Having known Dan Rooney well before he died in 2017, I can say without hesitation that he would be ashamed of what’s happened to the well-intentioned 17-year-old Rooney Rule. The rule mandated that every NFL team with a head-coach opening must interview at least one minority candidate. But the rule is a mockery of a sham. This graphic is all you need to know, dating back to the first year of the Rooney Rule’s implementation, now that all hires for the 2020 season have been made with the Browns agreeing with Kevin Stefanski on Sunday.
African-Americans in NFL hierarchy
2003: 3 head coaches, 1 GM, 0 majority owners
2020: 3 head coaches, 1 GM, 0 majority owners
Fact: 9.4 percent of the 1,600 players in the NFL, which is about 70 percent African-American, will be led in 2020 by a black man . . . the same as it was 17 years ago with adoption of this supposed landmark new league bylaw.
Let’s talk about hiring practices, 2020. There have been five head-coaching changes and several other coordinator changes since the end of the regular season. Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, was fired by Carolina and hired by Washington. Four other head-coach hires so far. All white. Twelve coordinator hires in the league since season’s end, 11 white.
The system is broken, obviously. Influential owner John Mara of the Giants told me Friday: “We’re obviously using the Rooney Rule for the head coaching candidates, but I think we may have to use the rule for the feeder positions, especially on the offensive side of the ball because that’s where so many of the head coaches come from. We talked in December on the Workplace Diversity Committee about feeding the pipeline further. I can tell you: This is a real concern of the commissioner and the league.”
I don’t doubt Mara believes something needs to be done. I do doubt that the 32 white owners will do the major surgery that is necessary on the rule. My recommendations:
Increase the mandated minority-candidate interviews from one to two, and make owners meet each minority candidate. Find a way to increase the pool of interviewees. Why do most of the interviews have to come from Eric Bieniemy and Jim Caldwell and the usual names? No one saw Joe Judge coming. A week ago, 90 percent of moderately serious football fans had never heard of Joe Judge—I’d never met him or spoken to him. So on the African-American side, who are those rising-star candidates? Let’s hear from Rams cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant, Tampa offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Niners inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans, Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram (look at the production of his guys this year), Rams safeties coach Ejiro Evero. Find a way to mandate a way that at least one of the minority interviews be of a position coach instead of coordinator, or from a pool of coaches who’ve had, say, one head-coaching interview or less in their time in the league. Why have owners in the room? Because owners eventually are the ones who have to be the change.
Mandate that one of the three pipeline positions on every new coaching staff be a minority. Washington got ramped up early, hiring Ron Rivera as head coach two days after the regular season. He hired Scott Turner, Jack Del Rio and Nate Kaczor as his offensive, defensive and special-teams coordinators, then Ken Zampese as quarterbacks coach and Luke Del Rio as offensive quality control coach. Five white men. But in particular, the three offensive jobs are big pipeline positions—coordinator, QB coach and offensive quality control. My rule: Mandate that one of those three on every new staff be a minority hire. If you want to get serious about increasing opportunity, draw up rules. “Super provocative,” one prominent agent called this idea. Desperate times require such things.
Expand the Rooney Rule to coordinator positions. Often, coordinators are long-planned quick-hit hires by new coaches. So, interrupt the oft slam-dunk process. Expose a minority candidate to the interview process. “So much of this is about introducing young coaches a head coach or owner wouldn’t know to a new group of influencers,” one club president told me last week. Might not lead to many jobs, but it would lead to decision-makers meeting coaches they don’t know.
Make January a dark period for coaching interviews and hires. New rule: No coaching interviews till 9 a.m. on the Monday after the Super Bowl; violators face a loss of a draft choice. The insanity of allowing assistants to interview during the playoffs came into focus Thursday. In a short week for preparation—for a road playoff game 1,900 miles away against a team with a voracious pass-rush—Minnesota offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski spent time Thursday interviewing for the Browns head-coaching job. (Imagine how head coach Mike Zimmer felt about that.) Teams in the playoffs hate the coach-interview rules; at the peak time of importance for a coaching staff, to have a key member of the coaching staff distracted by preparing for a head-coaching interview or reaching out to peers to gauge interest for positions on a potential coaching staff . . . it’s crazy. So you say it’s unfair to losing teams with coaching openings to waste a month? Well, it’s not optimal, but how much did it hurt the Colts in 2018, hiring Frank Reich on Feb. 11? Not much. Colts won 10 regular-season games and then won a playoff game. It would give minority coaches a chance to polish their presentations in advance of the interview period post-Super Bowl—and also give teams more of a chance to unearth little-known coaches of all colors.
Ramp up (with NFL funding) program for developing minority coaches. Imagine every coaching staff in the NFL having a one-year “developmental coach”—either from college football, or a prospect interested in entering coaching—on staff for a full off-season and season. Expose young coaches to the overhaul of a playbook, how the teaching period works, the grind of training camp, and the weekly work in the regular season. Maybe some coaches catch the bug.
This is not time for more words bemoaning the sad state of NFL minority hiring. This is time for action—starting with something concrete at the NFL owners meetings in Florida in March.