DAVIE, Fla. — Before agreeing to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins last winter, Brian Flores consulted his former high school coach in Brooklyn. The response was, sure you’ll have to face New England twice a year, but even Bill Belichick has to retire at some point.
“They won’t be great forever,” Dino Mangiero, who coached Flores at Poly Prep Country Day School, advised him. “Miami might be a really good place to land.”
And at some point for Flores, it might be. It is impossible to judge an NFL head coaching career that consists of two games with a franchise that has gutted its veteran talent and is rebuilding with fragile youth and the hoarding of draft picks.
But after losing to New England by 43-0 on Sunday — the Super Bowl champion and AFC East rival for whom Flores worked the previous 15 seasons — the winless Dolphins have been outscored in two games, 102-10. The team might not be merely bad, but historically futile.
To many observers, Miami’s front office seems to be tanking to secure the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, the team’s No. 11 draft selection in 2018, asked out and was traded to Pittsburgh on Monday. Every position, Flores said recently, is up for evaluation.
On Sunday, the team’s owner, Stephen Ross, told reporters that he remained committed to rebuilding for long-term success. The Dolphins have five first-round picks and four second-round picks over the next two drafts. Flores, 38, has a five-year contract.
“I think he’s the right guy to lead us through these times,” Chris Grier, Miami’s general manager, said Tuesday.
Still, black head coaches tend to have the most precarious hold on jobs with the most vulnerable teams and the most limited opportunities for a second chance helming a staff elsewhere. Last season, five African-American head coaches were fired.
So far, Fores has shown a rare ability to remain even-keeled during one of the rockiest starts to an NFL head coaching career, with no outward sign of anguish or regret. That stoicism is fitting perhaps for someone whose life has been built on a refusal to despair. He is the son of Honduran immigrants, born to a family who lived in the frayed Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, where violent crime has declined but where official neglect, gang feuds and ruthless poverty have been corrosive.
It is one thing to lose football games. It is another to grow accustomed, as Flores has said he did, to helping his mother carry groceries up 20 flights of stairs when the elevators failed at the Glenmore Plaza housing project.
“I’m very prepared for difficult moments,” Flores said Monday. “I learned resiliency at a very early age.”
Flores and three of his four brothers have master’s degrees. And Brian appears to have become only the eighth NFL head coach in the modern era from New York City — no one’s idea of a football hotbed — according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the league’s official statistician.
Flores possesses a singular identity in professional football — black and Latino at a time when there are only two other African-American head coaches (Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers) in the NFL and one other Hispanic coach (Ron Rivera of Carolina).
While Belichick, Flores’ mentor, is the epitome of a gruff, taciturn coach who reveals little, Flores possesses a blunt candor. During a training camp practice, he played eight consecutive songs by Brooklyn-born Jay-Z as a rebuttal to then-Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, a social activist who criticized the rapper as being tone-deaf after he formed an entertainment and social justice partnership with the NFL.
But Flores also gave an impassioned defense, rarely done by the league’s coaches, of the right of Stills and the ostracized quarterback Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem in protest against racial inequality and police brutality.
“They’re bringing attention to my story,” he said. “I’m the son of immigrants. I’m black. I grew up poor. I grew up in New York during the stop-and-frisk era. I’ve been stopped because I fit a description before. So everything these guys protest, I’ve lived it, I’ve experienced it.”
The Flores family story reflects the classic American immigrant experience. Yet his ascent in America’s most popular sport comes as the Trump administration attempts to bar most Hondurans leaving a Central American country overwhelmed by poverty and violence from seeking asylum in the United States. The administration has also tried to end the protected status of some 57,000 Honduran immigrants, many of whom have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years.
“What’s interesting about Flores is that he’s part of multiple identities,” said Danielle Clealand, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University who studies Afro-Latinos in Miami.
As an NFL coach in a sport fundamental to American identity, Flores has challenged the notion in a divisive political climate that immigrants do not belong in the United States, Clealand said.
“We have to think of the diversity in those communities and how they have integrated into our society, ” she said.
With Flores on the sidelines, the Dolphins, are the only NFL team with a black head coach and a black general manager, Grier. Ross, the team owner, is the founder of a nonprofit called RISE — the Ross Initiative in Sports For Equality — whose mission is to use sport to help improve race relations.
