“Very simply, we need to do better than this, and we can do better than this,” Rooney said this week. “That was certainly my reaction.”
League executives and advocates have spent the past year preparing for the next month, when NFL teams will fire coaches and search for their replacements. One year after a cycle that left a stain on the league, NFL owners will confront their long-standing failure to provide equitable opportunities to minority coaches. They will get the chance to prove they can do better.
But will they? Several league insiders expressed confidence in an improved process, pointing to strengthened rules and increased awareness of the league’s problem and the breadth of qualified minority candidates.
“I think there’s been a real conscious effort and reaction to what happened the last couple of years,” Rooney said.
“I think we as an institution, when we look ourselves in the mirror, we haven’t done well,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “… But I truly believe that we’re committed. I think there’s been some true steps that have been taken and laid out for us to get better results.”
Others involved in the process want to wait and see. As the openings filled last year, agent Brian Levy received a flood of disheartened calls from clients. Levy represents a confluence of Black coaches, including Tomlin and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a leading candidate whom teams have passed over two years in a row. The league expects it will have improved diversity in hiring, but the coaches affected are too scarred for optimism.
“They’re going to be pessimistic until they have reason not to be,” Levy said. “The results speak for themselves. All you can go on is results, historical results, and what they’ve lived through the past few cycles. That being said, is there hope? Yeah, but there’s been hope before also. Hope and reality are two different things. They’re dealing with reality.”
‘Are we doing this the right way?’
Last year’s hiring cycle provoked the league office into making changes. The NFL strengthened the Rooney Rule by requiring teams to interview at least two minority candidates for head coach openings and one for coordinator positions. At virtual league meetings, Commissioner Roger Goodell carved out time to address diversity in coaching. The league created an online database of more than 2,000 coaches to make it more efficient for owners to find candidates.
In November, the NFL approved a new rule that compensates a franchise for developing a minority head coach. If a team has a minority coach on its staff leave to become a head coach or an executive in its front office leave to become a general manager, it will receive a third-round compensatory draft pick the next two years.
“At the end of the day, we all need and must see different outcomes,” NFL Executive Vice President Dasha Smith said. “And I think there’s been a clear message from the commissioner on that. There’s been a clear message from ownership. … Now we have to see it play out in the GM- and coach-hiring season.”
In sum, Rooney said, the NFL hopes the measures slow down teams’ searches. Owners often rush because of competitive pressure, focusing on publicly popular candidates rather than meticulously determining what they want and unearthing coaches who fit. In doing so, they fail to build a thorough and inclusive pool of candidates.
NBC analyst Tony Dungy, the first Black coach to win the Super Bowl, pointed to the process Rooney’s father, Dan, used to find and hire Tomlin, a little-known 34-year-old with one year of experience as a coordinator who has produced one Super Bowl title, six division championships and no losing records in his first 13 seasons.
Dan Rooney had a specific formula in mind that fit his franchise and echoed the success the Steelers found with Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher: defensive-minded and blue-collar to fit the city, a good communicator, young enough to stay for years.
“I remember, we were getting ready to prepare for the Super Bowl,” Dungy said. “[Rooney] called me and said: ‘I just talked to a guy that you know. He really impressed me. Tell me about Mike Tomlin.’ I knew as soon as I got the call, Mike’s going to get this job. Because that’s the formula — he’s everything Dan is looking for. They hit it off.
“Dan, rather than just saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to pick a popular guy or take a guy off my staff,’ said, ‘I know what I’m looking for, and I’m going to investigate until I find it.’ That’s what people have to do.”
The league and others may gauge the success of this cycle less by the hires made and more by the number and sincerity of minority interviews. Vincent spoke passionately about the need for owners’ hearts to change. “When do we just get to a place where we’re making the right decision for the right reasons, and you don’t have to have these tools and measures in place?” Vincent asked during a conference call with reporters.
“To me, it’s going through the process and really doing due diligence in considering everybody,” Dungy added. “If you do that, I don’t really care if there are zero minorities who get hired, or if it’s 10. You can’t tell people who to hire, and you can’t tell people who’s going to be best for them.”
