HOUSTON (AP) — David Culley spent 43 years as a college and NFL assistant before finally getting his first head coaching job with the Houston Texans.
He lasted just one season before being fired Thursday, a move that leaves the NFL with one Black head coach: Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin. Miami's Brian Flores was fired this week after leading his team to a 9-8 record.
The Texans announced the firings of Culley and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly on Thursday night. General manager Nick Caserio saying he met with both men earlier in the day to inform them of what he called a “difficult but necessary decision.”
“While a change after one season is unusual, we had philosophical differences over the long-term direction and vision for our program moving forward,” Caserio said in a statement. “We appreciate coach Culley for helping us navigate through a difficult season, but it is my responsibility to make decisions that I feel are best for our organization.”
Houston finished 4-13 this season, concluding with a 28-25 loss to Tennessee, the AFC's top playoff seed.
Culley said Monday he expected to return, but Caserio was said to still be evaluating the coach at that time. Three days later, Culley was out of a job.
“I loved every minute of being the head coach of the Houston Texans,” Culley said in a statement. “I appreciate the players and coaches for staying the course with me through the ups and downs of our season. I’m disappointed we didn’t win more games and I won’t have a chance to improve on the lessons I’ve learned, but I fully understand this is a bottom-line business and I didn’t do enough.”
The 66-year-old Culley was hired last January to replace Bill O’Brien after working as an NFL assistant since 1994. He took over a team that went 4-12 in the 2020 season with Deshaun Watson at quarterback.
Watson requested a trade around the time Culley was hired, and before 22 women filed lawsuits against the QB alleging sexual harassment or assault. Those issues kept Watson sidelined all season and precipitated a rebuild in Houston that left Culley at the helm of a depleted team.
Culley didn't have much of a chance without Watson and with a roster where most of the few remaining quality starters were traded or released as the season progressed.
Texans owner Cal McNair thanked Culley for his work this season and looked to the future.
“I have entrusted Nick Caserio to lead football performance and I have complete confidence he will find the best leader for our team,” McNair said in a statement. “These decisions are difficult, but Nick believed it was necessary for the future of our organization. We look forward to continuing to build our roster and finding the right coach to lead us forward.”
Culley discussed the challenges he faced in his first season in an interview with The AP last month.
“There’s a manual that they give you, like here’s all the things that will happen to you,” he said. “Listen, there’s been many, many things that ain’t in that manual that I’ve had to go through here that you just learn, you learn on the run.
“But the big thing is, do what you feel like is right for your team,” he continued. “And be honest with everybody. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
In that same interview, he discussed the decades-long path that led him to the Texans and touched on his displeasure at the scarcity of minority head coaches in the NFL.
“It's just very disappointing," he said. “And very disappointing for this reason, there are so many minority coaches in this profession from all ethnicities that deserve to have that opportunity."
The New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, and Washington’s Ron Rivera, who is Latino, are the only minority head coaches remaining besides Tomlin.
Kelly had been with the Texans in various roles since 2014 and had been the offensive coordinator since 2019.
This is the first time the Texans have fired a coach after one season. The team’s first coach, Dom Capers, spent four seasons in Houston before being fired. Gary Kubiak was hired next, and he was let go in his eighth season. The team fired O’Brien after he opened his seventh season 0-4.
Culley was hired after spending 2019-20 as assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. Before coming to Houston, Culley had worked as an NFL assistant starting in 1994, also spending time with Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Buffalo. He began his career as a college assistant and spent 1991-93 at Texas A&M.
Houston beat Jacksonville in the opener before losing eight consecutive games after Tyrod Taylor was injured and rookie quarterback Davis Mills struggled to adjust to the NFL.
But the Texans played better late in the season, with two of their four wins coming in the last month, including a 41-29 victory over a Los Angeles Chargers team still in playoff contention.
The late improvement wasn’t enough to save Culley’s job. Now, the Texans face a big offseason in which they’ll have to find a new coach, will look to finally trade Watson and will have the third overall draft pick after not having a first-round pick in the last two drafts.