But Ross’ reputation for progressiveness grew complicated in August when he held a reelection fundraiser in the Hamptons for President Donald Trump. Stills, the receiver, criticized Ross via Twitter, writing, “You can’t have a nonprofit with this mission statement then open your doors to Trump.”
When Stills also criticized Jay-Z and Flores responded with his calculated playlist, the move drew mixed reaction. Mangiero, who coached Flores in high school, said he chuckled at Flores’ feistiness.
But the Miami Herald responded harshly on its editorial page, saying that Flores’ musical choice was insensitive and “looked like a smirking taunt, giving the back of his hand to a real-life American plague.”
Flores said he was challenging Stills to perform at a higher level and to not become distracted by events outside the team. Whatever scrutiny he received, Flores said at the time, he would continue to coach his own way. “If anybody’s got a problem with that, we’ve just got a problem,” he said. “We’re going to agree to disagree.”
Days later, the Dolphins traded Stills, an extremely popular player, and Laremy Tunsil, an emerging star at left tackle, to Houston. Asked if the trade was personal or political, Flores told reporters, “Not at all.” The compensation received by the Dolphins, which included two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick, “was something we couldn’t turn down,” Flores said.
He seemed taken aback by the widespread attention paid to the Stills/Ross/Jay-Z controversy. To Richard Lapchick, the founder and director the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, Flores attempted to perform a delicate balancing act. In playing the Jay-Z songs, Lapchick said, Flores appeared to be “toeing the company line.”
But Flores’ plea for social justice was something few coaches outside of the NBA ever address, Lapchick said, excepting the mass demonstration of solidarity that occurred across the NFL on Sept. 24, 2017, after Trump criticized protests during the national anthem.
“He realized, ‘My players do have opinions,’ and if he wants to successfully coach them, he can’t be dismissive, as the playlist seemed to indicate he was,” Lapchick said.
As a New Yorker, Flores is another sort of rarity in the modern NFL. His only current compatriot is Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone. Other New Yorkers who have coached include the legendary Vince Lombardi and the less than legendary former Jets and Eagles coach Rich Kotite, with his career record of 41-57.
Flores’ parents — Raul and Maria — immigrated from Honduras in the 1970s, speaking no English, seeking a better life, and his father spent as many as 10 months each year away as a merchant seaman. An uncle, Darrel Patterson, then a Brooklyn firefighter, became a father figure, taking the Flores brothers bowling and on trips to a video arcade. Traveling home one evening when Brian was 12, he said he spotted a Pop Warner game and asked his uncle if could play.
Patterson, 66, and now a fire safety educator, remembers the football origin story somewhat differently: He visited the family’s apartment in Brownsville on a beautiful fall weekend, only to find the brothers watching television. When asked why they were indoors, Brian or one of his siblings, replied, “Mom doesn’t want us outside; she thinks it’s too dangerous.”
Patterson said he took the brothers in his station wagon to a youth league game in Howard Beach, Queens. Brian ran an impressive 40-yard dash and was pointed to the team equipment van, where he grabbed a helmet and shoulder pads. But no one in his family had ever played football and the shoulder pads felt awkward.
“He had the pads on backward,” Patterson said. “We turned them around and from there he excelled.”
Flores received a scholarship to Poly Prep Country Day, an elite academic and football school, commuting more than an hour across Brooklyn by bus and subway. He struck Mangiero, his coach, as Flores strikes many people — serious, driven.
At Boston College, Flores played safety and linebacker, but a leg injury in 2003 ended any slim chance of playing professionally. So Flores famously wrote to every NFL team looking for a job. He took an entry-level post in the Patriots’ personnel department in 2004. His duties included getting coffee and picking up dry cleaning. He slept on an air mattress in a friend’s attic for a time. He climbed from scout to assistant coach, to the de facto defensive coordinator last season as New England won its sixth Super Bowl.
Miami players describe Flores as New England players did. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick: “He’s been great being upfront.” Linebacker Vince Biegel: “Steady Eddie.”
Flores often recalls his mother, Maria, who died of breast cancer in March, shortly after the Dolphins named him head coach, forcing him to practice his reading when he was little and wanted to cut the lessons short. She would grab him by the ear and tell him, “We’re going to do this right now.” So that is how he plans to rebuild the Dolphins: Move forward. Persevere.
“You always know that if you put your head down and work hard,” he said, “things normally turn around and get better.”