Is a flawed solution better than no solution at all?
With that question in mind, it’s time to step back and re-examine the NFL’s “Rooney Rule”.
Born of noble motives, the Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for all head coaching vacancies. Six years later, its successes can’t be argued.
In 2003, when Steelers owner Dan Rooney chaired a committee to study the issue of why there were so few minority head coaches in the NFL, 70 percent of the players in the league were black, compared to only six percent of its head coaches. The latter number has more than tripled since then, and numerous minority coaches are still in the running for openings around the league this offseason. That’s progress.
And in a coincidental twist, Rooney was brought to his current head coach, Mike Tomlin, because of the rule that unofficially bears his name. In the wake of Bill Cower’s 2007 retirement, Steeler assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt were the frontrunners for the Pittsburgh job. Tomlin was brought in to satisfy the rule, but ended up winning the job. Two years later, he’s led the Steelers to a 22-10 record in the regular season, two consecutive postseason appearances and this weekend he’ll lead them in the AFC Championship game.
Safe to say the Rooney Rule worked there, and in getting others like Tomlin interviews they might not have had without it.
But because it brings race into the hiring process, it’s an imperfect solution.
Potential candidates should not be judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their coaching character, right? Somebody wise once said something to that effect.
It’s also imperfect because it’s far from foolproof in that it only works if the hiring party is serious about bringing in a minority candidate. Interviewing a “token” candidate sheerly to avoid a fine from the league not only skirts the spirit of the rule, but it subjects professionals to unwarranted indignities.
“How do you determine if the interview is really serious?” Deion Sanders, the former all-pro cornerback, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said to USA Today in 2007. “Is the interview conducted for the rule, or because there’s really a desire to consider this candidate?”
After Cowboys owner Jerry Jones interviewed Dennis Green via phone to satisfy the rule prior to hiring Bill Parcells, the NFL revised the rule to mandate face-to-face interviews. Probably not fair to Green, but Parcells was the better candidate after all. And shouldn’t Jones be able to hire the man he already knew he wanted?
And if the face-to-face rule extended to front office hires, the Falcons may not have landed Thomas Dimitroff, the general manager who helped spin the franchise on its axis and was famously hired after a web conference interview.
John Wooten, though, says he doesn’t worry about the rule’s imperfections. Its benefits are too great.
“(The Rooney Rule) is really working,” said Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which was formed just months after founding members Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri issued the report that first prompted the NFL to examine its minority hiring practices. “The thing we’re most happy with is we’re seeing minority coaches interviewing with two or three teams. That’s all you can ever ask for.
“The interview process — and we believe in it — gives you a chance to show and let people know what you can do. You can’t ask for more than that.”
True enough. But what if a team never makes it to the interview process?
The growing “coach-in-waiting” trend has brought the Rooney Rule’s fallibility into sharper focus.
According to the rule, if the language in an assistant coach’s contract specifies that he will assume head coaching duties when the current coach vacates the position, then that team may forego the normal interview process. That prevents any minority candidates from a shot at the job.
Unless, of course, the coach-in-waiting is a minority.
As luck would have it, two previously ordained candidates took over head coaching jobs this week: Jim Mora in Seattle (he’s white) and Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis (he’s black).
Wooten says he’s got no problem with that.
“Both of these guys (Colts owner Bill) Polian and (Seahawks general manager Tim) Ruskell went about it the right way,” Wooten said. “We believe in elevation from within the structure. If a man’s been there working his butt off for four years, why shouldn’t he get first shot at the job? What’s wrong with that, black or white?”
No argument here.
So in the eye of an optimist, maybe the recent progress is proof that the Rooney Rule will one day be obsolete, even if now the league is better with it than without.