His 17-year NFL career – eight as a player with Detroit, Miami and Denver and nine as a front office executive with the Lions – was over and he had relaunched the music career he’d begun as a boy growing up in West Dayton when the city was becoming the funk capitol of the world.
During Super Bowl week, his group – Larry Lee and The Back in the Day Band, which has opened for everybody from Smokey Robinson and the late Isaac Hayes to the O’Jays, the Four Tops, the Temptations and others – was everywhere.
They played seven engagements, including the NFL Commissioner’s Party, a tribute to the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins and a post-game celebration where they shared the stage with Little Richard.
As for today’s Super Bowl LV – thanks to the hunker-down times of this COVID-19 pandemic -- the 61-year-old Lee said, “It’ll just be me and my wife, Terese, on the couch watching the game.”
Often, less is more and with Larry Lee this year, there’s a whole lot less.
“Back around 2001 or 2002 or so, I got up to 4 bills,” he said. “At my highest, I was weighing 400 pounds.”
He brought his weight down 50 pounds after that and then over the past year he’s really focused on getting healthier.
“I’ve dropped another 40 pounds,” he said. “I’m about 315 now and still going down.
“I’m bringing the sexy back. It was two or three layers deep and it took me a while to find it again.”
About eight months ago, he and four other former Lions – led by lineman Lomas Brown – began virtual workout sessions three times a week. He’s also been riding a stationary bike alongside Terese, who, in normal times, rides 40 to 50 miles three times a week.
But if he’s focused on slimming down, another side of him – especially as he watching today’s Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Kansas City – is all about fattening things up.
He’s focused on beefing up the number of black head coaches and general managers in the NFL.
While three of the four coordinators in today’s game – the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Buccaneers’ coordinators, Byron Leftwich (offensive) and Todd Bowles (defensive) – are all black and that is something to salute, there’s also a flip side.
It’s the failure of the trio to land one of the seven NFL head coaching jobs that opened after the regular season ended.
Bieniemy – whose offense is the toast of the NFL and who has the glowing support of both Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes – interviewed for six of the seven jobs, but was not chosen. He’s faced similar snubs in the past.
Bowles served as the New York Jets head coach from 2015-18, but has been unable to land another head coaching job since.
And Leftwich wasn’t even able to get an interview this year.
All that underscores the glaring problem in a league where 70 percent of the players are black, but less than 10 percent of the head coaches – there are just three – are black.
When the season ended, the Los Angeles Chargers fired their black head coach, Anthony Lynn, and replaced him with 38-year-old University of Dayton grad Brandon Staley, who is white.
Houston did hire David Culley, who is black, and the New York Jets hired Robert Saleh, who was born in Michigan to Lebanese parents, making him the first Arab-American head coach in the league.
But that’s it.
Of the NFL’s past 27 head coaching vacancies over four hiring cycles, only three were filled with blacks.
Thursday in his annual address, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell bemoaned the minimal advancements: “They’re not the outcomes we wanted…and not what we expect going forward.”
And that’s where Lee comes in.
Since October, he’s been the deputy executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
The organization champions equal employment opportunities by preparing and promoting coaches and executives of color. It also monitors adherence to the Rooney Rule, which requires every team looking for head coaches or general managers to interview minority candidates.
The organization is named after Fritz Pollard, who, in 1920, became the first African American to coach in the NFL. He and Bobby Marshall also were the first blacks to play in the league. But following the 1926 season, all blacks were removed from the NFL.
Art Shell became the second black NFL head coach – the first of the modern era – when he took over the Oakland Raiders in 1989.
He was followed by former a University of Dayton assistant coach, Dennis Green, who became the Minnesota Vikings head coach in 1992.
Since then it’s been an uphill battle for blacks to become NFL head coaches. They’ve found teams slow to hire them and quick to fire them.
That was the situation Tony Dungy faced.
He spent 16 years as an assistant, several with the Pittsburgh Steelers where legendary head coach Chuck Noll, once a Dayton Flyer, continuously trumpeted him.
Tampa Bay finally hired Dungy in 1996, but six seasons later fired him even though he had a winning record. That same year Green was fired by Minnesota for having his first losing record in 10 seasons.
That’s when civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
Fearing legal action, the NFL created the Rooney Rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, the onetime head of the league’s diversity committee.
Although it’s been a success on many fronts – black general managers jumped from two last season to five now – it hasn’t made much of an impact of the head coaching front.
There were just three black head coaches in the NFL when the Rooney Rule was implemented 18 years ago and today there still are just three.
