Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell has about 25 years of NFL experience. But the eighth-year assistant coach and former Pro Bowl receiver might have just now made the biggest catch of his life — grabbing a billionaire's attention.
McCardell, the 53-year-old assistant who wants to be an NFL head coach, was one of 40 women and coaches of color participating in a three-day Coach Accelerator Program held this week at the Omni Hotel on the Vikings' Eagan campus. They listened to speakers, met with team owners and executives in town for league meetings, and got to know fellow coaches who could one day provide a needed connection in a job search.
The league's goal is a more diverse NFL at the top — 26 of 32 head coaches are white in a game predominantly made up of Black players — by bolstering the pipeline with networking and educational opportunities, said Jonathan Beane, the NFL's chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Participants ranged in experience from McCardell to the Vikings' 33-year-old special teams coordinator Matt Daniels and 64-year-old former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, one of eight Black GMs in the NFL, and head coach Kevin O'Connell also spoke to the group.
McCardell said he listened to speakers from search firms, agencies and leadership positions, such as former McDonald's chief executive Don Thompson, who told coaches: "You have to play the game a little bit" during the interview process.
"But you still got to be yourself," McCardell said. "I think everybody picked up on that. When we were ourselves to the owners, they enjoyed it. It was something different for them to see us being ourselves, like it was eye-opening to them."
This was the NFL's second annual diversity coaching summit, the first for just coaches after the front-office group was split off this year.
The initiative began last spring shortly after Brian Flores, the former Dolphins head coach who is now the Vikings defensive coordinator, filed a lawsuit against the league and three teams alleging racist hiring practices for coaches and general managers. Flores did not attend this week's program but said he traveled across the Vikings campus to talk with participants he knew.
"Great exposure for them," Flores said. "Exposure leads to expansion. I think that's a real and true statement. These guys were exposed to certain people, to certain situations, and they grow. So I'm all for it."
Daniels, a former NFL safety, said others benefit from Flores bringing awareness to problems with the league's hiring policies.
"It's easy to be kind of hush-hush about certain situations or certain things because you might ruffle [some] feathers, but someone's got to do it," Daniels said. "When you're able to bring it to the forefront, a lot of people seek those benefits because of certain individuals who do."
Daniels likened the meet-and-greet with owners to "speed dating."
"Kind of a round-robin table with select owners," he said. "Three rotations, two reps and execs from two separate teams would sit down and do a 30-minute what you'd consider not a mock interview but conversation. … What type of individual are they seeking? What qualities and personalities?"
Beane, the NFL's chief diversity and inclusion officer, said the league is trying to fit the accelerator program to all experience levels. League executives added leadership speakers and informal networking opportunities after gathering feedback from the inaugural event.
"[We] need to make sure that someone like a Leslie Frazier is getting a lot out of it," Beane said. "The programming has to be powerful to connect regardless of where you are in your career."
Frazier, the Vikings' head coach from November 2010 through the 2013 season, was one of two former head coaches invited, along with former Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn.
"Really impressed with the array of talent of the participants," said Frazier, who is taking a year off from coaching after most recently serving as the Bills defensive coordinator. "The guys that are doing the presentations as well have done a really good job of taking you from A to Z in the hiring process and what guys need to have to be prepared."
The lasting effect is to "bring light to minorities," Daniels said, and grow the list of candidates for NFL owners often looking for a new head coach.
Multiple participants referenced Titans General Manager Ran Carthon, the former 49ers personnel executive who participated in last year's front office accelerator program. In January, the Titans hired Carthon.
"He gives back and gives us info about coming here," said Thad Lewis, the Buccaneers quarterbacks coach and former NFL quarterback. "Some of the things you should do and not do. That's where the networking part comes into play. People can actually give you feedback and things you need."