But what’s frustrating, Dungy said, is when teams lazily choose a minority candidate to interview to merely check a box. He remembers interviewing for the Green Bay Packers’ head coaching job as a young defensive assistant and asking a decision-maker what the franchise sought. The answer: an offensive mind with head coaching experience.
“You can kind of tell sometimes when you got a team that’s interviewing this offensive coordinator and this quarterback coach and this offensive guy, then you interviewed the assistant defensive line coach who happens to be Black,” Dungy said. “Wait a minute now. … Are we doing this the right way, or are we trying to satisfy the rule and move forward? I think that’s what I’ll be most interested in to see how this goes.”
‘There are people out there. You have to find them.’
The NFL has a clear opportunity to improve its record of minority hiring this cycle. Three teams already have fired their coaches, and as many as eight could by the day after the regular season ends. The depth and quality of minority candidates available to fill those spots are potentially unprecedented.
The once-popular notion that the NFL lacks a pipeline of minority coaching candidates has been disproved. Nearly 40 percent of NFL assistant coaches, Rooney said, are minorities. The NFL distributes to teams a list of “ready candidates.” The Fritz Pollard Alliance produces a similar list. Rooney estimated there are “well over 30” minority coaches on those lists combined this year.
“The pipeline is strong enough [that] we should have more minority interviews taking place than certainly what we’ve had over the last couple of years,” Rooney said.
This year’s pool of candidates offers options regardless of what teams want. Among them:
- Bieniemy and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who is of Lebanese descent, faced off in the Super Bowl last season and are widely considered top candidates.
- Marvin Lewis and Jim Caldwell, both free agents, led moribund teams to their best seasons in a generation. Leslie Frazier, who led the Minnesota Vikings to a 10-win season in 2012 with Christian Ponder at quarterback, has played a key role in turning around the Buffalo Bills as their defensive coordinator.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is expected to receive interviews.
- Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton has developed Andrew Luck and Justin Herbert.
- Patrick Graham, a 41-year-old Yale alum, and 50-year-old Joe Woods are burgeoning stars as defensive coordinators for the much-improved New York Giants and Cleveland Browns.
- Raheem Morris, who was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach in his early 30s from 2009 to 2011, took over the winless Atlanta Falcons and has led them to a 4-4 record as an interim coach.
- Todd Bowles won 10 games with the New York Jets in 2015 and has coordinated one of the NFL’s best defenses with Tampa Bay.
- Vance Joseph has head coaching experiencing and has led improvement as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator.
- Tony Elliott, Clemson University’s offensive coordinator during its dynastic run, has attracted NFL interest.
“When I hear we need to get more people in the pipeline, we need to get more offensive guys in the pipeline, I just don’t think that’s true,” Dungy said. “I get frustrated by that. There are people out there. You have to find them. … There are minority Sean McVays out there and minority Kevin Stefanskis. No doubt.”
‘I’d like to see action’
This hiring cycle will occur under unprecedented conditions because of restraints pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic. The impact is unknowable, but many executives are hopeful it will help lead to a more equitable process.
Rooney said he would not want to hire a coach he hadn’t met with in person. But the necessity of — and newfound comfort with — Zoom calls and limited travel will change how teams interview. One team executive suggested teams could meet with 15 or so initial candidates for a few hours over video conference, and doing so would give them a better chance to discover a deserving but unheralded candidate.
After the disappointment and disenchantment of last offseason, this year will be critical. Vincent is hopeful that the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May has made an impact on the league. “I think it’s a watershed moment for our country, what we saw after that 8-minute-and-46-second video,” Vincent said.
The NFL has worked for a better result, but the league office will not have the final say. The next month will reveal how team owners in need of a coach, men who are billionaires and tend not to be easily influenced, approach the process. Only the result matters in the end, as the coaches who felt wounded last year can attest.
“I’m more from the school of, ‘You got to show me before I’m going to be optimistic,’ ” Levy said. “I’ve already been through years of disappointment. So I think this year, rather than talk about it and come up with all these elaborate plans to do something . . . I’d like to see action. We talk about it every year. That was the whole idea of putting the Rooney Rule in place. This year, let’s see teams actually act on it.”
Mark Maske contributed to this report.