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Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Progress continues -- in the NFL

By Richard Lapchick
Special to Page 2

As the NFL season concluded with the proclamation that the New England Patriots are now officially a dynasty, another NFL dynasty seems to be crumbling.

As a longtime fan of Robert Kraft and the Patriots, I am delighted to see their on-the-field dynasty reach this point.

Romeo Crennel
After many successful years as an assistant, Romeo Crennel is now in charge.
And as someone who has followed the NFL's hiring practices for more than two decades, I am also pleased to see the "good old boys network" among head football coaches -- a dynasty of sorts itself -- continues to fall apart now that Romeo Crennel has been hired as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Crennel becomes the sixth African-American NFL head coach, an all-time high for a league that has struggled with this position throughout its history.

My first impression of Paul Tagliabue and his view on the issue of race came shortly after he was installed as commissioner. One of his first decisions was to remove the Super Bowl from Arizona because the state didn't officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. That told me a great deal about Tagliabue's stance on the issue of race.

In terms of African-Americans in head coaching positions, the NFL is a stark contrast to Division I-A college football, which is going in the opposite direction. I have no doubt that the efforts of the commissioner's office, as well as the diversity groups appointed by the NFL in the last three years, have brought about a direct change. The "Rooney Rule," which is named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney (who heads the league's diversity committee) and requires that people of color be interviewed as part of the search process for head coaches, has helped to double the number of African-American head coaches in the NFL from three to six.

The college game, which does not have such a policy, saw its season end with the firings of Tyrone Willingham and Tony Samuel at Notre Dame and New Mexico State, respectively, and the resignation of Fitz Hill at San Jose State. Willingham was subsequently hired at the University of Washington, which leaves Division I-A football with three head coaches (out of 117 schools) who are African-American.

So the NFL has doubled its previous all-time high prior to the policy change, while the college level's Division I-A is at less than half of its previous all-time high number of African-American head coaches (eight, in 1998). Crennel joins Tony Dungy (Colts), Herman Edwards (Jets), Lovie Smith (Bears), Dennis Green (Cardinals) and Marvin Lewis (Bengals).

The NFL's policy is similar to an approach adopted earlier by Major League Baseball under Bud Selig, which helped result in the tripling of the number of managers of color.

In previous seasons, another NFL policy discouraged teams in the market for a coach from tampering with the staffs of teams in the playoffs or in the Super Bowl, and that at times has restricted the opportunities for movement for some coordinators and top assistant coaches who might have been considered for head coaching jobs. That Cleveland was willing to wait to hire Romeo Crennel until the conclusion of the Super Bowl represents a change in the NFL's attitude in that area.

Crennel's hiring came 24 hours after another milestone: the election of Fritz Pollard to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Pollard was one of the two African-American pros in the early days of professional football, when he played for the Akron franchise in the old American Professional Football Association, which later became the National Football League. Pollard's team won the league's first crown in 1920. In 1921, he became the first African-American head coach in NFL history when he was named to lead the Akron franchise.

According to the Hall of Fame's website, "contemporary accounts indicated that Pollard, an exciting elusive runner, was the most feared running back in the fledgling league." Many writers and former players believe that Pollard's entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is long overdue. New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden's article headlined "Without Pollard, Hall is a Sham," made the case for Pollard's induction just days before last weekend's election.

Fritz Pollard
Fritz Pollard will finally be where he belongs -- the Hall of Fame.
As a tribute to Pollard, NFL coaches and front office personnel formed the Fritz Pollard Alliance to increase the number of minority coaches and front office personnel across the league.

Sixty-eight years passed between Pollard's first stint in 1921 and the Raiders' hiring in 1989 of Art Shell -- the first contemporary African-American head coach in the National Football League. In the next 13 years (prior to the Rooney Rule), only four additional African-Americans became NFL head coaches.

Since the Rooney Rule came into play, African-Americans have filled four head coaching jobs in the last three years. The events of the past few years seem to represent a new day in the NFL. The past season saw a record number of  people of color in assistant coaching and offensive and defensive coordinator positions in the NFL. In the 2004 season, there were 173 assistant coaches of color, as well as 14 offensive or defensive coordinators. The coordinator position is considered the final stepping stone to a head coaching job.

Of the three head coaching openings at the end of the 2004 NFL season, one was filled by an African-American. In Division I-A college football, there were 22 head coaching vacancies; Willingham was the only African-American hired.

Floyd Keith, the Executive Director of the Black Coaches Association, says of Division I-A's poor record in this area: "There are three times as many African-American generals in the U.S. Army than head football coaches in Division I-A." Keith adds that, "an African-American has a better chance of being a president of a Fortune 500 company than being a head Division I-A football coach."

That makes the progress in the NFL even more impressive. Not only does the NFL have a record number of head and assistant coaches, and offensive and defensive coordinators, but it also has three African-American general managers, another all-time high.

The NFL recently circulated a new memo league-wide, urging all its teams to interview at least one person of color for any front-office vacancy. The difference between this and the Rooney Rule is that the latter attaches a penalty when a team fails to include a person of color in its candidate pool for head coaching vacancies.

Perhaps such a penalty will be included in the future for all front-office vacancies, and that will be the next step in the NFL's progress in hiring practices. In any case, the NFL has already created a model for college sport to follow.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.