His team was up 54 points at halftime, and Antonio Pierce was fuming.
He’d watched his team, one of the best in the country, play haphazardly on both sides of the ball. SoPierce gathered his Long Beach Polytechnic high school players behind the bleachers and demanded they run sprints. TJ Houshmandzadeh, the former NFL receiver, who was volunteering as an unpaid assistant coach, recalled looking at fellow assistants and thinking to himself, “AP’s crazy.”
Pierce soon let Houshmandzadeh and the team know there was nothing crazy about meeting a standard. The score didn’t matter. An inferior opponent didn’t matter. The outcome of this game wasn’t going to carry over, but the sloppy play just might.
They ran so long and so hard that his players were too exhausted to reach the field for start the second half, leading to a penalty. But Long Beach Poly had enough gas to still beat Compton High, 99-9.
“They were blowing this team out, but nah,” Houshmandzadeh said. “It’s about how I want things done. That was the message: ‘Do things the right way.’ ”
Pierce, 45, is now in his final week as the interim head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, a franchise that has spent much of the past four decades trying to return to a championship standard set by its late patriarch, Al Davis. That wasn’t going to happen this season, during which the Raiders started 3-5 and ousted their head coach, Josh McDaniels, thrusting Pierce, the team’s second-year linebackers coach, into the temporary gig.
Pierce, in his eight games, has one more win than McDaniels, despite relying on a rookie quarterback and with star running back Josh Jacobs, the NFL’s leading rusher last season, missing three games with a quad injury. The Raiders’ defense ranks first at 16.3 points per game and has a league-best four defensive touchdowns since Pierce’s promotion. He also snapped a six-game skid to the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas Day and tacked a franchise-record 63 points on the San Diego Chargers.
“If you can lead, you can lead,” said Houshmandzadeh, who spent four seasons on Pierce’s staff and remains close. “It doesn’t matter the age or the level. Guys know when you bs-ing them. Guys know what is what. The players are showing you what they think of him.”
All-pros Maxx Crosby and Davante Adams have openly lobbied for Pierce to keep his job, with Adams declaring that he was willing to “run through a wall for that man” — after one game.
It’s a familiar storyline for Black NFL coaches. They are vastly underrepresented among the league’s head coaches and coordinators, according to an analysis last year by The Washington Post. But they are better represented among the league’s interim coaches, The Post found, a trend also seen in corporate America, where experts say women and people of color are often asked to lead in times of crisis.
Pierce is the 28th Black head coach, interim or full-time, in NFL history. But the interim route rarely leads to a full-time gig. Doug Marrone is the last interim coach to be retained for the full-time job, taking over the Jacksonville Jaguars in December 2016 before guiding the team for the next four seasons. Only three of the previous 15 Black interim coaches were retained for the next season, and none since Romeo Crennel in 2012. Steve Wilks had more wins in 12 games last season than his predecessor had in both of his full seasons with the Carolina Panthers — and even he wasn’t retained.
“At the end of day, everything will be looked at by wins and losses, and I think that’s fair and that’s what this business is about,” Pierce told reporters this week. “But I do also think it’s about what do you build in the foundation? And I think for the most part in these eight or nine weeks, it’s been a solid foundation that we’ve built as a team and as an organization.”
Pierce was two weeks shy of his 11th birthday in 1989 when Al Davis made Art Shell the first Black NFL head coach in the modern era. Shell was a midseason replacement but was interim in name only. Davis wanted a Raider — an indoctrinated silver and black disciple. Shell had been a starting offensive lineman on three Super Bowl-winning teams and an offensive line coach for the franchise’s fourth.
Although Pierce played in Washington and New York during his nine-year NFL career, he has a deep connection with the franchise. He grew up in Compton, Calif., when the Raiders called Los Angeles home. Piercesaid he grew up enthralled by the black and silver mystique, made all the more cool with the Raiders hats, jerseys and jackets donned by the iconic rap group, NWA. “I was born a Raider,” he said during his introductory news conference.
And his football career has been defined by bucking against what’s expected of him. He attended junior college before landing as a linebacker at Arizona. He went undrafted but retired as a Super Bowl champion and one-time all-pro.
