Jim Rooney is quite certain his father would be disturbed about the lack of advancement by minority coaches in the NFL.
“He would have great empathy and frustration and this feeling of disturbance related to the fact that so many guys set out to be involved in this business — minorities and African-Americans, in particular — and they’re clearly experiencing a ceiling,” Rooney said of his father, Dan Rooney, the late Steelers owner. “You can’t get away from that fact.”
It was Dan Rooney who introduced the “Rooney rule” to the NFL in 2003, a requirement that all teams must interview at least one minority candidate for all head-coaching vacancies. And though the rule has helped many African-American coaches — including Mike Tomlin, who was hired by Rooney in 2007 to coach the Steelers, remains in that position today and has gone 133-74-1 with six division titles and two Super Bowl appearances — the NFL has come under justifiable criticism for its lack of diversity hiring in recent years.
Of 20 openings in the last three years, a total of three minority coaches — two black and one Hispanic — have been hired. One of the coaches, Steve Wilks of the Cardinals, was fired after one season.
In today’s NFL, there are only four minority head coaches: Tomlin, Brian Flores of the Dolphins, Anthony Lynn of the Chargers and Ron Rivera, who was fired near the end of the 2018 season by the Panthers and recently hired by the Redskins. In a league in which an estimated 70 percent of the players are black, minority head coaches are disproportionately outnumbered.
“My father never set a quota or a number,” said Jim Rooney, who recently published the book, “A Different Way to Win: Dan Rooney’s Story, From the Super Bowl to the Rooney Rule.”
“Individuals have the right to make the final say within their hiring process. It’s 32 different companies, and that was one of the challenges. But I certainly feel like he would be clear that there had been progress and there is not progress now.”
Dan Rooney helped establish the Rooney rule in response to the firings of African-American coaches Tony Dungy and Dennis Green after the 2001 season. Dungy was fired despite having a winning record with the previously moribund Buccaneers, and Green — who had gone 92-52 in his first nine seasons with the Vikings — had just produced his first losing season.
Dungy and Green eventually got other head-coaching opportunities; Dungy went on to become the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl with the 2006 Colts and was selected for the Pro Football of Fame in 2016, and Green coached the Cardinals.
But their firings spurred a movement to create more opportunities for minority coaches. Rooney, in consultation with prominent lawyers Johnnie Cochran, who gained fame as O.J. Simpson’s attorney during his murder trial, and Cyrus Mehri, as well as Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder John Wooten, eventually came up with the framework of hiring practices for all head-coaching positions. The rule has since been expanded to include general manager positions and other top front-office jobs.
“When you look at last year’s hiring cycle and there’s the search for that young, offensive guru candidate, we think Eric Bieniemy is a superstar for that,” Mehri said of the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, who is African-American. “We also think of [Dolphins assistant head coach] Jim Caldwell, who has been one of the best head coaches over the last 10 or 15 years and has an offensive-minded background and didn’t get an interview this year. I feel like that was an oversight. I also feel like [Bills defensive coordinator] Leslie Frazier, who had a top-five defense and had great play-calling, didn’t get an interview.”
To those who say all would-be head coaches are treated the same, regardless of race or background, Mehri would argue otherwise. Not only that, but it’s in the best interests of the NFL’s long-term health to cast a wide net when hiring the most important person for every team’s on-field success.
“In the end, as we reflect on the league now, it’s important that the owners buy into what’s best for the game, best for the league, best for the long-term success of this game to be better on the diversity issues,” Mehri said. “If we didn’t have the Rooney rule, many of these coaches might never have had a chance. Flores might not have been interviewed. Lynn might not have been interviewed. You couldn’t get in the door easily. We just think there are other deserving people that should be selected.
“We’ve never told the owners who to hire. Pick the best, cast a wide net and have a professional process.”
Giants president and co-owner John Mara, a member of the NFL’s diversity committee and a proponent of increased hiring among minorities, believes part of the problem stems from the current trend toward hiring offensive-minded head coaches.
“Because so many coaches are getting hired from the offensive side of the ball, that’s where we need to focus on getting more diverse candidates and eventually get them to be offensive coordinators, because that’s who most people are hiring now,” Mara said. “There’s just not enough diverse coaches in those areas, so we [on the diversity committee] have talked about trying to increase the hiring at the lower levels of the offensive side. Eventually, those guys can become coordinators.”
Mara’s hiring of Joe Judge, a 38-year-old special teams coordinator with the Patriots who has no previous head-coaching experience, created questions about the Giants’ commitment to diversity — especially given that they had interviewed minority candidates Kris Richard and Bieniemy.
“Loved Bieniemy,” Mara said of his interview. “He was terrific.”
So why take Judge over Bieniemy?
“This guy [Judge] made such an impression on us,” Mara said. “He was our guy. We picked the guy that we felt was the best guy.”
Former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who interviewed for the Cowboys job that went to former Packers coach Mike McCarthy, said this past week that convincing owners to hire diverse candidates is the toughest part of the equation.
“You keep beating your head up against the wall,” Lewis said on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo radio show. “But I would say — and again, this is somebody’s business, this is somebody’s franchise, and nobody is going to tell them who to hire. But if we can just somehow open the process a bit more and provide more opportunity. The decision-makers are gonna favor people they know that way, and they don’t know the minority coaches as well.”
Jim Rooney agreed that ownership bears the ultimate responsibility for creating a more diverse work force, not only among head coaches but at all levels of their organizations. Though there are no African-American owners, he believes the presence of an increased number of women owners might help.
“Look, we really don’t have strong racial diversity in the ownership room, but for the first time ever, you have women sitting at the table in decision-making roles,” he said. “You have Dee Haslam [in Cleveland], Kim Pegula [in Buffalo], Carol Benson [in New Orleans], Martha Ford [in Detroit], Katie Brown Blackburn [in Cincinnati]. You now have some diversity at the table in a way that you never had before.
“Not that their experiences are the same as a black coach, but that’s one place where they can really make a difference, providing something similar to what [Dan Rooney] did.”
Jim Rooney believes the absence of his father, who died in 2017 at age 86, has impeded the growth of head-coaching diversity.
“You had the constant attention from someone with the gravitas of an owner,” Rooney said. “He certainly didn’t tell any of his fellow owners who to hire, but he advocated for the rule, he was well informed, and he understood from the candidates what their qualities were.”
Nearly 17 years after Dan Rooney created the rule bearing his name, there is more work to be done. Just as the NFL’s increasing openness to giving black quarterbacks more of a chance on the field has led to greater opportunity for some of the best athletes in the game, increased diversity on the sidelines someday may lead to greater representation among coaches.
But that day hasn't come yet.
Merry go round
Where head coaches have landed since the opening of 2019 season and when the coaching carousel began spinning in earnest after regular season ended:
TEAM 2020 2019
Giants Joe Judge Pat Shurmur
Panthers Matt Rhule Ron Rivera
Cowboys Mike McCarthy Jason Garrett
Redskins Ron Rivera Jay Gruden*
Browns Open Freddie Kitchens
*Gruden was fired after 0-5 start, Bill Callahan took over as interim coach