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Where Is the Rooney Rule Needed Most Today?

Super Bowl XLV Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

What a small world it is.

In 1979, I was offered my first full-time teaching and coaching job at Trinity-Pawling School, a private boarding school 60 miles north of New York City.

One of my fondest memories of being an assistant Varsity football coach occurred during a crisp autumn day practice when a giant Mayflower moving van pulled up to the side of the field and minutes later the drivers were pulling out brand new 5 and 3 man blocking sleds with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo on them.

They were a gift from Art Rooney, the legendary owner of the Steelers. You see, his grandson, Danny, son of Dan Rooney, was our starting quarterback.

In the early 80s at TP we had an uncanny number of football players who went on to stardom in their fields. Danny Rooney went to work for the Steelers. His favorite WR target on the team, Kevin McClatchy went on to become the CEO of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Another WR, Mike McQuade, became the producer of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and is now the VP of Production at ESPN. And, last but not least, Maurice “Mo” Vaughn, who started all 4 years at TP on the Varsity football, basketball and baseball teams, went on to be a four time MLB All-Star and one time AL MVP with the Boston Red Sox.

Not bad for a little private boarding school in Duchess County, New York.

As I look back over my 21 year high school coaching career, I always credit Mo Vaughn for his part in putting me on the coaching map. What I am the most proudest of is that while coaching at private schools, I was able to conduct inner-city coaching clinics and help a number of under-privileged African-American student-athletes garner full scholarships to a variety of New England private schools.

When the Rooney Rule was established in 2002, it was in response to Denny Green getting fired from the Vikings after his first losing record in 10 years—and also to Tony Dungy getting fired by the Tampa Bay Bucs despite his winning record. The premise of the Rooney Rule was that too few African American coaches were being considered for NFL head coaching jobs, and that the outliers who were hired were more likely to get fired than their white counterparts.

it was highly commendable of Dan Rooney to take on this initiative—-for Rooney certainly practiced what he preached when he hired Mike Tomlin in 2007 to replace the legendary Bill Cowher. Twelve years later, Tomlin remains the third longest tenured NFL coach in the NFL behind the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (19 years) and the Saints’ Sean Payton (13 years).

This year was a tough year for African-American head coaches. Several of them were fired: Marvin Lewis (16 years), Todd Bowles (4 years), Hue Jackson (3 years), Vance Joseph (2 years) and Steve Wilks (1 year).

The new rage in the NFL is to hire whiz-kid innovators as head coaches because the league has been becoming more and more QB-centric and more and more influenced by high scoring, razzle-dazzle college offenses.

Lewis was replaced by Zac Taylor (Rams’ QB coach), Bowles was replaced by Adam Gase (former Dolphins HC and play caller), Jackson was replaced by Freddie Kitchens (interim OC) and Wilks was replaced by Kliff Kinsgbury (former HC of Texas Tech). Of these 4 young coaches, as of a year ago, 3 of the 4 men had never called a play in an NFL game.

Of course—-all of this goes back two years ago to the Rams’ hiring of Sean McVay, when at a whopping 30 years old, he became the youngest head coach in NFL history. McVay helped to turn 2nd year QB Jared Goff into a Pro Bowler and the once pathetic Rams into a powerhouse.

Trend on.

Practically every team looking for a head coach these days wants their own whiz-kid.

But—-when you look back to the current list of longest tenured NFL head coaches, all three, Belichick, Payton and Tomlin were whiz-kid appointees of their generations.

But—-why aren’t there more whiz-kid African-American coaches?

Unfortunately, there is a paucity of African-American head coaches in the FBS. Only 13 out of 130 FBS head coaches are African-American and two of them coach in Arizona.

With so few African-American head coaches in the FBS, it is more difficult for them to be innovators because as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

For example, Scottie Montgomery, one of the top innovators in college football, who made a name for himself as the passing game coordinator under David Cutcliffe at Duke, just got fired after three losing seasons at East Carolina—-

When Montgomery was making a name for himself at Duke, he likely would have been better off taking an NFL assistant job. After all, when you look at the career paths of the current whiz-kid head coaches, a common denominator is that most of them got their foot into the NFL coaching door early on.

