The Toothless “Rooney Rule” Revisited

Seventeen years after the Rooney Rule's passage by the owners in 2003, there are exactly four "minority" head coaches in the NFL — two African-Americans (the Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Chargers' Anthony Lynn — and the latter is on the hot seat in the wake of the team's 5-11 finish in the just-concluded season), and two Latinos (Miami's Brian Flores and Washington's Ron Rivera, the latter just hired on after a mid-season firing at Carolina).

Meanwhile, a host of white head coaches have been hired in recent years who had never even been offensive or defensive coordinators, and are younger than the oldest of the veteran players they coach. All this as veteran black coordinators like Harold Goodwin, who directed "Air Coryell 2.0" at Arizona in the mid-2010s, and Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator or higher of the 2006 Colts and 2012 Ravens, both Super Bowl champions, sit at home doing something that Billy Joel mentioned in "Captain Jack," one of his earliest songs, that is best left unrepeated here — and Sherm Lewis and Ted Cottrell ended up sitting at home forever.

Decades ago, playoff experience in general, and deep playoff experience in particular, was the gold standard in filling head-coaching vacancies — so much so that when the Bengals hired 32-year-old David Shula (son of two-time Super Bowl champion Don Shula — but still), people laughed — and their laughter proved justified when Shula was fired midway through the 1996 season after a 19-52 stint whose best finish was 7-9 in 1995.

(True, until 1981, only one man — Paul Brown — who never played the game professionally had ever coached a team to an NFL championship prior to 1966, or to a Super Bowl championship after that. From 1981 onward, however, most Super Bowl-winning head coaches have been non-ex-players; Bill Walsh was the pioneer in reversing the trend).

So the owners can't have it both ways. Either they prefer "proven winners," or they don't. And Jerry Jones is the biggest hypocrite of all: after having once correctly pointed out that no head coach who had won a Super Bowl with one team has ever gone on to win a Super Bowl with another team, he hires Mike McCarthy, who won Super Bowl XLV as head coach of the Packers, to succeed the fired Jason Garrett, whose 87-70 career record and only one losing season in nine full years — and even that one only because Tony Romo got injured — makes him something of a "proven winner" himself.

With attendance at NFL games at a 15-year low, which is widely blamed on a backlash by the ticket-buying base — whites over 50 and earning over $100,000 a year in general, and whites over 65 and earning over $250,000 a year in particular — against Colin Kaepernick and other African-American players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, a theory that appears to be vindicated by the fact that television ratings in general, and on over-the-air (that is, non-cable) channels in particular, are moving in the opposite direction (ESPN's Monday Night Football ratings were going down until 2018, and NFL Network is not ratings-dependent because it is fully owned and funded by the league), suggesting that poorer, more diverse, and more politically progressive younger audiences are not abandoning the game — any attempt to tighten the Rooney Rule is a financially-suicidal non-starter.

Moreover, the owners should be honest about this, by agreeing, in the same spirit of compromise that may very well see them settle for a 17-game regular season instead of the 18-game season they really want in the new collective bargaining agreement, to grant an official exemption to the Rooney Rule stating that if a team hires a head coach that has taken a previous team at least as far as the conference championship game, that team is not required to go through the charade of interviewing any "minority" candidates.

That way, everyone's cards are on the table.

Comments and Conversation

January 14, 2020


If the point of the Rooney Rule is to gradually change the makeup of the NFL’s head coaching demographics, then allowing an exemption for past coaches with certain accomplishments - whatever those accomplishments are - is self-defeating. Most people with head coaching experience are white, and therefore most candidates with a given head coaching achievement will be white. In addition, having taken a team to the conference championship game is a pretty low standard. Are we really ready to say that coaches like Doug Marrone, Mike Zimmer, Dan Quinn, Bruce Arians, and Gary Kubiak are such slam-dunk head coaching candidates that a team hiring them would be exempt from considering minority candidates? Anecdotally, some African-American coaches have said it’s valuable just to get an interview, even if it appears that the team is targeting another candidate. We can’t know if that’s objectively true, but interviewing a minority candidate seems like a small hurdle to clear.

I have a different explanation for the current dearth of minority head coaches in the NFL. Currently, the vast majority of offensive coordinators in the NFL are white, whereas there is much more diversity among defensive coordinators (I don’t have the numbers for 2019, but in 2018 31 of the 32 OCs were white, but only 19 of the 32 DCs were white). Most recent head coaching hires have been from the offensive side of the ball - 3 of 5 in 2018, and 5 of 7 in 2019. Therefore, it’s not surprising that most recent head coaching hires have been white.

There’s probably a discussion to be had about why the vast majority of OCs are white. Perhaps there’s a stereotype that OC is a more “intellectual” position, whereas DC is a more “aggressive” position, and people’s implicit biases lead to the hiring decisions we’ve seen. Given the deep-seated racism in the NFL, that wouldn’t surprise me. However, part of the solution to getting more minority head coaches is to get more minority assistant coaches in significant roles. To that end, I would support broadening the Rooney Rule to include coordinators, not adding exemptions for certain head coach hires.

January 14, 2020

Anthony Brancato:

Realistically, you cannot expect an owner to pass up a Mike McCarthy in favor of a totally unproven commodity - and maybe not in Dallas, but having a marquee name as a head coach can boost attendance, which has become a steadily more important issue with affluent, older white fans canceling their season ticket subscriptions in droves in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick controversy.

In 1972, 42% of all NFL players were African-American; today the league is about 70% black. As the percentage of retired players who are black increases correspondingly, so will the percentage of coordinators, and ultimately, head coaches.

Extending the Rooney Rule to include coordinators does have undeniable merit though - and exemptions for head coach hirings can be restricted to teams that finished worse than a certain record the previous season, such as 6-10.

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