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Thursday, February 01, 2007
progress realized?

Before the first snap from scrimmage, Super Bowl XLI will be like no other National Football League championship game in history. On the Chicago Bears sideline, Lovie Smith will pilot his team as the first African American head coach to ever lead an NFL team to the Super Bowl. Across the field will stand Smith’s mentor and friend, Tony Dungy who became the second African American head coach (by about four hours) to lead his NFL team, the Indianapolis Colts, into a Super Bowl.

Whatever barriers existed between African American head coaches and the Super Bowl prior to this season, Dungy and Smith have shattered them in their exemplary displays of leadership, fortitude and dedication. Appropriately, one of the principal stories leading up to this Super Bowl has been the fact that for the first time in the forty one years of Super Bowl play, one of the participating teams will be coached by an African American. The magnitude of this event can not be overstated.

As Dungy has repeatedly asserted when commenting on this historical achievement, both coaches brought their teams to the brink of a championship by coaching the “right way.” For Dungy and Smith, that includes fostering a familial bond of respect with the players’ in their charge and by refusing to engage in the “profanity” and “win or die” attitude displayed by many NFL head coaches. On Sunday evening, around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. eastern time, an African American head coach will lift the Lombardi Trophy over his head triumphantly and will make history again as the first black head coach to win the title.

Perhaps lost amongst the deserved hoopla for Dungy and Smith was the relatively quiet hiring of Mike Tomlin by the Pittsburgh Steelers as their new head coach. Tomlin, the thirty four year old African American former defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings becomes the first black head coach in the Pittsburgh Steelers seventy four year history. Tomlin becomes the sixth black head coach in the 2007 NFL joining Smith, Dungy, Herman Edwards of the Kansas City Chiefs, Romeo Crennel of the Cleveland Browns and Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals. Last season seven African American head coaches stalked NFL sidelines, but the Oakland Raiders terminated Art Shell as head coach after one season and the Arizona Cardinals fired Dennis Green following three disappointing seasons.

Tomlin’s hiring is striking and noteworthy for several reasons. First, the NFL adopted a rule in 2002 under the direction of then commissioner Paul Tagliabue that required each NFL club to interview at least one minority candidate each time a head coaching vacancy became available. This rule is commonly referred to as the “Rooney Rule.” The owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers is Dan Rooney, one of the most influential owners in professional sports and it is he who masterminded the rule as a means of opening access and opportunity to African American coaches. Failure to follow the rule can result in a stiff penalty (as Matt Millen and the Detroit Lions can attest after being fined $200,000 for hiring Steve Mariucci without interviewing a single minority candidate in 2003).

In interviewing Tomlin, Rooney was following the very rule that he helped to establish. The obvious purpose of this rule was to begin to introduce the young minority coaches in the league to the primarily older, white male owners of the NFL clubs. As in any “old boy network” scenario, individuals will hire who they know, and by in large, the older white male NFL owners knew the same cadre of coaches and contacts who for so many years were primarily, if not absolutely, white. The Rooney Rule has forced NFL owners to develop lists of promising minority coaches and to have them in for day-long interviews allowing the owners to become familiar with a group of candidates they had not known previously—a type of affirmative action for NFL hiring.

When long-time Steelers coach, and beloved Pittsburgh native Bill Cowher announced his resignation, the early speculation was that Rooney would stay in-house and offer the head coaching position to one of two successful white assistant coaches on Cowher’s staff, offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt or offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Reports indicated that Russ Grimm would land the job with Pittsburgh, particularly after Wisenhunt was hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Yet, Rooney, in keeping with his rule, decided to interview the young, aggressive promising defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. Tomlin so impressed Rooney that he was offered the head coaching position almost immediately. Grimm left the Steelers to join Wisenhunt in Arizona.

The Tomlin hiring portends important changes taking place throughout the league. Minority candidates are becoming more routinely sought after as candidates. Bears’ defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has received several head coaching interview opportunities as has San Francisco 49ers linebacker’s coach Mike Singletary. As Marvin Lewis and Tony Dungy know, interviewing often around the league allows owners to get to know an individual. Which often leads to an opportunity.

