Redskins have complied with Rooney Rule, clearing path to replace Jim Zorn

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009; D01

As Coach Jim Zorn prepares for the final game of the regular season, the Washington Redskins have already cleared a major hurdle that would enable them to hire a new head coach. The team has complied with the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior front-office positions, according to John Wooten, president of the group charged with monitoring diversity hiring in the league.

Wooten said Monday that Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray told him that he has already interviewed for Zorn's job, and that his organization, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, is satisfied that the team is considering him as its next head coach.

"They have done what we look for in an interview, therefore, they have satisfied the Rooney Rule," Wooten said in a telephone interview. The rule, which was established in 2003, is named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, chairman of the league's diversity committee.

Now that the Fritz Pollard Alliance feels the Redskins have complied with the rule, the Redskins are free to hire a new head coach at any time.

The team plays its final game Sunday at San Diego and speculation has grown that Zorn could be fired and former Denver coach Mike Shanahan could be introduced as the team's next head coach as early as next week.

Wooten said he spoke with Gray personally, and the Redskins' assistant coach said he had a "couple of different interviews" with team owner Daniel Snyder and that "other people were present."

Wooten said Gray was interviewed several weeks ago, when Vinny Cerrato was still the team's executive vice president of football operations. Cerrato was replaced Dec. 17 with newly hired general manager Bruce Allen. Wooten said "the only thing I'm asking now -- and they may do this, they may not," is for Allen to also interview Gray.

Gray has declined to comment on several occasions, including early Monday morning, following the Redskins' loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He said at that time he'd address reporters Monday afternoon at Redskins Park, but a team spokesman later said Gray would not be made available until Thursday, his regularly scheduled weekly session with reporters.

According to several people within the Redskins organization, Gray has denied to coaches and staff members that he interviewed for Zorn's job.

Redskins and NFL officials declined to comment for this story.

"We are not going to comment on the application of the Rooney Rule to a head coaching position that is not vacant," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail.

Wooten said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to look into Gray's candidacy and the Redskins' process. He said Gray confirmed that he interviewed. Wooten said he had not spoken with Snyder.

Wooten said that in ensuring teams comply with the Rooney Rule, his organization deals directly with the job candidates and as a cross-reference, the league office makes sure the process is sincere and legitimate from the owner's side.

During the NBC broadcast of the Redskins' loss Sunday night, play-by-play announcer Al Michaels became the latest prominent league observer to say that Zorn likely has a short future in Washington, a dynamic that Zorn acknowledged during his meeting with reporters Monday.

"It's not just Al, it's kind of all around," Zorn said. "I get hit with 'The Look', and I get all that. I just have to press on. I have to push forward. . . . I'm going to stay focused and see this through. And I'm having, I truly am having a great experience. It's not fun, but it is a great experience.

"There are better days ahead, and I think we're trying to deal with all the adversity that comes each day. Each week it's been something different, hasn't it?"

Asked about Gray's candidacy to replace him, Zorn said last week, "I don't really want to have an answer for that specific question." Gray said last week that he has spoken about the matter with Zorn, though he declined to disclose details of their conversation.

There had been some uncertainty about the language of the Rooney Rule and whether a team that interviews a minority candidate before it has a vacancy has complied with the rule. Wooten said no vacancy is required.

"We're not going to restrict the owners in terms of their searching for who they think they want to run their ballclub," Wooten said. "We're not going to say, 'Oh, you don't have an opening, so you can't talk to somebody.' "

"It's not my obligation to say to Dan Snyder, 'No, you can't talk to Jerry Gray until you have an opening,' " Wooten said. "That would be stupid on my part, wouldn't it?"

Under some instances, Wooten said an NFL team might have to seek league approval to interview certain candidates while a head coach is still in place, but Wooten didn't see any such hurdles with the team interviewing Gray.

"When you're talking about someone on their own ballclub, why would the commissioner deny -- and he didn't deny -- the right to talk to his own people about what he considers to be a prospective head coach?" Wooten said.

Given Gray's coaching résumé, his success on the Redskins' current staff -- the team's pass defense is currently ranked No. 5 in the NFL -- and his history of interviewing for similar positions, the Fritz Pollard Alliance says Gray is already on its list of acceptable and legitimate head coaching candidates.

Wooten said that even if the team hires someone else, it would not change his opinion of the process. "He brings in somebody else. . . . That's life," he said.

Wooten said he's not worried about the Redskins interviewing Gray to simply satisfy the rule.

"We've seen some shams, I'm not going to try to tell you we haven't seen some shams. We've seen them," Wooten said. "And there will be more. But that won't take us away from the methods we know work and the best methods that we've been doing."

In addition to speaking with Gray, Wooten said he also spoke extensively with Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who reassured him that Gray was a legitimate candidate.

"Greg Blache told me over a year ago, I am going to hang in here because I want to help Jerry," Wooten said. "I think Jerry's qualified, I know he can do the job, I want to help him get a job in the NFL and I'm willing to stay in here and work with him to get that job."

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