Gilliam, Frank 1934–
Frank Gilliam 1934–
Professional football executive
As vice president for player personnel for the Minnesota Vikings, Frank Gilliam is one of just a handful of African Americans at the senior executive level inside the National Football League. In a career that has spanned over two decades with the team, Gilliam has also become the first African American to serve as director of player personnel for an NFL franchise. Gilliam’s responsibility in the Vikings organization involves overseeing recruiting efforts, the complex and expensive process by which star college football players are offered contracts to play for an NFL team. The time and money invested in new players at this level of professional sports places a large amount of responsibility on Gilliam because one exceptional player can literally lead a team to a Super Bowl championship.
Gilliam was born on January 7, 1934 and grew up in Steubenville, Ohio. A standout athlete from an early age, he played high school football and was then offered a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where he arrived in 1952. At the time, the school was home to several notable players and coaches, among them future grid-iron star Alex Karras. A friend of Gilliam’s from grade school in Steubenville, Calvin Jones, was also recruited by Iowa, and the two men joined a team that included a quarter-back named Jerry Reichow.
As a “two-way end,” Gilliam ran both defensive and offensive plays, but suffered a broken leg during one season. The injury forced him to sit out a season, so he stayed at Iowa a year longer—allowing him to be a part of the team that won the Big Ten conference title in 1956 and went on to the Rose Bowl. On three occasions during his college career he was named All-American, twice for this particular season. But Gilliam’s glory was clouded by personal tragedy. Following the conference victory, the Iowa team was in the midst of a celebratory dinner when Gilliam learned that his lifelong friend Jones, who had been drafted by the Canadian Football League, had been killed in a plane crash. “Calvin’s death was a tough blow,” Gilliam recalled in an interview with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune over forty years later.
At its first Rose Bowl appearance in 1957, Iowa trounced Oregon State by a score of 35-19. Gilliam was then
At a Glance…
Born Frank Delano Gilliam, 1934, in Steubenville, OH; son of Ed and Viola Gilliam; married, c. 1954; wife’s name, Velma; children: Frank Jr., Gayle Anderson, Michelle, Education: University of Iowa, B.A., 1957.
Career; Played professional football for the Canadian football League, c, 1957-63, for the Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Vancouver franchises; University of Iowa, lowa City, IA, assistant coach, 1966-70; Minnesota Vikings, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, scouting director, 1971-75, director of player personnel, 1975-94, named vice president for player personnel, 1994-.
Awards: National Education Association All-American, 1953, All Big Ten, 1956, All-American, 1956.
Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, University of Iowa Alumni Association, University of Iowa Black Alumni Association, University of Iowa Lettermans Club.
Addresses: Office —Minnesota Vikings, 9520 Viking Dr. Eden Prairie, MN 55344.
drafted by the Green Bay Packers. However, after playing in five exhibition games, he was cut from the roster. Gilliam headed back to Iowa, and planned to become a physical therapist. When the coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Bud Grant, learned of his situation, he convinced Gilliam to come to Manitoba immediately. Gilliam spent the next three years in a Blue Bomber uniform, and then went on to play for Canadian Football League teams in Ottawa and Vancouver. He eventually ended his playing career, and began teaching junior high school in Vancouver. He also started coaching for the North Shore Cougars, a developmental team for the Canadian Football League, in 1965. The following year, he was hired by Ray Nagel, the University of Iowa coach, as an assistant coach for receivers.
As an assistant coach at the University of Iowa, Gilliam became the first African American to win a coaching job in major collegiate football. He spent four years in Iowa City, until a teammate from his own gridiron days at Iowa, Jerry Reichow, recruited him. Reichow had become director of player personnel for the Minnesota Vikings, and brought Gilliam on board in 1971 with the approval of Gilliam’s former boss from Winnipeg, Bud Grant. Grant would coach the Vikings for a record 18 years until his retirement in 1985. For the next four seasons, Gilliam worked under Grant once more as director of scouting for the Minnesota Vikings.
In the early 1970s, Gilliam was the only African American working in the Vikings front offices. He was also one of only a handful of minorities working in the executive offices of an NFL organization. Several years later, Gilliam spoke to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune about the situation at the time. “Our thought was, the way things were going, the only way you could get minorities [in front offices] around the league was if someone had the power to hire and fire,” he remarked. Despite this climate and the mood of the era—civil rights, busing, and Black Power were the major media stories—Gilliam remarked that he never personally experienced any ill will. “I listened to people and they listen to me,” he told the Star Tribune. “They brought me in and let me grow, and I’m thankful for that. I think when [former team president] Roger Headrick came in here, he came from the business world, where diversity was a concern. He came in and incorporated those ideas here with the Vikings.”
After 1975, Gilliam was promoted to director of player personnel, and was named vice president for player personnel in 1994. Dennis Green, a former player from his assistant coaching days at Iowa, became the Vikings’ head coach in 1992. The team went on to enjoy several winning seasons. Gilliam is considered vital to that success. “Both Green and Gilliam have been a perfect fit for the Vikings,” declared Black Enterprise writer Sherre Holder. “They are risk-takers and gambled big on players such as wide receiver Randy Moss and quarterback Randall Cunningham, two players that other teams shied away from, for various reasons, who turned out to have Pro Bowl caliber years for the Vikings.”
The Minnesota Vikings organization has emerged as a pacesetter within the NFL for having hired minorities to prominent positions. More than half of Green’s coaching staff is African American. In a league where 66 percent of the players are African American, the first African American head coach was hired as recently as 1989. Minorities and women are still under-represented in the front offices of NFL organizations, however. Green and Gilliam, wrote Holder in Black Enterprise, “remain a virtual oddity in the multibillion dollar world of the NFL because they’re both African American. Indeed, this dynamic duorepresents the long and arduous battle blacks have waged in an effort to gain equal opportunity as head coaches and, more importantly, senior front office personnel of NFL clubs.” Dennis Green is an ardent supporter of Gilliam. “Frank’s No. 1 job is the personnel and finding the right players,” he told Holder. “I’ve always felt he was the best personnel guy in the NFL.”
Black Enterprise, February 1999, pp. 121-130.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, September 17, 1998, p. 12C; May 11, 1999, p. 1C.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Minnesota Vikings Internet site at http://www.vikings.com.
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