Controversial Rooney Rule has opened door for NFL minority coaching candidates
By Bob Cohn
Published: Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:10 p.m.
Reggie McKenzie, one of six African-American general managers in the NFL, insists he did not get the Oakland Raiders' job because of the Rooney Rule. A Raiders linebacker in the 1980s, McKenzie said his link to the franchise was decisive. So were his 18 years in the Green Bay Packers front office, the contacts he made along the way and the recommendations he received.
McKenzie interviewed with three other clubs for a similar position before he was hired, a valuable experience, he said. He credited the Rooney Rule — named for Steelers owner Dan Rooney — as “very instrumental” in helping provide him the opportunities.
“I think the concept of what Mr. Rooney wanted to accomplish is excellent, trying to get organizations to open their eyes to see what's out there instead of just calling your buddies,” said McKenzie, who in January 2012 essentially replaced the late Al Davis, the Raiders' longtime, controversial owner who called most of the shots without holding the GM title.
Implemented 10 years ago, the Rooney Rule required NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each head coaching vacancy. In 2009, the mandate was expanded to include interviews for general managers and equivalent positions. The rule has sparked criticism and controversy. It also has created opportunities that otherwise would have been denied. But has it made a difference?
From 1920 through 2002, the NFL had six African-American head coaches and one Latino. Since the Rooney Rule went into effect in 2003, 12 minority candidates have been hired into head coaching positions, including Mike Tomlin of the Steelers.
At least one team in each of the last seven Super Bowls has had an African-American head coach or general manager. Two black coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, opposed each other in Super Bowl XLI.
John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an independent watchdog group that advocates diversity in hiring for NFL coaching and management positions, was asked if that Super Bowl, in February 2007, represented a milestone. He laughed and said, “No, it's way past that. It was a meteorite. I can't put into words what that actually meant. It was the height of what we had been working for.”
RULE SETS NFL APART
Because of the Rooney Rule, numerous minority coaching candidates have been interviewed, providing job-seeking experience and placing them in the so-called pipeline. Wooten said there also has been a “trickle-down effect” resulting in minorities filling more officiating and management positions.
“I'm very pleased with the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule since it was first introduced 10 years ago,” Dan Rooney wrote in an email, preferring to respond in that manner rather than in an interview.
“It has given minority candidates the opportunity to be recognized for potential coaching and front-office positions. And the entire NFL has been receptive to the rule and has followed the procedures in the rule.”
Among the nation's most popular major pro sports, only the NFL has such a definitive policy. Predating the Rooney Rule, in 1999 MLB commissioner Bud Selig issued a directive stating that he must be informed of all managerial candidate interviews. If a minority was not included among the candidates, Selig said, his office would provide a list. That rule remains in effect.
The NBA, long considered to be progressive in terms of minority hiring, never has had a policy, official or unofficial, according to a league spokesman. Although its numbers are growing, the NHL does not attract enough minority players (or coaches) to be in the conversation.
Some critics maintain the Rooney Rule needs sharper teeth to make a significant difference in diversity among coaches and front offices, and that some minority candidates are given sham interviews simply to fulfill the requirements. In some cases, “the people they were interviewing, (the teams) knew they weren't going to hire them,” Wooten said. “That's what we have to avoid.”
Generally, however, the reviews are favorable.
“It's been outstanding,” said Wooten, who became active in civil rights causes as a Pro Bowl guard for the Cleveland Browns in the 1960s. “If not for the Rooney Rule, many of the jobs these guys have today wouldn't be there.”
In 2002, attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran co-wrote a scathing report, “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” which prompted then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to form a diversity committee headed by Rooney. More than a decade later, in an interview with the Tribune-Review, Mehri said of the Rooney Rule, “Overall, I think it's been a tremendous success.”
In his organization's annual “report card,” Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, gave the NFL an “A” for its most recent racial hiring practices.
“I think the Rooney Rule has had a dramatic impact,” Lapchick said. “It was (devised) to do what it actually did: Get people in the room who wouldn't have had a chance to get an interview.”
But NFL hiring practices drew fire during the 2012-13 offseason when no minorities filled any of the eight head coaching vacancies, and only one minority was hired among seven GM openings. The NFL has only four minority head coaches this season, down from eight in 2011. Robert Gulliver, the league's executive vice president of human resources, said in a statement last February that despite full compliance with the Rooney Rule “the hiring results have been unexpected and reflect a disappointing lack of diversity.”
Dungy, an NBC analyst who was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach before Indianapolis, said the big problem is that teams are too quick to hire.
“Owners are so caught up in working fast and getting someone in position right away,” he said. “And I think the speed of the searches sometimes leaves out good candidates. I thought what the Rooney Rule was supposed to do was slow down the process and investigate other people. That, to me, is the key to the process.”
Wooten said one potential tool for slowing down the process comes from the Pollard Foundation, which annually supplies the NFL with lists of recommended minority candidates for coaching and GM positions. Still, it does not always happen, he said. Wooten said he was disappointed that several established candidates were bypassed during last offseason, especially Jim Caldwell. Caldwell failed to get an interview after the 2012 season despite taking the Colts to a Super Bowl as head coach in 2009 and fueling Baltimore's Super Bowl run last season after he became offensive coordinator in December.
It also did not escape attention that only three teams have minority offensive coordinators, a common stepping stone to head coach.
NO EXPANSION PLANNED
Mehri acknowledged there is an “ongoing struggle” to improve the Rooney Rule. He added that Rooney's tenure as ambassador to Ireland likely affected minority hiring.
“The importance of Dan Rooney cannot be overstated,” Mehri said. “He does a lot of talking to people behind the scenes.”
Said Wooten, “We lost (Rooney) for two years.”
After the eight coaching jobs were filled during the offseason, the Pollard Alliance called for another expansion — this time to include assistant head coaches, coordinators and club presidents. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in March said the Rooney Rule would not be expanded, at least in the near future.
Gulliver said the Rooney Rule generally has worked well, noting “additional steps” have been taken to develop and expand talent. The NFL has restored its annual three-day Career Development Symposium at the University of Pennsylvania for aspiring coaches and front office executives, non-minorities included.
A career development advisory panel also was created to help identify worthy candidates for head coach and general manager positions. Those serving on the panel include former coaches Dungy, Dennis Green and John Madden and ex-general managers Ernie Accorsi, Bill Polian and Charley Casserly.
Ultimately, Wooten said, the Rooney Rule embraces opportunity, not numbers.
“We want the owners to say, ‘Hey, we're gonna look for the best people we can find for these jobs,' ” Wooten said. “Just like they do with the players.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.
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