The late Bill Walsh coached the 49ers for ten years and brought three Super Bowl championships to San Francisco. Walsh was a giant in football, but he was also a forward thinker. Walsh is long admired for giving equal opportunities to qualified candidates, and the core tenets of his progressive leadership continue today.
Walsh reached well beyond the sidelines to give others a chance to be a part of the game. He wanted to see more diversity in coaching, and walked the walk as roughly half of his coaching staff included African-Americans. Walsh introduced a new concept to the league in 1987 when he brought a group of minority coaches into his 49ers’ training camp, and subsequently, The Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship was formed. It provides NFL coaching experience for a diverse group of participants every year.
Former NFL Pro-Bowler and Super Bowl winner John Lynch is proud to continue the progressive ways of the 49ers. He was introduced as GM in 2017 and, two years later, was named executive of the year by the Pro Football Writers of America. In 2020, he was back in the Super Bowl as an executive.
Lynch is on the right path. Not only has he built a great team on the field, but he is making sure that women are getting chances at the highest level of football.
Lynch showed his support for women as a participant at the Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Indianapolis during the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. He, along with Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel and Washington coach Ron Rivera, sat in a discussion where women candidates asked questions of how to further careers in the NFL, networking with the panel, and other women who work for different NFL teams.
“I take a lot of pride in being in this room. I think one of the things that drew me in — I’m working for an organization that has represented inclusion throughout history,” Lynch said at the forum.
In recent years, women who want to get their foot in the door are directed to Walsh’s fellowship. In 2017, the program included a record of five female participants — Odessa Jenkins (Atlanta), Collette Smith (New York Jets), Stephanie Balochko (Pittsburgh), Katie Sowers (San Francisco), and Phoebe Schecter (Buffalo).
“Essentially, it is a gateway into getting into the NFL,” Schecter told the Female Coaching Network of the fellowship. She is Britain’s first female American football coach in the NFL.
Sowers, 49ers offensive assistant coach, made history as the first openly gay and first female coach in Super Bowl history. She helped create an offense that was second in rushing and second in points during the regular season.
In 2019, the program included four women – Callie Brownson (Atlanta and Buffalo), Jennifer King (Carolina), Samantha Mullet (Baltimore), and Tracy Zimmer (Atlanta). King was hired by the Washington Redskins and became the first full-time African American woman to a coach in league history.
General Counsel, Hannah Gordon, is fielding a lot of questions on how their diversity program works. “I got two calls in the last week from teams asking for a copy of our diversity hiring policy,” Gordon told NBC Sports. “They said, ‘Hey, we’re starting a fellowship like yours, can we see how you structured it?’”
According to NFL.com, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent said, “The Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship is a tremendous opportunity for rising coaches to hone their skills by experiencing first-hand the methods and philosophies of NFL coaching staffs. This fellowship is key to the future of the game as it identifies the next generation of talented coaches.”
The 49ers have hired so many women to their coaching and training staff that they had to add more lockers to their women’s locker room. Gordon and Sowers hope that number keeps growing.