Is the Rooney Rule responsible for this progress? Absent the Rooney Rule, would Tomlin have been contacted by Rooney for an interview? Had he not been interviewed, Tomlin would not have had the opportunity to impress Rooney with his presentation, preparation and potential. Absent the Rooney Rule would 20% of head coaches in the NFL be African American? Absent the Rooney Rule would two African American head coaches be battling on Super Sunday for the chance to again be a first?

And if this Rooney Rule appears to be working for the NFL, then what is the problem with the NCAA and head coaching jobs for African Americans in college football?


I think the answers to these questions are, unfortunately, no. As Dungy himself said, there are plenty of black coaches who are great at what they do, but many were never given a chance. But while the process may be getting easier for pro coaches, it's still an uphill battle for minority coaches at other levels.

Will Donerson, coach at Compton Dominguez High, was reported in the LA Times as saying "We have guys applying for jobs in different areas, and they have as much chance as a snowball in hell...It's been that way for quite some time."

Anonymous john -- 2/01/2007 10:27 AM  

Isn't the increase in African American coaches a likely result of the influx of African American players in the 70s. As more African Americans were integrated into the sport isn't it likely that we are now seeing the fruits of those players moving through the ranks from players to coaches?

It will be interesting to see if the trend continues as the sport becomes increasingly dominated by African Americans on the field. You would expect to see those players continue to move into the coaching ranks.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/01/2007 11:38 AM  

The Rooney Rule works only to the extent teams take it seriously and do not treat it as a formality on which to go through the motions before hiring the already-identified person (often a white coordinator who previously had not done well as a head coach) they really want to hire.

I am not sure how much you can glean about progress from the Rooneys hiring Tomlin, because the Steelers are a unique organization when it comes to coaches -- who else keeps a coach for 15+ years in this day and age?

Consider the Cowboys interview of Mike Singletary the other day, in which the interview was held even though everyone knew that Jerry Jones wants to hire Norv Turner. Singletary reportedly did so well (the interview lasted 7 hours, so it went beyond perfunctory) that it changed some things. But Turner still seems to be the guy.

Ironically, this is the second straight times Jones has seemed to play fast-and-loose with the Rooney Rule. Three years ago, he had settled on Bill Parcells and did a quicki interview with a minority candidate (I forget who). Of course, the league did not come down on Jones, saving all its venom for Matt Millen whose only mistake was not going through the motions before hiring Steve Mariucci.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/01/2007 12:14 PM  

As Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith both said in interviews after the Conference Championship games, progress will not be made for African Americans until we are no longer discussing the historical impact of African Americans coaching in the Super Bowl. The lack of African American presence in managerial and coaching positions in the NFL is astonishing given the number of African American players in the League.

Charlotte Westerhaus, chair of diversity of the NCAA talked about the extreme lack of African American coaches on the collegiate level. West Virginia University has the only African American soccer coach in Men's Division I soccer. For the 120 institutions that support a Division I football program (also with large percentages of African American players), there are a very small number of minority coaches.

This old boys club of rich white men has to be broken up in order to make way for larger percentage of minorities - women, Hispanics, Asians, etc.

Anonymous Stacey -- 2/01/2007 1:28 PM  


Isn't your logic slightly flawed. As anonymous stated earlier, as more minorities became players in the 70s and 80s, wouldn't you just now start to expect to see those same players becoming coaches.

Sure, 60% of the players in the league are African American, but if percentages were lower in the past wouldn't the number of current African American coaches be lower to reflect that. This of course assumes that the better or more qualified coaches actually played the game. I would suspect that in the next 20-30 years you would see more minority coaching candidates just because of the percentages of minorities on the playing field today. You state that only 1 NCAA soccer coach is an African American but 10 or 15 years ago, how many African Americans were playing soccer on the Division 1 level?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/01/2007 2:36 PM  

While I do feel it is having an impact in the league, I'm going to have to agree with Howard that it all depends how it is being used.

The one positive that is assured from the process is publicity. As bad as the Singletary interview in Dallas is being exploited as abuse of the Rooney Rule, it is still newsworthy. Many people will attest that there is no such thing as bad news. Job or not, Singletary has now been shot to the forefront of possible African-American hirings.