Sean McVay started his career as an assistant WRs coach with the Bucs in 2007. Matt LaFleur went from being the OC at Ashland in 2007 to the Texans in 2008 as an offensive quality control assistant. Zac Taylor went from being a graduate assistant at Texas A&M in 2011 to being the Dolphins assistant QB coach in 2012. Matt Nagy’s first job was as an intern with the Eagles in 2008. Bill Belichick’s first job was in 1975 as a special assistant for the Colts.

History suggests that the sooner one gets his foot in an NFL coaching staff, the better chance he has of one day becoming an NFL head coach.

The anomaly of this year’s new head coaches is Kliff Kingsbury, particularly seeing as Kingsbury does not have any NFL coaching experience, nor did he have a winning record at Texas Tech. But—-his innovativeness as an offensive coach and his uncanny knack for helping to develop NFL QBs were is calling card to the NFL.

In recent days, some pundits such as Dallas broadcaster Dale Hansen, have been accusing the Cardinals of being racist for only giving Steve Wilks one year as head coach and then replacing him with a white college-level innovator with a losing record.

First of all, the Cardinals’ president, Michael Bidwill, has been a long-time promoter of African-American hires. The man Bidwill cut his teeth with when he took over the operations of team was GM Rod Graves. Bidwill and Graves hired Denny Green, one of the coaches responsible for the Rooney Rule in the first place—-and it was Graves and Green who selected Larry Fitzgerald, the current face of the Cardinals’ program, with the 3rd pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Since then, Bidwill has hired a number of African-American coordinators such as Ray Horton, Harold Goodwin, Todd Bowles, Al Holcomb and (as of just yesterday) Vance Joseph.

Bidwill has also been grooming the Cardinals Ring of Honor Al- Pro safety Adrian Wilson as a future GM. Notice that Bidwill gave special credit to Wilson for the decision to hire Kliff Kingsbury.

Unfortunately for Steve Wilks, by halftime of his very first game, the Red Sea was booing what was an embarrassingly lethargic effort versus the Redskins. Cardinals’ fans all know what went wrong from there—-as in the three strikes of being at the rock bottom of the NFL in rushing, rush defense and wins. Wilks had enough of a part in this failure to warrant his firing.

Many of us felt Steve Keim should have gone with Wilks for his part in the team’s failures. But, Keim saved his job thanks to being a loyal corporate ladder climber of the Cardinals since 1999 and the fact that his 2019 plan to target Kliff Kingsbury as head coach, unlike Wilks’ plan, captured Michael Bidwill’s imagination, especially when Bidwill’s colleague and friend and former Giants’ GM Ernie Accorsi (“The QB Guy”) pledged his enthusiastic support for the plan.

There was nothing racist about Steve Wilks’ hiring.

The Cardinals are hoping that Kliff Kingsbury can do for Josh Rosen what Sean McVay and Matt Nagy have done for Jared Goff and Mitch Trubisky.

If Scottie Montgomery was getting raves as a NFL QB coach, there is no doubt that Bidwill and Keim would have considered him.

Where the Rooney Rule really needs to be applied is in the FBS college programs.

There should be more accessible and affordable coaching academies for young men and women who aspire to be college or NFL coaches.

Now that more men of color are becoming NFL starting QBs, it would be a boon if more of these QBs got into coaching after their paying careers are over—-as Kliff Kingsbury did.

In the NFL right now, the problem for the Rooney Rule is that it has become stale and tediously superfluous.

Team owners and GMs are well aware of the top African-American coaches currently in the NFL and in college. The best of them get hired on their own merits and levels of gravitas.

Former Cardinals assistant head coach Harold Goodwin recently revealed that at some of his head coaching interviews the team owner wasn’t even present. That is a disgrace—-and just another reminder of how token some of these so-perceived Rooney Rule interviews are.

It looks like the Dolphins are going to hire a candidate the Cardinals were interested in last year, Patriots’ linebackers’ coach, Brian Flores. Flores is another whiz-kid candidate. While his current specialty is defense, he cut his teeth by joining the Patriots as a scouting assistant in 2004 and then working as a pro scout and assistant in all three phases of the game. If ever there was a 37 year old head coaching candidate who has been well groomed in all aspects of football scouting and coaching operations, Brian Flores is that guy.

The Rooney Rule had its proper place at a key time in NFL history. Now it would seem better suited to apply it more assiduously to the FBS colleges. That is where the need is overwhelming.