[Editor’s Note: Tony Dungy is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl. He has served as an analyst on NBC’s Football Night in America since 2009.]
January is always an exciting time in the NFL. The playoffs are coming to a conclusion as the league moves toward crowning its Super Bowl champion. The playoff games remind us of the goal that all 32 teams have of chasing excellence and trying to be the best. This January, however, my excitement has been tempered by the conversations I’ve had with so many of my friends in the NFL—African-American men who have spent much of their adult lives serving the league and helping create that excellence. For many African-American coaches, this January in particular has fostered disappointment, frustration and hurt. That has come as the result of another hiring cycle in which African-American coaches have been left out.
It’s fitting that we are having these conversations now, as we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because Dr. King spent his life addressing problems of inequality and injustice in society. In his iconic “l Have a Dream” speech in 1963 he spoke of seeing a day where his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. When Dr. King delivered that speech, the NFL playing field had been integrated for more than 15 years but it was far from equal. There were certain positions, such as quarterback, where there were no African-Americans playing. And there were no African-American coaches on the sidelines.
In the years since 1963 the NFL has made significant strides with diversity and inclusion on the field. Today the percentage of African-Americans who make up the rosters is nearing 70. In the last two years we’ve watched Patrick Mahomes and (presumably) Lamar Jackson win league MVP awards while playing quarterback. They’ve brought a fresh excitement to the game and seemingly have put an end to the question of whether blacks can flourish at the quarterback position in the NFL. So we have seen a lot of progress take place on the field.
However, with head coaches and General Managers it has been different. There were five head coaching changes made after this past season and while Ron Rivera was hired in Washington, none of the five openings were filled by an African-American. Over the last three hiring cycles 20 new coaches were named with only two African-Americans chosen. That 10 percent hiring rate goes right along with the overall percentage of African-American head coaches in the NFL currently—3 out of 32. I’m not arguing for quotas or percentages but I don’t think anyone would say that an industry with a 70 percent black workforce but only 10 percent black leadership, is an industry that is providing fair and equal opportunities for everyone. Do we think that African-Americans are talented and driven enough to play the sport but not talented and driven enough to lead and teach the sport? I don’t think that’s the case.
These numbers over the last three hiring cycles are even more disappointing to me because there was a time when coaching diversity seemed to be gaining momentum. From 2001 to 2009 I had five African-American coaches on my staff alone who went on to become NFL head coaches—Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, and Leslie Frazier. All five of them would end up leading their teams to the playoffs and three of them took teams to the Super Bowl. I would have never dreamed that a decade later we would be trying to figure out why the numbers have dropped so sharply.
In 2003 Dan Rooney, then owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was part of a committee formed by the NFL, to look at how they could help foster diversity in the area of head coach hiring. They came up with a recommendation that came to be known as the Rooney Rule, which mandated that teams looking for a head coach must interview at least one minority candidate. The intent of the rule was to get teams to slow down their process, investigate more candidates, and thoroughly gather information on potential coaches. Dan felt that would help uncover some minority candidates who might not be as well known to the owners. In fact, it is exactly the procedure Dan used to hire Mike Tomlin, the current coach of the Steelers.
Dan had a very specific blueprint he used when hiring head coaches. He looked for energetic defensive coaches who were great communicators because he felt that fit the character of the city and the team. That formula led him to Chuck Noll in 1969 and Bill Cowher in 1992. In 2007 he was looking for that type of coach and he wanted to make sure he didn’t leave any stone unturned. In researching the coaching landscape he was eventually led to a 34-year-old coach who had just been named to his first Defensive Coordinator position a year earlier. Mike Tomlin may not have fit the mold other people were looking for but for Dan’s blueprint, Tomlin was perfect. The hiring of a relatively unknown young coach raised some eyebrows at the time but 133 victories and two Super Bowl appearances later, it looks to have been a pretty good choice.
January of 2007 brought Tomlin’s hiring and also led up to Super Bowl XLI where the Indianapolis Colts met the Chicago Bears. Not only were both teams led by African-American head coaches but the staffs included four minority coaches who would go on to become NFL head coaches—Ron Rivera and Steve Wilks on Lovie Smith’s Bears’ staff and Jim Caldwell and Leslie Frazier on my Colts’ staff. The Rooney Rule appeared to be having an impact, helping to bring about an uptick in minority hiring.
Recently, however, the rule has come under fire and many people think it is outdated. With the advent of the Internet, search firms, and the proliferation of analytics in the NFL now, the interview is no longer the primary way owners gather information on candidates. In fact, some hires are made without a formal interview. I know because I was hired for my last coaching job after a series of phone conversations with Colts owner Jim Irsay. We never sat face to face for a formal interview.
Dan Rooney’s objective in formulating the rule was to promote the gathering of information and to give minority coaches another tool in the process of making themselves known to NFL team decision-makers. The spirit of the Rooney Rule is excellent but the current application of it has fallen short of the desired result. I believe the league office needs to take another look at how it can best help the owners gather information on prospective head coaches and General Managers before the interview process even takes place. We need to get more candidates truly included in the search process, by raising owners’ awareness of them long before an opening presents itself.
I know many people think that all of this discussion about the Rooney Rule and diversity in hiring is unnecessary. They think that since all teams want to win that everyone searches for, and selects, the best candidates possible. They think the problem is on the supply side—that we simply need to do something to create more of a pipeline of minority candidates.
I’m all for looking at ways to help develop coaches but I don’t subscribe to the theory that the problem is solely on the supply side. I think owners need help identifying quality candidates. And I don’t chalk it all up to racism. I don’t believe there are many people in professional football who would intentionally bypass a candidate they thought could take them to the playoffs or to a Super Bowl simply because of their race. However, I do believe there are owners who don’t know all of the best candidates or how to find them. I truly believe there are more Lovie Smiths, Jim Caldwells, and Mike Tomlins in our coaching ranks today. We just need a better mechanism to discover them, a new application of the same spirit Dan Rooney employed back in 2007. It will take some work and require people to dig and look outside our traditional boxes, but the payoff can be huge. We can make our great game even better by utilizing all of the talent and resources that we have available.