A decade ago, Cyrus Mehri and the late Johnnie Cochran demonstrated that the NFL was doing a poor job of giving African-American coaches fair opportunities to progress to the highest levels of the sport. Mehri and Cochran made such a compelling case that the NFL installed the “Rooney Rule,” which requires at least one minority candidate to be interviewed for every head-coaching vacancy.
Today, only a minority of head coaching jobs are filled by members of minority groups, with five African-American head coaches (Marvin Lewis, Mike Tomlin, Romeo Crennel, Lovie Smith, Leslie Frazier) and one Hispanic head coach (Ron Rivera). That’s six, out of 32.
As Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports explains, only one of 32 teams has an offensive play-caller who also is African-American. And as of a few weeks ago, the number was zero; Jim Caldwell inherited those duties in Baltimore once Cam Cameron was fired.
“We are very, very conscious of this issue, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told Silver. “We have alluded to it and spoken to it directly, and we feel our only course of action is to push more people up the pipeline.”
And that seems to be the biggest problem. African-American coaches aren’t being positioned to naturally mature into the role of play-caller on offense.”Really, the reason why there aren’t a lot of guys calling plays is that you have to have people ascending to quarterbacks coach and jobs that lead to coordinator positions. And that’s simply not happening,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told Silver. “There are a lot of good coaches who aren’t getting those opportunities.”
As Silver points out, only two NFL quarterbacks coaches are African-American: Karl Dorrell of the Texans and Craig Johnson of the Vikings. Curtis Modkins serves as offensive coordinator in Buffalo, but head coach Chan Gailey calls the plays.
“This is the biggest travesty that’s taking place in this league, and every black coach is well aware of it,” an anonymous African-American assistant for an AFC team told Silver. “They don’t promote you from running backs coach or receivers coach to offensive coordinator. When guys do get coordinator titles, they have to be position coaches at the same time, and they don’t get paid as much as other coordinators, because they’re not the play-callers. And in a lot of cases, guys believe they’re really there for locker-room reasons, to ‘take care of’ the minority players.”
Eventually, the absence of a pipeline of African-American offensive minds will make it hard to find viable African-American head coaches, since all current minority head coaches have defensive backgrounds.
“The whole thing we have to do in terms of building this pipeline is make teams more conscious of the fact that [position coaches] want to get involved,” Wooten said. “I tell these running backs, receivers and quarterbacks coaches, ‘Go to the head coach and general manager and tell them you want this as an opportunity to learn.’ You learn by being in game plan meetings, when plays are being installed. You listen and learn.”
Real change may come only if the Rooney Rule, which since its adoption has been extended to G.M. positions, is also applied to coordinator jobs. However, Wooten isn’t recommending that.
“I just feel that the head coach has to have the right to select his people,” Wooten said. “If they can’t see who’s the best out there for them, they’re gonna perish anyway.”
Wooten is right, but the Rooney Rule doesn’t require minority candidates to be hired. It only requires them to be considered, an important reality given that head coaches immediately tap into their network of friends, cronies, and (sometimes) family members when filling out their staffs. If nothing else, requiring coaches to interview at least one minority coordinator candidate will help position coaches become better prepared to interview for coordinator positions — and eventually to get them.
In the end, it’s a simple analysis. If the NFL believes the Rooney Rule remains viable ten years later when the number of minority head coaches has expanded to six, the NFL should take a hard look at whether the Rooney Rule should be applied one level lower, given that the number of minority play-callers is one and, as of the first of the current month, it was zero.