“It was just like, what the hell is going on?” he said, calling the hiring cycle “a kick in the stomach.”
Such words would mean more coming from Roger Goodell, but that’s not the commissioner’s way.
While a proposal to incentivize minority hires by rewarding teams with higher third-round draft picks was tabled, the Rooney Rule was bolstered in other ways — but only if team owners devote as much effort into following its intent as they have in trying to circumvent it the past two decades.
Some history: At the end of the 2001 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired Tony Dungy even though he had just made the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons after he took over a franchise that had made the postseason three times in 20 years. A few days earlier, Dennis Green was fired in Minnesota with one week left in the season and his team sporting a 5-10 record. Green had never had a losing season before 2001 and had made the postseason eight times in nine years.
At the time, Green and Dungy were two of the five African American head coaches in NFL history. Six percent of the league’s coaches, including assistants, were African Americans.
Under growing pressure, the NFL’s diversity committee passed a rule requiring that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every head coaching vacancy. The rule was named after Dan Rooney, then the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the committee.
It helped. In 2003, Marvin Lewis was hired as the head coach in Cincinnati. By 2006, more than 20 percent of the league’s coaches, including assistants, were African American.
Unfortunately, many owners, rather than embracing the rule, began to find ways to get around it — for example, interviewing in-house minority candidates they had no intention of hiring. By 2019, the rule had become a joke. That year, there were seven openings for head coaches. One African American, Brian Flores in Miami, was hired. This past offseason, with five openings, Ron Rivera, who took over in Washington, was the only minority hire.
That was when the NFL, at least internally, acknowledged there was a problem. The proposals that were adopted might be important. Going forward, teams will be required to interview at least two minorities from outside the organization for a head coaching opening and at least one for a general manager or “senior staff” opening. It’s worth remembering that Ozzie Newsome, the NFL’s first African American general manager, wasn’t given that title until 2002, after he had won a Super Bowl as the Baltimore Ravens’ executive vice president for player personnel.
Teams also will be required to interview at least one minority for coordinator positions and to supply the NFL with a detailed listing of all its personnel — coaching staff and executives — so the league can see exactly who is filling which jobs.
That’s progress … potentially.
Perhaps if the new rules work, they will become known as the “Bieniemy Amendments” to the Rooney Rule. Eric Bieniemy, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, was considered a near-lock to get a head coaching job this past season. Instead, he was passed over.
The excuse given by league apologists was that because Chiefs Coach Andy Reid calls the plays, Bieniemy, even as the coordinator, lacked that experience.
“That’s interesting,” said Dungy, the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl. “Doug Pederson was never the play caller when he was in Kansas City, and neither was Matt Nagy. No one seemed to have a problem with that when they were hired as head coaches.”
What ultimately matters is whether owners will be more open-minded about whom they hire. Or will they continue to find new ways to circumvent the rules and new excuses for passing on clearly qualified candidates such as Bieniemy?
There are plenty of qualified candidates. What is lacking are owners willing to give those candidates a fair chance to get hired and to succeed. History shows that not only do African Americans have a more difficult time getting hired than their white counterparts, they are more likely to have a shorter tenure. Lovie Smith, the first African American to take a team to the Super Bowl (beating Dungy by a few hours), was fired in Chicago a few years later — after going 10-6. Jim Caldwell had three winning seasons in four years coaching the usually hapless Detroit Lions and made the playoffs twice. He was fired after going 9-7 in 2017. Matt Patricia has gone 9-22-1 since being hired to replace Caldwell. Steve Wilks got only one season with the Arizona Cardinals after going 3-13.
Strengthening the Rooney Rule isn’t going to resolve all of the NFL’s racial issues. But it might represent progress. Time will tell.
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