Civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri will meet with NFL officials today in New York in an attempt to ensure that the league considers and hires minority candidates for head coaching positions as soon as this season ends. He also will ask that the issue be placed on the agenda for the league's annual fall meeting Oct. 30-31 in Manhattan.
Mehri, who joined Los Angeles-based attorney Johnnie Cochran last month in threatening the NFL with a lawsuit unless it overhauls the hiring process of head coaches, said yesterday that he would prefer to avoid litigation, but if it comes to that "we'll go into it to win. . . . We will rout the NFL."
He said his group is not seeking to impose a specific quota on the number of minority coaches in a league that includes 67 percent minority players. But Mehri indicated he would like to see a plan in place before the league's next head-coaching hiring cycle for the 2003 season.
Most teams make changes in coaching staffs at the end of the regular season and try to have a new head coach in place before the Super Bowl in late January. There have been a number of exceptions to that rule, especially if top candidates are still coaching in the playoffs. But teams generally want a new coach hired no later then the annual rookie scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February.
Mehri said he considers today's meeting with Jeff Pash, one of the league's executive vice presidents and the chief administrative officer-general counsel; and Harold Henderson, chairman of the NFL Management Council and executive vice president for labor relations, as "highly substantive." Accordingly, Mehri said he is prepared to give the league some time to consider his proposals before heading to court.
The NFL's head-coaching hiring practices are "racially biased," Mehri said. He and Cochran released a report last month that found inequities regarding the way black coaches were hired and fired. Black coaches performed better than whites over a 15-year period, according to the report, but were fired more frequently.
Tony Dungy (Indianapolis) and Herman Edwards (New York Jets) are the only black head coaches among the 32 NFL teams.
Mehri's and Cochran's report may have touched off unrest elsewhere in football. Floyd Keith, director of the Black Coaches Association (BCA), said yesterday that the group plans to issue a statement on the lack of minorities among college coaches.
The BCA is not threatening to sue at this point, Keith said, but his group is in "concert" with Mehri and Cochran.
"We're all in this together," Keith said.
For the Mehri-Cochran plan to go before NFL owners during their October meeting, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue would have to add it to the agenda or at least bring it up for discussion, a league source said.
The source also said that Tagliabue may join today's discussion with Mehri.
Tagliabue has "tried to deal with this issue," Mehri said. "We have been watching him try to move the chains, but his playbook is not getting it done."
Head coaching and front-office hiring decisions are made by individual owners, many of whom believe they've made progress to open up top jobs to minority candidates.
But Mehri indicated he wanted to change the "chronic old-boy network" and that "we want a level playing field. No entity has more of a moral obligation to do this [than the NFL]. There's not a single black person in Baltimore who doesn't know that [current Redskins defensive coordinator] Marvin Lewis got a bad deal last year" when he was not hired as a head coach.
Others have made previous attempts to diversify NFL coaching ranks. Jesse L. Jackson and the Rainbow Commission for Fairness in Athletics began calling for more minority head coaches a decade ago.
Since then, the NFL has made strides in increasing the numbers of offensive and defensive coordinators, traditionally the steppingstone to a head coaching position. Jackson's movement, however, met with little success at boosting the number of black head coaches.