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Rooney Rule: Timely Amendments

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President Barack Obama welcomes the Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

I guess I wasn’t the only one who found this year’s intimate “living room” coverage of the NFL Draft to be a troubling expose of the racial disparity among team owners, GMs and head coaches. In my “Post Draft Thoughts” article I wrote:

  • The one major cause for concern that struck me very vividly was the preponderance of white owners, GMs and head coaches juxtaposed with the preponderance of prospects and families of color. Did you notice the disparity?
  • It’s alarming that in 2020 there still appears to be the perpetuity of racial stereotyping when it comes to “brain trust” leadership and the “work force.” I absolutely recognize and respect how hard everyone has worked to become an NFL GM or head coach. However, the optics, particularly at the GM position, are troubling when the NFL GMs look like a fraternity of middle aged white men.
  • I refuse to believe that there aren’t equally qualified GM candidates of color. Heck, I spent the entire pre-draft season profiting from the insights of Louis Riddick (ESPN) and Bucky Brooks (NFLN), and a number of others including Charles Davis and Willie McGinness.

Inside the Numbers: (whites/minorities):

NFL Principal Owners: 30/2 (Shahid Kahn, Jaguars; Kim Pegula, Bills)

NFL GMs: 30/2 (Andrew Berry, Browns, Chris Grier, Dolphins)

NFL Head Coaches: 28/4 (Brian Flores, Dolphins; Anthony Lynn, Chargers; Ron Rivera, Redskins; Mike Tomlin, Steelers)

2020 1st Round Draft Picks: 2 (1-Joe Burrow, Bengals; 6-Justin Herbert, Chargers)/30

2020 2nd Round Draft Picks: 2 (43-Cole Kmet, Bears; 58-Ezra Cleveland, Vikings)/30

The percentages of leadership (owners and GMs) ratios (93.8% white men) to draft pick ratios (93.8% men of color) are exactly the opposite.

2020 NFL Draft Viewership:

An average audience of over 8.4 million viewers watched all three days of the 2020 NFL Draft across ABC, ESPN, NFLNetwork, ESPN Deportes, and digital channels easily breaking the previous high of 6.2 million viewers in 2019 (+35%). (per NFL)

The Owners

Interestingly, on ESPN yesterday Stephen A. Smith reported that the recent push to amend the Rooney Rule came from a small group of NFL owners.

The irony of this push is that the color of NFL ownership is the least likely to change anytime soon. The simple reason is that many NFL teams for decades have been run by families who come from “old money” and team ownership that keep getting passed down from generation to generation—-like the Rooneys in Pittsburgh and the Bidwills in Arizona.

The same can be said to a large degree about season ticket holders——passed from one generation to the next among well-to-do families that can best afford them—-as with each year season tickets become more and more expensive—-not to mention the capital it takes to afford the “ballpark experience” which involves parking, food and drink.

The Rooney Rule Amendments

“The league will require teams to interview at least two minority candidates from outside the organization for head coach openings. At least one minority candidate must be interviewed for a coordinator spot.” (per ESPN)

The Rooney Rule Incentives Rumor

Apparently there have been discussions within the league led by Commissioner Roger Goodell about awarding teams who hire minority GMs and head coaches a higher 3rd round draft pick—-or perhaps an additional 3rd round draft pick (to added in among the 3rd round compensatory picks).

The frustration about NFL hiring practices from African American reporters

Commentary

What Stephen A. Smith is overlooking to a degree is the fact that because the college game is now having a significant impact on the evolution of the NFL game, if any college coach like Kliff Kingsbury can bring a special brand of innovation to an NFL team, then, regardless of his college record, he is a legitimate candidate to become an NFL head coach.

In the old days, teams could hire innovative on-the-rise college coaches as coordinators—-but, the very second that those innovative coordinators had success, they were whooshed away to become head coaches for other teams.

As a result, the nature of the head coaching position in the NFL has changed dramatically in recent years. If an NFL team can “lock down” an innovative play caller as the head coach, then that is like signing your franchise QB to a long-term extension.

NFL head coaches of today and the future are more likely to be specialists on one side of the ball—-and if Kliff Kingsbury’s K-Raid takes off in the NFL, we are apt to see a number of well established college Air Raid coaches like Lincoln Riley, Dana Holgorsen and Mike Leach become NFL head coaches—-just as Kingsbury and Matt Ruhl have accomplished the past two seasons.

The advice I would give to any young African-American coach who dreams of being an NFL head coach——find your niche as an innovative play caller on offense or a dynamic scheme teacher on defense and teams will come a-callin’.

But, while I don't always agree with Stephen A. Smith’s takes, especially here because I have always been a fan of Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive genius, I totally get Smith’s frustration and I appreciate his honesty.

Whenever a college coach with a losing record lands one of the 32 most coveted coaching jobs on the planet over a proven offensive coordinator like the Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy, who has more than paid his dues as a former NFL star and as an NFL coach of 15 years, then Smith’s point is understandable.

As Cardinals’ fans, let’s not quickly forget how many African-American football coaches, fans and pundits cringed to see what happened to Steve Wilks in his one year as the Cardinals’ head coach.

The irony is that the Bidwill family has done as much to honor the Rooney Rule as just about any NFL franchise—-but—-the Steve Wilks situation was about as ugly and unfair as ugly and unfair gets.

The easy thing for so many—-including Michael Bidwill to a degree (despite his mea culpa for the hiring)—-was to vilify and denigrate Steve Wilks and make him the “loser coach” scapegoat during the most dysfunctional year (for a myriad of reasons) in the history of the Arizona Cardinals.

