Samir Suleiman and Jeff Nixon know it’s not always what you know, but who you know.
In the NFL, where the majority of team owners are white, many of the vacant head coaches and general manager positions have historically gone to white candidates – people know or connect with owners.
The NFL is trying to change that with pipeline programs such as its inaugural Coach and Front Office Accelerator programs.
Suleiman, who is the Panthers’ vice president of football operations, and Nixon, who is the Panthers’ assistant head coach for offensewere two of 60 men and women who participated in the program last month in Atlanta.
The two-day event featured a speed-dating style meeting process, where each of the men and women got to talk to multiple owners one-on-one for 15 minutes before moving to the next table with a different owner or executive.
They also heard from different speakers who gave networking tips.
Both Suleiman and Nixon said they felt it was a great experience.
“Just to be able to get face time with the owners – and not just the owners, but for me too, seeing some of the head coaching candidates that I may have heard of, but just haven’t met yet,” said Suleiman, who wants to be a general manager, told the Observer. “Because in my experience, the only time I’ve had interactions with owners, it was either I worked for them, or very brief encounters at league meetings or before games.”
Said Nixon, who also spoke to The Observer after an OTA practice earlier this week: “It’s a relationship business. Usually to get in the door, just to get an interview at any position, it’s usually going to be someone you have a relationship with, that they know what you are about, know something about you, that they want to interview you a little bit further. “
Biding their time
Nixon got into coaching in 1997 as a graduate assistant at Penn State under Joe Paterno. From there, he had stops at Princeton, Division II Shippensburg, Chattanooga and Temple before getting a break in the NFL in 2007.
In 2017, he joined Baylor’s staff with Matt Rhule and served as co-offensive coordinator. He has been with the Panthers since 2020.
He has been interviewed for a few offensive coordinator positions this offseason, including one with the Las Vegas Raiders. His ultimate goal is to be a head coach.
“All (Nixon) cares about winning, and giving players the best chance to be successful,” Rhule told The Observer in December. “That ‘s what makes him a special guy.”
Suleiman began his career in the NFL in 1997 with its management council, analyzing player contracts and monitoring team compliance with the salary cap. He then went to the Jacksonville Jaguars for two years, the St. Louis Rams have been with the Pittsburgh Steelers for seven years, and have been with the Panthers since 2019.
With the Panthers, he also serves as their primary negotiator and cap guru, managing their salary cap. He has been named to the NFL’s list of leading minority candidates for general manager consideration.
“Samir is coming from the administrative cap side, but he’s a really smart guy,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer told The Observer in March at the NFL’s owners meeting. “We involved him in the scouting process. He knows the value of players. “
Suleiman and Nixon were both promoted this year to their new titles. Suleiman became one of the highest-ranking Hispanics and Arab-Americans in the NFL, especially on the football side. Last season, Nixon, who called for the Panthers after offensive coordinator Joe Brady was fired, was one of just a handful of Black NFL play-callers.
Working toward an NFL diversity solution
One of the criticisms of the NFL has been its lack of diversity among the top ranks. Of the 32 NFL teams, there are six coaches of color and seven Black general managers, while 70% of the league’s players are Black.
This offseason, the NFL tweaked its Rooney Rule. It now requires teams to interview at least two women and / or persons of key positions, such as head coach and general manager. It also requires teams to employ a woman or a member of an ethnic or racial minority to serve as an offensive assistant coach.
“I think we’ve struggled a lot of reasons why other companies struggle,” said Belynda Garnder, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion in the NFL. “It’s us being intentional and building the pipeline and continuing to pound the pavement in that aspect. It’s about networking, and we’ve really been able to do those things.
The idea was to put the program around the NFL combine, while league executives were discussing how to improve the NFL’s top ranks. The one thing they kept landing on was the lack of exposure to minority candidates.
“We have a really deep bench of people from across the league and women who are really great at their jobs,” Gardner said. “So just having the opportunity to bring them all together is what we think will be the starting point.”
She said the hope is to provide more opportunities and similar programs for these candidates and future candidates. The Accelerator program, though, will continue annually.
“I think the league is trying,” Suleiman said. “They’ve acknowledged for years that the number of minority hirings is not where they want to be. I think they’ve addressed it the best they can, not just by implementing the Rooney Rule, but tweaking it a couple of times and developing programs like this. I definitely think the willingness is there to improve things. “
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