NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue today defended the league's recent record in hiring minority head coaches at his annual state of the league news conference, saying "we're doing everything we can do" to encourage owners to interview and hire minority candidates.

In a wide-ranging, hourlong nationally televised session two days before Super Bowl XXXIV, Tagliabue also said the league office is determined to curtail excessive celebration and unseemly taunting on the field as well as to eliminate violent behavior off it.

There are only two minority head coaches in the league, Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and Dennis Green in Minnesota. Of 13 head coaching openings in the past two seasons, only one was filled by a minority--Ray Rhodes in Green Bay--and he was fired after the Packers failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

"Just like the quarterback position, people will hire coaches based on merit," Tagliabue said after the news conference. "As people demonstrate merit, they'll emerge as head coaches just as Shaun King and Steve McNair emerged as starting quarterbacks. There are only 31 jobs of this type in the world, and thousands of people want them."

Five of six openings at the end of this season were filled by white men. One team, New Orleans, has not filled its position but has interviewed one minority candidate, Art Shell, offensive line coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

In addition, three teams in the past three years have allowed their current coach to name his successor, essentially controlling the hiring process. Bill Parcells designated Bill Belichick as his successor with the New York Jets, though Belichick ultimately turned down the job. Miami's Jimmy Johnson brought in Dave Wannstedt as his designated replacement after the '98 season. St. Louis Coach Dick Vermeil announced 10 days ago that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will replace him when he completes the final two years of his contract, if not sooner.

"I don't think it's a trend," Tagliabue said during the news conference. "The reality is that one-third of the coaches [head coaches, coordinators and assistants] in our league are African Americans, many of them in coordinator positions. Even if coaches are trying to designate the heir apparent, you'll find African Americans in that pipeline.

"Whether it's going to be a trend, the owners will still make the decision about who the head coaches are. To make a judgment in advance about a successor will always raise a number of issues. But you could also look at it and say it might be a positive. . . . I don't see it as a negative in terms of minority hiring."

On the subject of on-field behavior, Tagliabue said, "We are concerned about some deterioration of conduct, not just celebrations or things that are spontaneous that flow from emotions."

He referred to "the Tre Johnson episode," in which the Redskins offensive lineman was fined $50,000 and given a one-game suspension (and the loss of a $135,000 game check) for his involvement in a melee in a playoff game against Detroit.

"Twenty players recognized it was time to cool down, one player didn't and hit an official," he said. "You don't see [Minnesota wide receiver] Cris Carter doing this kind of thing. We have 35,000 plays a year and 22 players on the field. That's 800,000 opportunities to do the right thing or the wrong thing. We have a half dozen to 10 players doing the throat slashing. That means 799,990 times, players are doing the right thing."

Off the field, for the first time in history, an active NFL player--Carolina wide receiver Rae Carruth--was charged with murder following the death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend in a drive-by shooting. Tagliabue said violent behavior by players away from the game has been "a matter of concern . . . going back to the early 1970s" when then-commissioner Pete Rozelle began implementing programs to prevent it.

"It's partly a product of society," Tagliabue said, "but that's not where we let it rest. . . . We have to start with one thing--we don't tolerate or condone misconduct. We do strike a balance in giving people a second chance. We need to recognize the track record of our players is far better than society at large. We have fewer incidents than society at large.

"We have in place a very comprehensive set of programs. They focus on prevention. . . . We have prevention and we have discipline. . . . Can we predict when a player like Rae Carruth will be a problem? Of course not."

On other matters, Tagliabue said it was "50-50" as to whether owners will implement a plan that would allow the networks more flexibility in selecting matchups over the last month of the season for Monday and Sunday night telecasts and national doubleheader games on Sunday afternoons.

The league has had discussions with all the networks about a plan that would avoid being locked into games with non-playoff competing teams in prime TV spots. He said "at this point reaction is mixed" among the networks because "from a TV standpoint, it takes time for the public to identify with the new, hot teams. . . . This is something we want to study further. . . . Before we do anything like this, we'll go back to the owners to get a vote."

He also indicated he saw no problems with the approval of the sale of a minority interest in the Baltimore Ravens to Anne Arundel businessman Steve Bisciotti, who would have an option to buy the team from Art Modell in four years. A vote likely will be taken on the transaction at the owners' annual meeting in March.