Progress for minority coaches stalls
The Rooney Rule has helped, but now the NFL appears to need another push
There are a lot of ways to measure progress. The easiest is to start at the bottom and recognize how much ground has been gained since the worst of times. Another is to consider the absence of protest, the point when we've realized a problem no longer needs addressing. The issue of minority hiring in the NFL has reached a place where progress is much hazier to assess, a time when you acknowledge advancements but realize there's still a long way to go.
The most notable thing you can say about this latest slew of coaching hires isn't that two college head coaches (Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone) came into the league, that a Canadian Football League coach (Marc Trestman) found his way back to the NFL, or that Kansas City's Andy Reid found a new job about a day after he lost his old one. It's that not one person of color was selected to fill any of the eight coaching vacancies. It's hard to know how seriously some owners considered minority candidates. From the moment Black Monday arrived and incumbent coaches were getting whacked at a record pace, the buzz seemed to build around certain coaches while others were never really in the running.
Somebody please tell me how Reid can move so quickly to another job but Chicago's Lovie Smith couldn't find any comparable love. Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell also has a Super Bowl on his résumé, but he seems best known for being fortunate enough to have Peyton Manning under center in Indianapolis. Let's not forget some other qualified assistants, including defensive coordinator Ray Horton (formerly of Arizona, now with Cleveland), defensive coordinator Mel Tucker (formerly of Jacksonville, now with Chicago) and Atlanta special-teams coach Keith Armstrong. None of those men was able to find work after initial interviews.
Results like that already have people openly discussing an overhaul of the Rooney Rule. That process was created with the idea of enabling more minorities to get in front of owners when jobs become available, and that has happened, for the most part. But this year's results raise an issue that comes with every attempt at balancing the playing field. Once owners start feeling as though they've done their part, they're far more likely to revert to bad habits.
It used to be that minorities had a difficult time even gaining interviews for head-coaching jobs because they didn't fit an owner's idea of a CEO. They weren't part of the good old boys' network, and they couldn't find adequate ways to promote their strengths. Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy was the epitome of this in the early 1990s. He was interviewed for so many jobs before landing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996 that nobody could understand what was going wrong with his efforts. What Dungy faced then is the same thing minority candidates faced this year: the buzz factor. He was mild-mannered, soft-spoken and unwilling to market himself in the same way as some of his peers. Dungy didn't see the point of playing politics or overselling himself. He was a gifted defensive coordinator. His work should've spoken for itself when he was meeting all those owners who were looking for new head coaches.
The problem is that approach often leads to being overlooked. The more hype you have around you, the more owners perk up when you walk into the room. That's exactly what Chip Kelly had working for him when the Philadelphia Eagles hired him after a four-year run at Oregon. He spent four seasons operating arguably the most exciting offense in college football. Even if he had never spent a second coaching in the NFL, that was enough to make owner Jeffrey Lurie believe he had signed the league's next genius.
That's another thing that doesn't happen with minority hires -- they don't have labels attached to their names. We all know the next black head-coaching candidate who gets called a genius will be the first, and that means plenty in a world where owners want to excite fans with new hires. Also, few minority candidates have experience as offensive coordinators, which is becoming just as big an issue. In a league where rules clearly favor the offense, there's been a tremendous push to find as many offensive masterminds as possible. The clearest path to offensive coordinator is to play quarterback, and that's another area where minorities have made slow progress.
That partly explains why Smith -- the third-winningest coach in Bears history -- and men such as Horton and Tucker got ignored this time around. Teams were looking for coaches who could improve their offenses; Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley was the only new hire with a defensive background. If you looked at the six minority coaches in the league this past season, all of them were former defensive coordinators. It's not likely that many minority candidates with offensive coordinator experience will come around anytime soon.
Stanford's David Shaw should've been a hot property this offseason, but he chose to sign a long-term deal to stay in Palo Alto. Cincinnati receivers coach Hue Jackson also deserves more respect for the job he did in his one year as the Oakland Raiders' head coach in 2011. He led the team to an 8-8 record in a season when the death of team owner Al Davis rocked that franchise. New general manager Reggie McKenzie might have wanted his own man when he fired Jackson, but that shouldn't mean those accomplishments are diminished by other owners.
That's not to say there haven't been success stories with the Rooney Rule. Pittsburgh stunned plenty of people when it hired little-known Mike Tomlin in 2006, and he has produced two Super Bowls for that iconic franchise. Some teams also have taken chances on men who weren't up to the job, including Romeo Crennel (a flop in Cleveland and Kansas City), Mike Singletary (who struggled in San Francisco), and Raheem Morris (whose team imploded in Tampa in 2011, just one year after it won 10 games). It's fair to say those coaches wouldn't have had those opportunities without the Rooney Rule. It made their flaws more palatable to the men writing their paychecks.
Now it's time to take it up a level. We can't keep pointing to people such as Dungy as proof of how far we've come, nor can we be content with a handful of minority coaches holding jobs today. After all, progress isn't only about how far we've come from where we started. It's about how big we're willing to dream when we think about where we want to go.