Bears assistant general manager Ian Cunningham and defensive coordinator Alan Williams were honored to participate in the inaugural NFL Coach and Front Office Accelerator Program at the Spring League Meeting May 23-24 in Atlanta.
They were among more than 60 diverse general manager and head coach candidates from all 32 teams and the league office. Minority prospects and senior women took part in leadership development sessions with football operations experts and facilitators, and were able to network directly with club owners.
"It was a great learning experience, to be exposed to different things that for personnel and coaches, we don't tend to be exposed to," Cunningham said. "To be able to go down there and meet some coaches, general managers, front office people and owners that we didn't know was just a great overall experience."
The event was staged to help continue building a diverse hiring pipeline for future head coach and general manager positions throughout the league.
"It was to get in front of people that you normally wouldn't be able to get in front of," Cunningham said. "And to showcase who you are and have them get to know you on a personal level; be able to talk about something as silly as the weather in Chicago or talk about a soccer team or a business or where they're from."
Each NFL team nominated rising prospects to participate in the program. In addition to leadership development and sessions on the business of football, attendees engaged in candid discussions about how to take the next step in becoming a front office executive or head coach.
In his first year as assistant to general manager Ryan Poles, Cunningham joined the Bears after spending the previous 14 seasons in NFL personnel with the Ravens (2008-16) and Eagles (2017-21). One thing he enjoyed learning more about at the accelerator program was the business of football.
"Growing up in personnel and scouting, you don't get educated on that," Cunningham said. "There are things we do on the field that help the business side and there are things they do off the field that help us. So, just the importance the business side has on the football side and vice versa, that was really cool to see."
Williams enjoyed learning more about the CBA and the salary cap, issues he'd need to be familiar with to interview for a head-coaching position. The Bears defensive coordinator also benefitted from taking part in problem-solving scenarios that don't have a simple solution, such as what to do if an assistant coach is suspected of leaking information to the media.
"Everyone can put out fires when it's A or B," Williams said. "But when it gets kind of gray, [it's important] to be able to problem-solve and find ways and do your due diligence."
Williams lauded George H. McCaskey for introducing him and Cunningham to NFL owners, saying that the Bears chairman went "above and beyond." Williams especially enjoyed speaking to Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, the son of Dallas owner Jerry Jones, and Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, the son of New England owner Robert Kraft.
"It wasn't all business," Williams said. "Part of it was just to get to know each other as people. The business part takes care of itself. It's getting to know each other as people. That was one of the goals."
Williams joined the Bears this year after spending the previous 20 seasons as an NFL assistant, including the last four as Colts defensive backs coach. He hopes that the accelerator program results in more minorities being hired as general managers and head coaches.
"We all recognize that there's a huge disparity with minority coaches, with minority front office people, women and men, being hired to those leadership positions," Williams said. "What they're trying to do is take steps to solve that problem, not just bring awareness to it. I think people are aware of it; we're in the business of solving problems.
"I would hope that this is just the first step to many more events just like this, and that it becomes a yearly event. And that the numbers go up, not from a quota standpoint but because owners become familiar [with minority candidates]; that there are people they've met, there have been relationships developed through this, and in the end they feel comfortable [hiring them]."