The Tomlin hiring has managed to stay completely under the radar. As a Steeler fan I was shocked until I researched Tomlin and realized he fits the system perfect. He's a hard-nosed coach that believes in running the ball and playing tough defense. I'm not sure the Rooney Rule made the difference in this hiring, unless the only reason he was brought in was to fulfill the requirements, but I'd like to think the Steelers simply did their homework.

It will be interesting to see if something like the Rooney Rule gets implemented into NCAA football. Like the NFL (maybe worse), college football is still being run by the "good ole boy" network where those who donate to the school still call the shots (i.e. Nick Saban at Bama). Unfortunately, this includes many who still live in the past.

Anonymous Shawn -- 2/01/2007 10:58 PM  

i love the site... very interesting.

By the way, I was wondering if you would like to link my nlog to yours. I'll do the same with yours on mine. Let me know. Thanks.

Blogger ming01 -- 2/01/2007 11:55 PM  

I disagree with everybody who says two African-American coaches in the Super Bowl represents "progress."

This just falls into the "African Americans need to be twice as good to be considered average as a White guy."

When will equality be reached? When Dennis Green is on his fourth team, when somebody other than the Raiders hires Art Shell, when Ray Rhodes takes over another coaching job.

Not until we can describe an African-American coach as "retreads," can equality truly be achieved.

Blogger Michael -- 2/01/2007 11:55 PM  

First, I think that this blog and the comments are very thoughtful and insightful. This was a great article! I tend to agree with most of the comments made thus far.

I would agree that the Rooney Rule has made a difference in opening doors of access for African-Americans to enter NFL coaching ranks. I hope that the majority of teams will begin to take the Rooney Rule seriously and stop paying "lip service" to diversity in the managerial and coaching ranks.

The bottomline is that there are a number of stereotypes and institutional barriers blocking access for African-Americans and other people of color in society. I hope to live in world where we can judge a person by their character, intellect, ingenuity, and contributions without regard to race. The NCAA and other major league sports should take a cue from the NFL. How do we change the culture and knock down more doors?

Anonymous Joseph -- 2/02/2007 3:05 PM  

To me, the Rooney Rule is all about opportunity and exposure. As shown in Dallas, Mike Singletary has been presented an opportunity thanks to the Rooney Rule. Regardless of what happens in Dallas, Singletary has demonstrated to the entire league that he is capable of being a head coach in the NFL.

However, there is still a long, long way to go. Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coaching in the Super Bowl is a great storyline. And it shows that advancement is being made. However, the real step will be made when it is no longer headline news when African American hirings take place around the league.

Mike Tomlin's hiring is a tremendous stride. This is a 34 year-old guy who has only been a defensive coordinator for one year. He's not much older than the majority of players on his own team. Plain and simple, there aren't too many head coaching hires that have had this little experience, regardless of race. Dan Rooney, one of the most respected owners in all of professional sports, has shown his commitment to his own rule. Hopefully, others around the league will take notice and do the same.

For me, the ultimate test for the hiring of Mike Tomlin will be in 5 years. When he won't be measured by the color of the skin, but by his win-loss record.

Blogger Josh -- 2/02/2007 3:50 PM  

Josh, I totally agree with your comments. For me, the day of total equality will be reached when it's no longer a headline as to what advancement an African-American has made.

I can appreciate the efforts of Mr. Rooney in effecting the Rooney Rule and those by the NCAA to ensure a more diverse collegiate body; however, by just requiring a minority to be interviewed, there is no guarantee he/she will be hired. I think the efforts being made by these individuals shows the problem is being acknowledged, but one has to ask when substantial changes will be made. Sure, there are now five African-American head coaches in the NFL, but what about the other minorities present in this country. I could accept the fact that the white man got the job if he truly was hired for his superior record and background; however, I have a hard time believing that the "good old boy" network will die anytime soon.

In the meantime, we can only hope that more people like Dan Rooney will come into decision-making positions in professional teams and hire individuals not based on their race, sex, religion, etc.

Blogger Bethany -- 2/02/2007 4:44 PM  



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