Starting immediately, NFL owners have "strongly agreed" to interview at least one minority candidate for every vacant head coaching position. The league also said yesterday the owners voted to amend the NFL tampering policy to allow assistant coaches on playoff teams to interview for head coaching vacancies before their teams are eliminated.

Both moves were confirmed by the league yesterday evening, following conference call discussions devoted to increasing the ranks of minority head coaches. On the calls were representatives of every NFL team, most of them owners.

The NFL's newly formed owner committee for workplace diversity, headed by Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, conducted the calls in an attempt to make changes for the upcoming head coaching hiring season that usually begins at the end of the regular season next week.

"We believe there is now a process in place to help the owners make a head coaching decision from a strong and diverse pool of candidates," said Joe Browne, the league's executive vice president for communications and public affairs. "Commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue and the committee can assist, but each owner, of course, has the final decision. Everyone wants to win and be as inclusive as possible in finding their head coach -- that's what we want to assist."

Only two minority head coaches are now employed among the 32 teams -- Tony Dungy with the Indianapolis Colts and Herman Edwards with the New York Jets.

Rooney's committee and a working group of club executives was appointed by Tagliabue on Oct. 31 at a league meeting in New York. A month earlier, a report on NFL minority hiring released by Washington-based attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran was sharply critical of the league's record.

The owners yesterday approved a formal amendment to the anti-tampering policy, but no vote was taken on the issue of guaranteeing one or more minority interviews for every vacancy. A league spokesman said owners or representatives of every team agreed to do it on their own.

Browne said Tagliabue "may or may not take [disciplinary] action" if a team reneges on its pledge to interview minority candidates, "but often, public criticism for not honoring a commitment is a heavier price to pay."

Asked if fines or other disciplinary measures might be considered, Browne declined to elaborate. Mehri and Cochran had suggested draft choices be used to fine, or reward teams for their minority hiring efforts.

"We think this a major step in the right direction," Mehri said last night. "The Rooney committee has worked diligently in response to our report but they've moved the ball to the red zone, and it's now up to the owners to get it into the end zone. The key is the implementation and carrying it out with a full commitment."

The one exception on minority interviewing would be in a situation where a top assistant already with a team had been promised he would be the successor whenever the head coach stepped down. That occurred after the 1999 season, when Dick Vermeil retired from the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams and Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator, replaced him. Martz had been promised the job as an inducement not to leave for another team.

As far as the tampering rules, a team with a head coaching vacancy will have a window of opportunity starting with the wild-card round of the playoffs (this year Jan. 4-5) to seek permission from another team to interview only one candidate involved in the playoffs. If permission is granted, the team seeking a coach would be required to interview that candidate before the next round of the playoffs the following weekend.

In the past, teams were not allowed to interview candidates until candidates from playoff teams were eliminated from the postseason. Two years ago, then Baltimore Ravens assistant Marvin Lewis, now the Redskins' defensive coordinator, could not talk to any team until after his team won the Super Bowl.

Then New York Giants assistant John Fox, now the Carolina head coach, also was under the same constraints. By the time both were available, most vacancies already had been filled. Neither man got a head job for the 2001 season.

Browne said the committee also will establish a data bank on all coordinators and assistant head coaches, expand current training and development programs and the NFL's internship programs for minority coaches. Rooney's committee also will make recommendations on improving front office minority hiring starting in late January and February, with a presentation at the owners' March meetings.