SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For as long as he could, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was able to keep the majority of his coaching staff together. Even as the Niners surged to the Super Bowl last season, and some of his assistants began popping up on head coach and coordinator lists, Shanahan managed to keep most of his assistants in place.
Shanahan knew it wouldn't last. "I'm expecting not to have [Robert Saleh]," he said of his defensive coordinator on Jan. 4. Shanahan knew the inevitable would happen and he'd have to seek replacements.
That day arrived last week when the New York Jets hired Saleh as their head coach. Saleh then hired Niners passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur as his offensive coordinator. Suddenly, Shanahan was without two of his most important assistants.
In many cases, losing two of your top assistants might be cause for panic. But Shanahan's belief the Niners would be "all right" can be traced to the fact he planned for this. While some coaches and teams talk about hiring and developing the best coaches regardless of background, Shanahan walks the walk.
On Monday, the Niners made official the plan they'd put in place long before Saleh spoke to the Jets. They promoted inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans to defensive coordinator and run game coordinator Mike McDaniel to offensive coordinator, a new position under Shanahan that consolidates McDaniel's and LaFleur's former jobs.
Shanahan has always emphasized the importance of developing his coaches so when one leaves, someone else in the building is ready to step forward. It's no coincidence in four opportunities to hire offensive, defensive or special teams coordinators, Shanahan has hired first-time NFL coordinators in each instance. Neither Saleh, nor Ryans, McDaniel or current special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower held a coordinator title at any of their previous stops. All had worked with Shanahan in some capacity and proved themselves capable of bigger roles.
In a league where the lack of diversity in the coaching ranks, particularly at the coordinator level and above, remains an issue, Saleh, who is Lebanese American, and Hightower and Ryans, both of whom are Black, all represent minority groups. That's also not an accident, as Shanahan spoke at length about the importance of increasing diversity in the coaching ranks in June.
At the time, there were four minority head coaches and two general managers. Those numbers haven't grown much so far in this hiring cycle, as Saleh is the only minority candidate to get a head-coaching job so far, which keeps the number at four after the Los Angeles Chargers fired Anthony Lynn. Lions general manager Brad Holmes is the only minority candidate to fill one of those vacancies, though the Atlanta Falcons are expected to hire Terry Fontenot for their job, which would bring the number of minority general managers to four.
"The majority of our players are Black," Shanahan said in June. "So, the fact that there's that few, I mean that's not debatable. I don't know if people are openly thinking they're doing it. Which I think [some] resort to that, but that's what the problem is. That number's not debatable and that is an issue. And I think we talk about it a lot. And it is something that has to get better."
Creating more diversity at the coordinator level is one way to make it happen. The NFL had two minority offensive coordinators (Kansas City's Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay's Byron Leftwich) and 10 minority defensive coordinators at the start of the season.
"I don't know why the numbers aren't like that, but the numbers are wrong," Shanahan said. "That's stuff that, hell yeah, we want to fix. But it's not an easy answer. It's continuing to talk, continuing the whole thing with society. It's all very similar on different levels. That's why those numbers don't lie. That's what makes it a fact."
While Shanahan and other head coaches don't have the ability to hire head coaches, they can help by hiring and developing the best coaches possible while also remaining cognizant of the lack of diversity in the league. Most important, when the time comes, they can give those coaches an opportunity to move up and continue building their résumés.
Monday offered the latest proof Shanahan and the 49ers will continue to offer those opportunities, which should only serve to make San Francisco an attractive place for future talented candidates.