Larry Lee (right) with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. CONTRIBUTED
‘Contact brings acceptance’
Ten days ago, Larry Lee was one of the featured speakers on a webinar put on by the Miami Valley Football Coaches Association (MVFCA) to promote positive race relations in all aspects of football in the Miami Valley.
The effort was the brainchild of longtime area coaches Albert Powell and Jim Place, who recalled:
“Right after the George Floyd incident, Al Powell – he’s been my friend for years – called me and said, ‘Jim, I’m shaking. I’m so upset about everything going on in in our country. We need to do something to bring people together. Let’s use our coaches to do something positive.’
“We talked and talked and through our coaches’ association, we set up a social justice committee.
“We started with the webinar. We lined up 11 speakers and we had 156 coaches take part.
“I loved it. Guys spoke from the heart and it was just awesome.
“After the speakers, we broke into small groups and just talked to each other and came up with suggestions to promote social justice and diversity and how we can be the sort of people we need to be.”
They worked on ways to get racially and socially different players, coaches and teams together.
“It’s the idea that contact brings acceptance,” said Place. “The more you’re around people you might not have been around before, the more you realize they are no different than you.”
Lee – who had been an All City football player first at Roosevelt and then when it closed, at Roth -- began his segment telling the group how he “Ieft Dayton in 1977 and went to UCLA on a football scholarship.”
Although he did have an All American career with the Bruins, then a long association with the NFL and has gone on to raise a family – daughters Dayna and Danielle both work for ESPN – he’s never fully left Dayton.
His heart’s remained here.
“I’m very proud to say I’m from Dayton, Ohio,” he told me the other day. “I love my hometown.”
This is where his two passions took root.
“I started doing two things in the sixth grade,” he said. “I started playing football and bass guitar.”
“Back then, all of us kids wanted to play an instrument and be like the Ohio Players,” he laughed. “We wanted to form a band, so for Christmas some of us asked our parents for different instruments.”
After his dad got him a bass guitar from a pawn shop, Lee and his friends formed a 10-piece group – including a horn section – and called themselves Soul Explosion.
“We got to be pretty good and played a lot of places,” he said.
The bass guitars Larry Lee uses with his group – Larry Lee and The Back in the Day Band. Over the years, the band has opened for Smokey Robinson, the late Isaac Hayes, George Clinton. En Vogue, Morris Day and The Time, the Temptations, the Spinners, the O’Jays, the Four Tops and Boyz II Men. This past year – due to COVID restrictions – they have done virtual shows for various organizations across the nation. They hope to resume their live schedule – they’ve played at the Fraze Pavilion in recent years -- in the spring. CONTRIBUTED
But once he was a high school senior, Lee said his two passions often collided. He was a big-time football recruit – his college visits were to Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, USC and UCLA – and he finally had to decide which route he’d follow.
He chose football – the band eventually signed with Roger Trautman – and played 96 games in the NFL. Once he joined the Lions front office, he served as both a player development assistant and then the vice president of football operations where he helped negotiate contracts and handle travel and training camp issues.
When Matt Millen began his disastrous reign of the Lions in 2001, Lee and many others in the organization were pushed out.
Since then, he – like Meadowdale High’s Rick Smith, who was an executive with the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans from 2000 until 2017 when he stepped away to deal with his late wife’s cancer battle – has found it tough to land a front office positon again.
“It’s kind of like a one-and-done deal,” Lee said. “And that’s what we’re now working on with the Fritz Pollard Alliance.”
Onus falls on the owners
This past November, to its credit, the league enhanced the Rooney Rule to reward teams who developed a coach or front office candidate of color who was then hired by another team as a head coach or general manager.
In return, those nurturing clubs would get two additional third-round draft picks.
Yet, even with the incentives, few hired minority head coaches.
“Ultimately the onus still falls on the owners,” Lee said. “They’re the ones who decide who’s going to be the face of their program and right now we just don’t have enough who believe in diversity and inclusion.
“At the same time, we have to do a better job of getting them more comfortable with a minority candidate. We’ve got to convince them to change.”
In the meantime, as he watches today’s Super Bowl – and those three coordinators of color who continue to wait – he will show he’s not completely ready for change either.
Although he’s been on that year-long health kick, he made an admission to his virtual workout pals a couple of days ago.
“I told ‘em I’m cuttin’ loose on Super Bowl Sunday,” he laughed. “I said, ‘My wife’s getting ribs and I’m cooking a steak and we’re gonna have greens and potato salad and some cake and ice cream, too.
“I’m going all out.”
Sometimes “bringing the sexy back” is done on a full stomach.