coach on Thursday, leaving lawyers for interim head coach Steve Wilks “shocked and disturbed.”
Reich, who most recently served as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, is making a homecoming trip of sorts after serving as the Panthers’ first-ever quarterback in 1995. That hiring seems to have come at the expense of Steve Wilks, the team’s interim coach for over half of the season.
Despite changes in the Rooney Rule, a policy that requires teams to interiew a minimum number of minority candidates for head coaching and executive positions, Wilks was one of only four black head coaches in the NFL this season, along with Todd Bowles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans. Smith was fired earlier this season, leaving Bowles and Tomlin as the only remaining black coaches.
Wilks took over as interim coach on Oct. 10 when Matt Rhule was fired after three seasons with the Panthers. Rhule went 11-27 during his time in Charlotte, including a 1-4 start to the 2022 season.
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Under Wilks, the Panthers went 6-6 and finished one game short of winning the NFC South title and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.
Wilks also won over many in the locker room, with ESPN reporting that he was the “sentimental favorite” of many Panthers players.
Among those advocating for Wilks permanent hiring was Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who joined NFL Network’s Good Morning Football last month to talk about the 52-year-old coach.
Wigdor LLP, a New York-based law firm led by founding partner Doug Wigdor, tweeted a statement in response to the news of Reich’s hiring.
“We are shocked and disturbed that after the incredible job Coach Wilks did as the interim coach, including bringing the team back into playoff contention and garnering the support of the players and fans, that he was passed over for the head coach position by [owner] David Tepper,” the statement read. “There is a legitimate race problem in the NFL, and we can assure you that we will have more to say in the coming days.”
Last February, Wigdor filed a race discrimination lawsuit against the NFL, New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos on behalf of former head coach Brian Flores. Wilks and former NFL defensive coordinator Ray Horton joined the lawsuit in April, adding the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals to the amended list of defendants.
Wilks served one season as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 and was fired after the team went 3-13.
The amended complaint accused the Cardinals of hiring Wilks as a “bridge coach” and said he was not given any “meaningful chance to succeed.”
At the time, Wilks also released a statement of his own via his lawyers that said:
“This lawsuit has shed further important light on a problem that we all know exists, but that too few are willing to confront. Black coaches and candidates should have exactly the same ability to become employed, and remain employed, as white coaches and candidates. That is not currently the case, and I look forward to working with Coach Flores and Coach Horton to ensure that the aspiration of racial equality in the NFL becomes a reality.”
The NFL action continues on the field with the conference championships this week, but the shakeup in North Carolina and any potential action from Wilks' legal team "in the coming days" will likely draw attention around the league.