Never being complacent has given Pierce that edge, which former NFL coach Marvin Lewis witnessed in 2002, when they first crossed paths in Washington. Before taking the job as Washington’s defensive coordinator, Lewis watched film of his soon-to-be players and found himself especially impressed by the undrafted rookie who could run, routinely made the right reads and always found himself in the action. Lewis devised a scheme in his nickel defense to maximize Pierce’s skills, but Pierce suffered a high ankle sprain in training camp. “He was frustrated, angry all the time, because he thought he was going to get cut,” Lewis said in a phone interview, “I was like, ‘Relax.’ ”
Pierce played sporadically upon his return, but emerged as one of the team’s leaders by his fourth season in Washington. And that didn’t change when Pierce landed in New York on a Giants defense that featured a Hall of Famer in Michael Strahan. That a player who lacked flashy credentials or pedigree was able to command respect from his peers doesn’t surprise Lewis, because work ethic and commitment to a high standard have long carried more weight in a locker room.
“Pros like pros,” Lewis said.
After a neck injury forced him to retire in 2010, Pierce got into coaching when the athletic director at Long Beach Poly — where Pierce’s son, DeAndre, was playing — asked if he had any interest in taking over one of the more prestigious programs in the state. He spent four seasons there, assembling a staff that included former NFL players such as Houshmandzadeh, LaVar Arrington and Chris Claiborne, before moving on to join former NFL coach Herman Edwards’s staff at Arizona State. Among his colleagues on that staff: Marvin Lewis.
Their reunionallowed Lewis to see another side of Pierce — the one who could match wits on strategy and game-planning. Lewis was impressed with Pierce’s diligence but worried about overexertion. Pierce once came to Lewis during a bye week and asked, “Hey, how am I doing?”
“I said, ‘AP, now I know why you were such a good player and just so driven and so passionate about it. But just make sure you get your rest, [and that] you’re taking a step back and smelling the roses a bit,’ ” said Lewis, who still gets calls from Pierce most mornings before the sun rises. “I think players respond to that, too, that they know he’s all in. They know he’s not just collecting a check.”
“He’s a guy that’s always searching for knowledge, for information,” Edwards said in a telephone interview, noting how in their four years together, Pierce would often observe other college practices to study how they conducted business. “He’s a workaholic. He’s very detailed. Guys like that, it’s just a matter of time that they move up the ranks.”
By dismissing McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler on Halloween, and promoting Pierce and Champ Kelly as the interim general manager, Mark Davis made history: The Raiders are the first team to have three Black people occupying the most prominent leadership positions, with Sandra Douglass Morgan hired as team president in 2022.
Davis has yet to hire a full-time Black head coach in 12 years running the organization, but he has fired one. Hue Jackson, the last coach Al Davis hired before his death in 2011, was dismissed after going 8-8 in his lone season with the Raiders. Since then, Davis has had more full-time head coaches than playoff appearances, with McDaniels, Jack Del Rio, Dennis Allen and Jon Gruden combining for one postseason trip.
And Davis has made a few blunders with his hires. The Rooney Rule had to be reworked after Davis violated its spirit by hiring Gruden before firing Del Rio, while interviewing two minority candidates before Gruden signed his contract.Davis then refused to retain Rich Bisaccia, who led the Raiders into the postseason as an interim coach in 2021 after Gruden resigned for using misogynistic and homophobic language in emails that were later leaked, and nearly led the team to an upset of eventual AFC champion Cincinnati.
“Maybe this time around he’ll understand, ‘Hey, I’ve got a guy right here. I don’t need to go outside,’ ” Lewis said of Mark Davis.
Pierce’s status as a former NFL player has appeared to help his cause, giving him credibility within the locker room. Nine former players served as head coaches this season, including two who have experienced relative success in their first full-time stints: Dan Campbell, who led the Detroit Lions to their first division title in 30 years, and DeMeco Ryans, who became the 22nd full-time Black coach in NFL history last February and has the Houston Texans one win from a postseason berth.
“Not saying you have to be a player to be a good coach,” Edwards said, “but that helps you. I think players gravitate toward him. When he’s talking to them, he has experience at that level so he understands.”
Houshmandzadeh said that if Pierce is allowed to run it back next season, it could open up the coaching ranks for a different type of personality — one with a little swagger, whose unabashed moxie inspires players to puff victory cigars in the locker room after wins.
“What head coach you see wearing diamond earrings during the game? What head coach you know pull up in a 6-4 [Chevy Impala] on Daytons? He’s doing that,” Houshmandzadeh said with a laugh. “But he knows the game of football. A lot of former players don’t go into coaching because you’ve got to start at the basement when you pretty much know more than the coach that you start behind. He had to grind his way to get to where he is, and that’s why I respect it. He’s earned it, bro.”