The way the off-season and in-season practice rules have changed in the NFL, first year head coaches and coordinators are at a distinct disadvantage. It’s virtually unthinkable that a head coach would get only one year to try to prove himself—-but Steve Wilks had to suffer not only his own “one and done,” but Freddie Kitchens’ one and done this past year, as well. What are the odds of that happening two years in a row for Steve Wilks?

Today Wilks is unemployed, and despite some interest from a few teams to hire him as an assistant, Wilks is taking a year off in order to let his family stay put in Cleveland for another year and not have to be uprooted from their home for the third time in three years.

“When you go through two years like I did, you want to make sure that the next [job] is gonna have some longevity. You don’t want to go into a situation where there may be some speculation there, and all of a sudden you find yourself [and] it’s three years in a row,” Wilks said, via Joseph Person of TheAthletic.com. “Just really the thing about this league, there’s not really a lot of patience anymore. You’ve got to win now. I definitely want to get back into it as quickly as possible.”

As a rookie head coach, Kliff Kingsbury only won two more games than Wilks did. But, Kingsbury helped develop QB Kyler Murray, the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. On offense, the Cardinals appear to have a bright future. If the defense rebounds this season, the Cardinals could possibly be a playoff contender. Embattled defensive coordinator Vance Joseph (31st ranked defense) was afforded the second year that Steve Wilks never got in Arizona (26th ranked defense) and Cleveland (22nd ranked defense).

I hope Vance Joseph has a fantastic year in year two.

Why the Rooney Rule Amendments are a good thing

While I believe that practically everyone (NFL owners, GMs, players, pundits and fans) acknowledge the awkwardness and inconvenience of the Rooney Rule (particularly when teams are racing to woo those who are perceived as the top candidates, regardless of race), the more opportunities that minority coaches are afforded to present their candidacies for leadership positions, the better.

Dan Rooney of the Steelers was the original proponent for the rule—-for a very good reason.

After Bill Cowher retired, Rooney was faced with one of the most difficult decisions of his career. He had a number of in-house candidates (Dick LeBeau, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm) who were very worthy of being Cowher’s successor. However, Rooney got a tip from a consultant that he might want to interview a young, on-the-rise defensive coordinator with the Vikings named Mike Tomlin. Tomlin was only 33 at the time, but Dan Rooney and the Steelers’ organization like to hire young head coaches with the hope of keeping them for a decade—-or two.

Mike Tomlin came in for the interview and blew Dan Rooney away, displaying the kind of articulation, gravitas and blue collar charisma that Rooney saw in the likes of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.

What Dan Rooney and the Steelers did not do is cave in to the kind of “croneyism” which players like former Cardinals LB Sam Acho are all too leery about. Acho said, “the problem with the NFL is that there’s so much cronyism; it’s all about who you know. Oftentimes, NFL coaches aren’t the best coaches; they’re not. Oftentimes, people talk about the politics and the business of football; it’s about who you know, and no one wants to talk about it. . . .”

Tony Dungy recently said in an interview with NBC’s Mike Florio that the problem is that when NFL owners and GM call him to ask if he knows of any up-and-coming minority coaches who are worthy head coaching candidates, he always asked them “well, what are you looking for? An offensive minded coach? Defensive minded? Younger? Older? Someone with head coaching experience? Someone who run a certain style of offense or defense?”

Dungy said that the vast majority of the owners and GMs who call him really don't know what they are looking for—-all they want to know is a few names to consider.

One of the best suggestions that Tony Dungy offered was for the league to produce lists of up and coming head coaching candidates in order to make it easier for teams to follow them as prospects.

While I agree with Sam Acho that the 3rd round incentives concept is not an appropriate measure to take, I think the NFL could do all of the prospective GM and head coaching candidates a favor by making all teams wait until the Monday after the Super Bowl to start the interviews. That would certainly give assistant coaches from the Super Bowl teams a much stronger and more equitable chance. Plus, I believe it would give minority candidates a better chance because teams would have added time to do their homework on them and all of the candidates, for that matter. For the sake of time, the initial interviews on the Monday and Tuesday after the Super Bowl could be conducted via Zoom or Skype.

Furthermore, the NFL and the NCAA could do a stronger job of building up the Future Football Coaches Academy. The NFL and NCAA could invest more heavily in funding full scholarships for deserving minority applicants—-that, and the NFL and NCAA could invest more time and effort into developing a coaching placement program at the high school and NCAA entry levels. Plus, the NFL and NCAA could combine forces to offer young aspiring coaches a number of coaching clinics delivered by some of the top NFL and college coaches across the USA.

The point is—-the interviews with minority candidates should not be token or perfunctory—-they should be in the very spirit of the Rooney Rule, that if you slow the process down a little, just long enough to interview candidates you might have overlooked, you might be blown away the way Dan Rooney was with Mike Tomlin.

On a personal note, I have witnessed first hand the benevolence and generosity of the Rooney family. In 1979, during my first year as an assistant football coach at Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, New York (a private boarding school for boys), the players, my fellow coaches and I looked on in awe the crisp September afternoon that two big Mayflower moving vans arrived at our practice field. Suddenly, the truck drivers were unloading an array of 3 and 5 man blocking sleds and dozens of tackling dummies with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo on them. A gift to the team courtesy of Art Rooney and the Rooney family with a note that said “good luck to the team from the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

It just so happened that Art Rooney’s grandson, Danny, was our starting QB.

As someone who is very appreciative of the Rooney family, It gave me great pride to hear what Stephen A. Smith had to say about Dan Rooney when he passed away in 2017. I think Smith captured the spirit Dan Rooney’s legacy with grace and aplomb.