During the owners meetings in March at the Arizona Biltmore, someone asked Bruce Arians about the possibility of female coaches in the NFL.
“The minute they can prove they can make a player better, they’ll be hired,” Arians said, noting that’s all any player ever really wants.
It was soon after that Arians heard from the coach of the Texas Revolution in the Indoor Football League, who told Arians the Revolution already had a female on its staff that would be worth a look. Monday, Arians brought in Jen Welter – the one-time collegiate rugby player who played 14 seasons of pro football, mostly in the Women’s Football Alliance – as a training camp/preseason intern coaching inside linebackers. Welter is believed to be the first woman to hold a coaching position of any kind in the NFL.
“Coaching is nothing more than teaching,” Arians said Monday. “One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’ I really believe she’ll have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her.”
Welter wasn’t the only addition to the staff. Former Pro Bowl linebacker Levon Kirkland will work with outside linebackers for the next two seasons under the Bill Bidwill Coaching Fellowship, a new program designed to help recently retired players gain experience in coaching.
Kirkland, who played 11 NFL seasons with the Steelers, Seahawks and Eagles, spent the offseason as a Cardinals’ coaching intern. Arians said because colleges and the NFL start training camps about the same time, the window for interns who work on the college level – like those who come through the Bill Walsh minority coaching fellowship – is too tight. Retired players who want to get into coaching have the ability to work with a team longer.
“I approached Michael (Bidwill) about starting a fellowship and naming it after his dad, who is a pioneer in a lot of ways,” Arians said.
Bidwill, who was honored for promoting diversity in the NFL by the Fritz Pollard Alliance in 2010, was the first owner to hire an African American female executive when Adele Harris was named the team’s director of community relations in 1978. Bidwill also made Bob Wallace the first African American to handle contracts for an NFL club in 1981, and the Cards were the first to have an African-American tandem at both General Manager and head coach when Rod Graves and Dennis Green were hired for those positions in 2004.
Bringing in Welter is another step toward diversity. Her football résumé is long. Welter, who holds a master’s degree in sport psychology and a PhD in psychology, was the first female to play a non-kicking position in a men’s pro football league when she played running backs and special teams for the Revolution in 2014. She also won two gold medals playing for Team USA in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in 2010 and 2013.
“She came for an OTA and I met her, and I thought she was the type of person that could handle this in a very positive way for women and open that door,” Arians said.
Arians added he had talked to the veterans on the Cardinals to tell them what he was going to do and “they were all very cool with it.”
“It’s not going to be a distraction in any way,” Arians said.
The move comes at a time when women have made some small inroads into the male professional sports. Sarah Thomas has been hired this season as the NFL’s first full-time female official. Becky Hammon was hired to be an assistant coach for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs last season, and as the Spurs’ summer league head coach led the team to a summer championship.
Arians said it wouldn’t be up to him whether putting a woman on his staff first would impact his legacy, but reiterated that he hopes it creates further opportunities for Welter and other women.
“I believe very strongly in it,” Arians said.