A year after the NFL’s minority hiring practices came under renewed scrutiny and criticism, the league and its teams are drawing praise for the diversity of the candidates who have been considered and hired in recent weeks for head coaching jobs.
Two of the six head coaches hired by NFL teams since the conclusion of the regular season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Lovie Smith and the Detroit Lions’ Jim Caldwell, are African American. Last year, no minority coaches were among the eight head coaches hired league-wide.
The head of the diversity group that works closely with the NFL on its hiring practices said this week that teams have done a better job of giving legitimate consideration to minority head coaching candidates.
“It’s not so much the numbers,” John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It’s the process. We were very disappointed in the way the process went last year. We felt in many cases last year it was [interviews with minority candidates being done merely for the purpose of] complying with the rule rather than going through the process and really doing what the rule is there for.
“The rule is there for opportunity based on being qualified for the job. . . . That’s what was disappointing to us. This year is totally different. We give a great deal of credit to the NFL for the approach they have taken.”
The Fritz Pollard Alliance was formed to promote diversity in hiring in the NFL.
“Following last year’s hiring cycle, there was some thoughtful discussion about the way forward,” Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s executive vice president of human resources, said by phone Wednesday. “We thought there were ways to get our arms around all the talent, not only diverse talent.”
The issue generated widespread attention last year, when minority candidates also were shut out in the hiring of seven general managers league-wide. Some observers contended that the sport’s minority interviewing rule — which requires each team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate and widely is known as the Rooney Rule after Dan Rooney, the chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers and former chairman of the NFL’s workplace diversity committee — no longer was working.
The NFL's franchise owners enacted their minority interviewing rule by acclamation in December 2002 under the threat of litigation. The rule was extended in 2009 to include certain key front office jobs such as general manager.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the rule at last season’s Super Bowl but called the results of the hiring cycle unacceptable.
“I think the talent is there, and there has been a deliberate focus on identifying that talent,” Gulliver, also the league’s chief diversity officer, said Wednesday of the current hiring cycle. “Some of it happened to be diverse. . . . The NFL has had the Rooney Rule in place for 10 years now. I think the clubs continue to respect the Rooney Rule and continue to uphold the Rooney Rule in terms of what it’s meant to [promote]. It’s meant to cast a wide net. . . . I think the Rooney Rule has continued to serve the NFL well.”
A panel of former NFL coaches and executives deliberated last offseason and during the season and recommended coaching candidates, both minority and non-minority, to teams for this hiring cycle. The league also reintroduced a career development symposium last spring attended by minority and non-minority coaching and general manager candidates.
Wooten and other leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance have said in the past they are less concerned about the number of minority coaches hired than they are about ensuring the rules governing the interviewing process are followed and minority candidates are given fair opportunities to compete for jobs.
“The NFL said to the owners, ‘This is not the way we should do our business,’ ” Wooten said this week. “We believe so strongly in the process, that it’s the right way to do it. We want the owners to only interview a candidate if it’s someone they would really be willing to hire. We don’t want it to just be compliance with the rule. We want there to be true interest. We felt that the league did an outstanding job of communicating that to the owners and the people doing the hiring.”
Six NFL teams, including the Washington Redskins, have filled head coaching vacancies since the regular season ended. The Redskins hired Jay Gruden. The Houston Texans hired Bill O’Brien. The Tennessee Titans hired Ken Whisenhunt, and the Minnesota Vikings hired Mike Zimmer. Those four coaches are white. The Cleveland Browns continue to search for a head coach.
The Redskins are known to have interviewed at least two minority candidates, Caldwell and New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. They also are believed to have attempted to arrange a meeting with Vanderbilt Coach James Franklin before they hired Gruden and Franklin was hired at Penn State to replace O’Brien.
There were four minority head coaches in the league this season. The Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and Leslie Frazier, who was fired by the Vikings following the regular season, are black. The Carolina Panthers’ Ron Rivera is of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage.
Wooten said he has no objections to any of the coaching searches conducted by the seven teams with head coaching vacancies during this hiring cycle. Two teams, the Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins, continue to conduct general manager searches.
“That’s all you can ask for,” Wooten said. “I haven’t seen one interview situation this year where I felt it was just an interview for the sake of compliance with the rule. I don’t have that feeling about any interview that has happened this year. I’ve always said there are plenty of good candidates out there. They’re all over the place. We still have the process with the general managers in Tampa and Miami. I think they’re going to come up with some outstanding people to run their ballclub.”