Andy Reid just hired his son Britt as one of his assistant coaches in Kansas City. When Tony Sparano worked as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach, he brought his son and namesake aboard. Josh McDaniels’ Denver staff in 2009 and 2010 included his younger brother, Ben.
We can debate whether these hiring practices constitute nepotism. Without question, they indirectly endorse the Rooney Rule, now 10 years old and a precocious little devil. The rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for every head-coaching vacancy, and it has helped construct a network to rival family ties and the comfort zone of looking like most team owners and executives. Since it went into effect, the number of franchises that have employed an African-American or Latino in the job full-time has grown from six to 15.
Some of that expansion would undoubtedly have occurred naturally, but not all of it. The Rooney rule was born in 2003, a relatively advanced time for the NFL and all Americans off the Apple early-adopter grid. Yet there was still room for a rapid 150 percent rise in the number of clubs that had ever hired minority head coaches. At least one team, the Bears, latched onto its best coach in years, the now-dismissed Lovie Smith, because of the rule. To comply, the Bears had to dig deeper into the pool of candidates, and they found the man who took them to their first Super Bowl in 21 years.
But the best argument for the rule transcends anecdotal or quasi-analytical evidence. It can be reduced to five words: “Because Dan Rooney says so.’’
The Steelers chairman emeritus is 80 years old, a patriarch of not only his franchise but the entire league. When vitriol about the affirmative action engulfs any discussion about the rule named for Rooney, smart souls heed this game plan: Follow the trophies.
He and his family have brought six of the Lombardi variety, more than other NFL team has claimed, to Pittsburgh. Attaching his name to the rule gave it instant authority, beyond the fine for violations or the disapproval of the commissioner’s office.
“When we found out that Dan Rooney was going to chair the committee [on diversity], I told everyone: ‘We won,’” said John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is named for the first African-American coach in professional football and which lobbied for the rule. “When I played in Cleveland, we’d see him all those times when we played Pittsburgh, and we knew how the Rooney family treated people. That’s why I said: ‘We won, we won.’’’
From Steelers headquarters this week, Rooney said the rule remained relevant now, as eight teams -- 25 percent of the league -- went into the offseason looking for new head coaches.
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“There might be a time down in the future that we might not need it,’’ Rooney said. “But we’re not there yet.’’
Rooney spent the last four years in Ireland as the U.S. ambassador. While he was there, European soccer and rugby leagues would consult with him about increasing diversity in their coaching ranks. In one conversation, he said, someone said the idea wouldn’t work unless the teams could comply voluntarily.
“I said if it’s voluntary, it won’t work for sure,’’ Rooney said. “You have to make them do it.’’
Over the years, he said, he has called a few fellow owners to prod them. Likewise, Wooten said, he has had to encourage some candidates to keep trying and not worry about whether the team already had someone else in mind.
“I talked to someone the other day, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go through it,’’ Wooten said. “He was frustrated because he had done it before and it didn’t work out. But I told him, ‘You have to look at every time as a new opportunity to impress someone.’ You never know when it’s going to pay off.’”
The biggest complaint about the rule is that it turns minority candidates into tokens, demoralizing them with sham interviews.
“I think that that happens, but at least we are getting them to talk to a minority candidate to see what he’s made of,’’ Rooney said.
If a candidate makes an impression but doesn’t score a job, word still gets around. Leslie Frazier interviewed under the provisions of the Rooney Rule in Miami when the Dolphins ended up hiring Sparano, but Bill Parcells, then an executive with the Fins, gave Frazier rave reviews. The Vikings ended up making him an interim coach two years ago and then hiring him full-time.
It’s widely assumed that the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007 as a result of the rule. But both Wooten and Rooney say that the team had already satisfied the requirement by interviewing Ron Rivera, now the Panthers’ head coach, before Tomlin entered the picture. Wooten assumed the job belonged to either Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm, then assistants on the team, but the Rooneys decided to take a deeper look at Minnesota’s young defensive coordinator. On further review, Tomlin became the first African-American head coach for an organization that had also hired the first black assistant coach in the NFL (Lowell Perry in 1957) and the first black coordinator (Tony Dungy).
Over the last six seasons, Wooten pointed out, each Super Bowl has included at least one team with either an African-American coach (Dungy, Smith, Tomlin, Jim Caldwell) or general manager (Jerry Reese of the Giants). If Baltimore beats New England on Sunday, the presence of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome would keep the streak alive.
When the need to keep track of such streaks no longer exists, Wooten will be thrilled. He enjoys the fact that the media rarely even allude to the race of quarterbacks anymore. He is 76, a former blocker for Jim Brown, and he can remember when “black quarterback’’ was treated as almost a separate position.
For now, he sees tracking success and creating networks for assistant coaches as necessary. He has no numerical goals in mind as an end point. Neither does Rooney.
He can more easily look back and see how far the NFL has become. Over the years, he has found valuable allies. The late Bill Walsh, architect of the 49ers’ dynasty, strongly advocated for diversifying the coaching ranks. He started an internship program for minority coaches and would personally mentor overlooked prospects even as he cultivated three championship teams.
Follow the trophies. They lead to innovators, not to the people who worry about the small costs of expanding opportunity.
In Pittsburgh, they also lead back to a family tradition, quite apart from fathers hiring sons. Dan Rooney remembers the days when the league bore little resemblance to today’s corporate Colossus. The league was only marginally integrated, Rooney said, and coaches would latch onto exasperating objections about black players, including a deficient wardrobe.
“I remember we had a player, not a great player, and the coaches were saying ‘Well, he doesn’t have a jacket,’” Rooney said.
“My uncle was there, he took off his coat and said: ‘He has a jacket. This is it.’ I always remembered that.”