On Klint Kubiak and Nepotism in the NFL

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On Monday, the Minnesota Vikings made the expected move to promote Klint Kubiak to offensive coordinator. He replaces his father, Gary, who retired after two seasons with the Vikings. Mike Zimmer just hired his good friend Paul Guenther to a position that his staff did not need. And linebackers coach Adam Zimmer’s name isn’t a coincidence.

To an outsider, that may raise some alarm bells. What are the odds that the coach’s son just so happens to be the most qualified person for the job? Why not Rick Dennison, who has more experience, or someone from outside the organization? Seasoned Vikings fans could answer these questions easily, but it’s a good time to discuss the trend of nepotism in the NFL.

Steve Belichick. Scott Turner. Kyle Shanahan. Britt Reid (charges pending).  And now, Klint Kubiak. The list goes on. The league is filled to the brim with the children of established coaches. There may be some justification for that, and it’s certainly not a problem unique to professional football. Plenty of career paths are “not about what you know, but about who you know,” as many of us have so often heard. But if the NFL presents itself as a sweat-drenched meritocracy, nepotism betrays that image.

There is nothing inherently qualifying about the job your father has. But there could be something to the environment that creates. After all, Klint Kubiak grew up around Gary Kubiak when he and Mike Shanahan were championing the wide zone that has taken the league by storm. He has been inundated with football and its culture his entire life. Kevin Stefanski spent one year with Gary Kubiak, and it evolved his entire outlook. Klint Kubiak has had 33.

In fact, were it not for Kubiak’s last name, we probably wouldn’t bat an eye at his promotion. He first joined the Vikings before his father did in 2013 and 2014. There, he met Stefanski and established a connection. That connection led Stefanski to bring Gary Kubiak onto the staff in the 2019 offseason. Klint Kubiak has five years of QB coaching experience and coached wide receivers for a few years. He’s young, but that hasn’t stopped people like Sean McVay or Matt LaFleur from excelling.

Plus, the idea of coaching turnover carries a lot of costs. Promoting from within can mitigate those costs. Perhaps the most significant advantage of Klint Kubiak is precisely how similar he will be to his father. This particular promotion seems perfectly justifiable, if not the optimal choice. I’ve been bullish on Klint myself despite the nepotistic context.

My beef isn’t with Klint Kubiak or anyone in the NFL whose father was also in the NFL. No individual anecdote can define this phenomenon. My beef is with nepotism’s existence in the institution. Klint Kubiak, by all accounts, deserved this particular promotion. But somewhere along the way, there’s a job he wouldn’t have gotten if not for his father’s legacy. That creates inefficiencies that prevent deserving candidates from succeeding. That’s to say nothing of the racial component of this issue.

You could certainly make arguments for most coaches who got to this point in their career, thanks in some part to nepotism. Paul Guenther has been a defensive coordinator for years. Adam Zimmer has been a position coach since 2006, and his first opportunities came in New Orleans while Zimmer was still in Dallas. Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and Wade Phillips are all highly respected coaches, with good reason, that also benefitted from nepotism.

The problem isn’t in any individual decision. It’s with the pattern of all of the decisions.

In the NFL, offensive coordinators often become head coaches. But who gets to become an offensive coordinator? It’s very often the quarterback coach. While the Rooney Rule aims to impact head coach, general manager, and coordinator positions, the pipeline that feeds those jobs is unchanged. Even if we were to overturn previous nepotistic hires (we shouldn’t), it wouldn’t change much.

With all the pressure on coaches and GMs in the NFL, there should be plenty of incentive to find edges in low-level coach hiring. Unfortunately, there is similar pressure to hire someone quickly and efficiently. If someone is conveniently close and reasonably qualified, it can check both boxes. That makes the temptation strong to hire a friend, especially with lower-level positions.

Perhaps positive enforcement would be more effective than negative enforcement. The compensatory draft adjustment from the last offseason is already paying dividends. Teams that have genuinely developed minority candidates have been rewarded. Perhaps other teams will follow suit, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. But on the whole, teams should look for the best candidates, bar none. Too often, they look for the convenient ones.

Klint Kubiak’s promotion isn’t a great example of this for the aforementioned reasons. Maybe his hiring at Texas A&M, his dad’s alma mater, or Denver in 2016 was. But it’s so far in the past that it’s not worth litigating individually. Klint Kubiak may have inherited his first opportunity, but that doesn’t invalidate the rest, and it doesn’t invalidate this one. Conversely, his relatively quick rise speaks to a more significant problem in the NFL, and one we would be ill-advised to ignore.

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