March 13, 2007

Rooney Rule puts NFL ahead of the game

Twenty-three Division I-A football head-coaching jobs came open after this season.

Two were filled by minority candidates - one black and one Hispanic. That's a less-than-stellar 8.7 percent, but for the NCAA it's practically cause for a ticker-tape parade given previous hiring practices. It swelled the ranks of minority head coaches to seven out of 119, a better-but-still-deplorable 5.9 percent.

Meanwhile, the NFL has six minority head coaches, all of whom are black. That's 18.7 percent. And that number is actually down one coach from last year.

Super Bowl XLI has shone a brighter spotlight than ever on minority head coaches and hiring practices throughout football. When the Indianapolis Colts met the Chicago Bears, the game featured a pair of black coaches who had reached the pinnacle of their profession in Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith. No other black head coach had made it to the Super Bowl. The two broke through together, two who were close friends and had coached together along the way.

"We all have to be excited about what these two young men accomplished," said John Wooten, a former NFL player and chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. The alliance was formed in 2003 to advocate for policy changes in NFL hiring practices, and it works in partnership with the league to create opportunities for minority candidates. "Lovie is a product of the 'Rooney Rule.' There's no question that he wouldn't have been in that position if it had not been in effect three years ago.

"It's a very positive influence to show that people, given an opportunity to do it, will in fact do it."

"It" is being a head coach, of which the NFL clearly is more accepting than the NCAA. And one of the main reasons black coaches are breaking through in the pro game is the aforementioned "Rooney Rule." It is named for Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the NFL diversity committee. The rule, instituted in 2003, requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when a head-coaching job opens.

The Steelers unexpectedly had to put the rule into effect in January, when Bill Cowher surprised them with his resignation. The front-runner for the job was in-house in the form of offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. The next-closest pursuer also was in-house offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

Mike Tomlin, the 34-year-old defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, was interviewed for the Steelers vacancy in compliance with the Rooney Rule. He came to Pittsburgh, wowed the Rooneys, and in short order the Steelers had the first black head coach in the franchise's 74-year history.

"The one thing that set him apart was his character, his personality the more we talked with him the more comfortable we got," Rooney said at the news conference when Tomlin was announced. "He's an impressive young man. Get to spend some time with Mike, and you come away feeling like this is a special person."

Tomlin understands this is a special opportunity. The Steelers have had only two coaches in the past 38 years Cowher and Chuck Noll. Tomlin signed a four-year deal, and the Rooneys have earned the right for fans in Steeltown to have patience with the new coach. After all, the last time they hired a 34-year-old NFL defensive coordinator he lasted 15 years and won a Super Bowl.

"I'm fortunate in that I've been around great people in this game," Tomlin said. "I've had mentors who prepared me not only to do the job - and to do the job well - but to present myself."

Tomlin started his coaching career as a college assistant. He spent six seasons at the collegiate level before joining the Tampa Bay Bucs as defensive backs coach in 2001. Interestingly, the man who gave him his first shot in the NFL was the same guy who had given Smith his.

Turns out Dungy has an eye for talent as well as a talent for coaching.

So how is it Mike Tomlin can ascend to one of the highest-profile jobs in all of football when he probably couldn't have gotten a sniff for one of the ACC jobs that came open this past season?

"I think the obvious reason to me is that you know who the decision-makers are in the pro game," Tomlin said. "There are some politics in college football in terms of who the actual decision-makers are when it comes to hiring people. It's not necessarily the guy that's doing the interviewing. I think that's why there's been more advancement in the professional game."

Craig Johnson, the quarterbacks coach for the Tennessee Titans, concurs with Tomlin. Johnson spent 15-plus years as a college assistant before joining the Titans in 2000. He was the offensive coordinator at Maryland in 1997-98.

"To get a job in the pros, you have to convince the owner that you can do the job," Johnson said. "For the college job, you have to convince the president, the athletic director, the alums. That's a big batch of people. All college programs need money to be successful, so they have to have the alumni on board or those people can say, 'I can cease to keep giving money.' That's a big part of it."

That and the fact colleges don't have anything like the Rooney Rule. They can pretend to have guidelines and pay lip service to giving minorities a fair shake, but there are no checks and balances.

In the NFL, if a team doesn't interview a minority candidate it gets smacked in the wallet. During the first year the Rooney Rule was in effect, the Lions were fined $200,000 for failing to interview a minority before hiring Steve Mariucci.

"I'm discouraged with what's going on in the NCAA," Wooten said. "They're not willing to make the commitment just an outright commitment to have a diverse slate when there are job openings."

Wooten, Tomlin and Johnson believe the NCAA needs something like the Rooney Rule.

"Something along those lines would be a tremendous asset for colleges," said Johnson, who recently interviewed for the offensive coordinator position with the Cleveland Browns but said he hadn't interviewed for a Division I-A job in a number of years. "You can't tell anybody who to hire. They have a mind-set of what they're vision is, and they're going to do it how they want.

"What the Rooney Rule has done is open avenues for black coaches to get in front of owners, get an opportunity. A lot of times they don't get the opportunity in Division I programs. But if you get the opportunity, people might be surprised. It's happening at Kansas State with Ron Prince. He went in there and got that job, and I would hope that would be much more the norm."

For now, because of Dungy and Smith and the Rooney Rule, the road is much more open in the NFL than in the college game for black coaches.

"I think black coaches are aspiring to get to the NFL because it's the top of football," Johnson said. "You compete against the best coaches in the world. And there is more upward mobility.

"You don't have to have a name. If you're a good coach, you'll get that opportunity."

Also see:
Complete package: Black coaches proving they are more than just good recruiters
Recruiting issues faced by minority coaches not as simple as black and white
Tim Brewster puts together diverse, qualified staff in Minnesota
On the horizon: List of qualified black assistants keeps growing
Editorial: Across the board, black coaches deserve more opportunities

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