- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- The NFL needs more men like Marvin Lewis.
Specifically, a league that tries to figure out how to adequately hire and promote minorities into positions of power needs more men like Lewis as it attempts to address some of the failures it has encountered in minority hiring since 2003. Lewis is a minority head coach who has tangible power with the Cincinnati Bengals, which has led to hiring other minorities around him. He has started opening doors for colleagues as his coaching tree takes root, leading to some of the positive change the league has spent the last two decades pursuing.
It was in 2003 that the Rooney Rule, named after league diversity committee chair and Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, was established to give minority head-coaching candidates the full, on-site interviews they previously weren't regularly afforded. That was the same year that Bengals team president Mike Brown hired Lewis, making him the seventh black head coach in the NFL's modern era.
As ESPN's Ashley Fox noted Tuesday, the league has had successes and failures in respect to minority-coach hiring practices since the inception of the Rooney Rule. Earlier this offseason, the New York Jets made former Arizona and Philadelphia defensive coordinator Todd Bowles the NFL's 18th black head coach.
Bowles and Lewis are two of six minority head coaches in the league entering the 2015 season. That number is down from a single-season high of eight in 2011.
The numbers aren’t much better in terms of other positions of power. In 2014, there were only seven minority general managers or player personnel directors in the league.
Some of the league’s failures in respect to the Rooney Rule could be fixed not only with more minority coaches, but with minority coaches who have influential voices within their franchises.
The social capital Lewis has within the Bengals is rarely possessed by coaches, regardless of ethnic or racial background. Lewis leads a group of 18 assistant coaches and has a very real say in the decision-making of team personnel moves. The Bengals’ lack of an titular general manager helps him in that regard. Along with director of player personnel Duke Tobin, Lewis holds the unofficial title of Bengals GM.
While the final word on drafting rookies, signing free agents and hiring assistants ends with Brown, Lewis' opinion carries legitimate weight.
Credit that opinion to helping the Bengals have two black head coach candidates on their current staff.
Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph were both considered for head-coaching jobs this offseason. Jackson nearly was hired to fill Buffalo’s vacancy before the job ultimately went to Rex Ryan. Joseph interviewed for the Broncos’ opening, although days after Joseph was in Denver, his ex-boss, former Texans head coach and Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, was hired as the Broncos’ coach.
Not long afterward, Denver tried to re-interview Joseph for its defensive coordinator job, but the Bengals blocked him from that opportunity, keeping him on their staff. Throughout NFL circles, many believe Joseph’s first head-coaching gig isn’t far away.
Jackson became the league’s 17th black head coach in 2011 when he coached the Raiders for one season, becoming the first of Lewis’ assistants to earn a head-coaching opportunity. Jackson had an earlier stint under Lewis when he coached Cincinnati’s receivers from 2004-06.
Last season, two more Lewis hires who aren’t minorities -- Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden -- received their first head-coaching jobs with Minnesota and Washington.
Joseph and Jackson exemplify why it is important the NFL finds more men like Lewis.
Take former Colts and Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, for example. Black coaches Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, Herm Edwards and Leslie Frazier all worked under Dungy before becoming head coaches. Like Dungy, Tomlin, Smith and Caldwell have coached in a Super Bowl. Tomlin and Dungy have both won it.
As Fox mentioned, part of the difficulty in extending the Rooney Rule's properties to assistant coach hires rests in the fact that coaches and GMs like hiring assistants they know well. If qualified minorities aren't hired as assistants, the long-term byproduct can mean a depleted pool of head-coaching candidates. In turn, that can lead to what happened two years ago, when none of the 15 head coach and GM openings went to minority candidates.
For the future of a more inclusive NFL, the type of presence Lewis commands in Cincinnati isn’t just necessary -- it needs to be replicated many times over.
The success of the Cincinnati Bengals coach has opened doors for colleagues as his coaching tree takes root.