Commentary

Modify the Rooney Rule

Updated: January 13, 2012, 8:23 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

I LOL'd a few weeks back when Miami, Jacksonville and Kansas City all fired their head coaches and replaced them with African-American interim coaches. I chuckled because the moves were manifestations of the new NFL Way when it comes to the league's top on-the-field job:

Hire White Guy.

Fire White Guy after two or three mediocre seasons.

Elevate Black Guy to interim.

Hire White Guy.

Repeat after, say, two or three mediocre seasons.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick, Curtis Modkins
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesBills offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins could use some company.

This weary cycle is one of the unfortunate by-products of the famed Rooney Rule, the NFL mandate put in play in 2003 requiring teams to interview at least one non-white candidate for head coaching and senior front office opportunities.

The rule was named for Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, head of the NFL's diversity committee; and as an homage to the Rooney family, which has a history of providing significant opportunities within the franchise to African-Americans. The hope was that the rule would put more people of color -- primarily African-Americans and Latinos -- in front of the owners and GMs making the hiring decisions.

It forced them to walk their fingers outside their own Rolodexes and consider other qualified candidates. And it's worked, to a degree.

Hiring a black or Latino head coach or GM is no longer a headline. Ethnicity might not even make the first few paragraphs anymore. In fact, black and Latino head coaches being hired and fired is so common that the dismissal of one (or even two -- Raheem Morris of Tampa Bay and Hue Jackson of Oakland, both African-American, have been stripped of their headsets since the end of the regular season) no longer sparks a telephone call from the local chapter of the NAACP.

At the start of this season, there were seven African-Americans or Latinos among the 32 head coaches in the NFL. As of this writing, there were six, including Romeo Crennel, whose elevation from interim to head coach this week by the Chiefs defied the vicious circle of the new NFL Way.

Todd Bowles, interim in Miami, is still waiting to hear if the label will be removed, while Mel Tucker, interim in Jacksonville, just learned he won't keep the top job. Frankly, Bowles shouldn't apply for a mortgage.

Bowles led the Dolphins during an impressing three-game run at the end of the season. Miami was 2-1, defeating Buffalo and the Jets and losing by three to New England after leading 17-0. He's one of the candidates reportedly interviewed by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and GM Jeff Ireland. Aside from Bowles, the others are Chicago special-teams coach Dave Toub and Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin (just days before the horrific tragedy that befell his family: the body of his 21-year-old son was pulled from the Fox River in Wisconsin).

New Jags owner Shahid Khan and general manager Gene Smith reportedly considered enough people to fill a small bus -- Tucker being among them -- before settling on Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who was to be introduced as Jacksonville coach Wednesday.

Since it was announced last month that he was buying the team, Khan has made it clear he is most enamored with coaches bred on the offensive side of the ball. Other than Tucker, who was the Jags' defensive coordinator, the other candidates were offensive coordinators. (The team is interested in keeping Tucker as defensive coordinator.– He was 2-3 as interim coach– and he is being sought for a lateral move by other teams, including an interview with the Vikings.)

[+] EnlargeRooney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesThe diversity rules named in honor of Dan Rooney should be expanded.

Let me be clear: An owner has every right to hire whomever he (or she) wants to hire -- the person who in his (or her) view is most qualified for the job. (Emphasis on "view," with a wink and nod toward Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who all but did a touchdown dance on the Rooney Rule last season by elevating then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett from interim to head coach. Now he must be wondering, like the rest of us, if Garrett is up to the task.)

If there's a "sexy" candidate out there who's giving an owner the sweats just at the thought of being able to lure him, then by all means the owner should slick back his hair and make his best move. (Former Titans coach Jeff Fisher, he of only six winning seasons in 17 as a head coach, is working St. Louis and Miami like a prom queen who just dumped her date.)

But an owner should not be able to do so before sincerely adhering to the Rooney Rule.

That said, the rule needs to be amended. Badly.

First, when a team has a minority interim coach, it should be required to interview a candidate of color from outside the organization in order to satisfy the rule.

The hiring of Crennel was an aberration. Typically, the spirit of the rule is circumvented when the minority interim coach is "interviewed" while the owner and GM wistfully stare out the window, dreaming of the "prom queen" coach out there waiting to be wooed.

This half-baked, gotta-do-it interview simply doesn't cut it.

Second, the scope of the rule should be expanded to include each of the top coordinator positions -- offensive, defensive. But especially offensive coordinators.

And that should be implemented now.

Clearly, the hottest trend of the moment is offense. The reigning cliche is "it's a quarterback league," and by extension that means winning teams must be explosive.

Other than Fisher, the most-courted potential head coaches now (and for the foreseeable future) are offensive coordinators, especially those whose teams treat opposing defenses like the Washington Generals (I know, it's a mixed sport metaphor, but you get the gist). Guys like Philbin and Rob Chudzinski, the coordinator who helped Carolina quarterback Cam Newton have the best rookie season ever in the history of the league, are almost sure to be head coaches soon.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIf Tony Dungy were working his way up the ranks as a coordinator today, would he get any interviews?

Yet, and perhaps not coincidentally, there's just one minority among offensive coordinators -- Buffalo's Curtis Modkins. (There had been two until late Tuesday when San Diego announced that longtime offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon was leaving the team. "I'm just done," Shelmon said in a statement. "You know when it's time. It's time for me to go and do some other things with my life.")

Indeed, offensive coordinator hires today appear to be akin to the quarterback position a generation ago, when it was deemed so critical to the success of the team that it needed a so-called "leader" or "genius." Blacks or Latinos simply didn't qualify.

Three black quarterbacks have guided their teams to the Super Bowl, and two black head coaches have Super Bowl rings. But if the Rooney Rule is not amended, it'll likely require that an African-American or Latino offensive coordinator have his own Doug Williams or Tony Dungy moment to change the way coordinator positions are filled. (Certainly, Williams and Dungy had earned their jobs before reaching the Super Bowl, but their victories removed all doubt that an African-American could win the sport's ultimate game.)

If the Rooney Rule is not amended, such opportunities will remain limited -- as long as the ideal head coach remains someone with top-level experience on the offensive side of the ball, which could be for quite a while.

That's why the process by which coordinators are hired needs to be altered now.

Or last week! Earlier this week, we learned that former Denver head coach Josh McDaniels was sliding into the offensive coordinator opening in New England that was created with the pending departure of Bill O'Brien for Penn State. Then early this morning, the Jets announced that beleaguered offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would not return to the team next season. In almost the same breath, we learned he would be replaced by Tony Sparano, the ex-Dolphins head coach. I dare say neither job was filled with even a whiff of an open interview process.

Let's call these yet more Rooney moments for the NFL.

Rather than wait for another rules committee ruling, commissioner Roger Goodell should command that all coordinator openings immediately fall under the scope of the Rooney Rule, beginning with the one in Atlanta created by Mularkey's departure, and any others that may emerge when the other head coaching vacancies are filled.

Because the weary cycle of the new NFL Way just isn't funny anymore.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com