When Al Davis hired Art Shell as the head coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989, Clarence Shelmon was a 37-year-old running backs coach at the University of Southern California. Shell became the first African-American head coach in the modern N.F.L. For Shelmon, now the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, Shell’s hiring opened up possibilities he had dreamed of but never seriously imagined while growing up in Bossier City, La., in the 1950s.
For many aspiring African-American coaches, becoming a head coach in the N.F.L. seemed an insurmountable mountain.
“When you’re young, you think anything is possible, but you also look at what history had unfolded before,” Shelmon said in a phone interview last week. “Back then, there were not a lot of men of color in coordinators’ positions and head coaches, so while you knew it was a possibility, you didn’t see anyone in those positions. In the back of your mind, you’re wondering if you’ll ever have an opportunity.”