Throughout his seven years as a Cardinal, Marcel Shipp noticed a few extra coaches would show up after the season.
During one offseason Shipp befriended one of them, former NFL running back Amp Lee. While they worked together, Shipp learned Lee was hired for the summer as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship, a program established by the former San Francisco 49ers’ head coach in the late-1980s to increase the number of minority coaches on NFL teams.
Seven years later, Shipp was one of three Walsh Fellows to join Bruce Arians’ first Cardinals staff during this offseason.
“After the Cardinals, I went to (the) Las Vegas (Locomotives of the UFL). I was around a lot of younger guys so I started mentoring them and helping them with things on and off the field,” Shipp said. “I noticed this might be something I’m good at and might want to give it a try.”
Shipp joined former two-time Super Bowl winner David Diaz-Infante and nine-year NFL veteran Alvin McKinley as the Cardinals’ fellows, and Arians didn’t waste any time in putting them to work.
The fellowship gives teams the ability to decide who to hire, how to use the fellows, how much to pay them, and with Arians’ decision to use two fields during minicamps and OTAs as a way to evaluate the rookies, all three fellows were thrown into the coaching fire.
For Shipp, who coincidentally played running back under Lee with the Locomotives, life as NFL coach was an adjustment, especially the hours.
“It’s the detail work,” he said. “When I played, I knew what the running back had to do. I knew what the fullback had to do. Just knowing the full details, the full offense, and just be able to apply it so the players can grasp it – that was biggest thing.”
Shipp, Diaz-Infante, an offensive lineman, and McKinley, a former defensive tackle, are part of the latest class in a fraternity that has more than 1,500 alums. Last year, 91 coaches were hired as fellows. This year’s numbers are still being compiled, said Jon Ferrari, the league administrator for the fellowship and the NFL’s Labor Operations Manager.
The program is in its 27th season, Ferrari said, and this was among the most competitive years he’s seen. More than 5,000 applications applied for about 100 positions that last from the start of minicamp and is encouraged to last through the preseason.
“It’s huge. It’s taken off,” Ferrari said. “It’s exploded in the past couple of years. We don’t advertise it very much. It’s word of mouth. It’s not one of those programs that’s done for PR. It’s an immersive football training program.”
That’s how Shipp heard about it. And after this the preseason is over, his resume will include the same fellowship as four current or very recent head coaches – Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith all were fellows. Last season 42 graduates of the Walsh Fellowship were on NFL coaching staffs.
About 80 percent of the minority coaches on current staffs are graduates of the program, Ferrari said, including Cardinals’ assistant special teams coach Anthony Blevins, who participated in the program three separate years, with the Bears in 2008, the Cardinals in 2010 and the Colts in 2011. Although the fellowship introduced him to the NFL, it was prior relationships with Arians and special teams coach Amos Jones that landed him the job in the spring.
Blevins applied for the fellowship five years ago because he wanted to try something different. He had bounced around the college coaching ranks and wanted to see if the NFL was a good fit for his skills. Until 2008, Blevins was set on being a college coach. But after his stint with the Bears, Blevins knew he wanted to coach in the NFL.
“I think it made me really just open my eyes that there’s a different level of football outside of college,” Blevins said. “I think it adds credibility to you. When you can add that kind of stuff on your resume, it doesn’t hurt you. It’s more people that’s in your network. I think it helps you.”
Walsh developed the program in the late 1980s, at a time when the number of minority head coaches and coordinators combined could be counted on one hand. Ferrari said Walsh regularly hosted legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson and his staff for training camping, and the two would pick each other’s brains for ideas.
Almost three decades later, there are four minority head coaches and 12 coordinators – nine defensive and three offense – heading into training camp. Hiring more minority offensive coaches is a priority for the fellowship, Ferrari said.
“It’s definitely improved, but we still have a long way to go,” Ferrari said. “There’s been definite improvements. You see it at the coordinator level.”
The Cardinals may be ahead of the curve.
They’re the only team in the NFL to have minorities at both the offensive and defensive coordinators, Harold Goodwin and Todd Bowles, respectively. Arians built his staff without regard for race or age, and it’s become a group the younger coaches have admired.
“I do respect the franchise here,” Blevins said. “We have two black coordinators and I think it does help. I think (the Walsh Fellowship) does give some guys the exposure who wouldn’t have gotten the exposure.”