To Commissioner Goodell and NFL Owners,
The current system for hiring head coaches is broken. It’s not producing good results. Two-thirds of the league changing hands every three years is not the model of stability we should be striving for. The minority hiring record, which I wrote about this time last year, is very poor as well. None of this is good for business. But what can we do to fix these problems?
The league faced this issue with minority hiring 20 years ago. Dennis Green and I were fired after the 2001 season, leaving one African American coach at the time, Herm Edwards. Prominent civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri came to the NFL asking to work together to get answers to the problem. They advised the league that litigation was certain to follow if things didn’t change.
After meeting with Cochran and Mehri, the league set up a subcommittee to work on diversity and inclusion and Dan Rooney made some suggestions on how to help the head coaching/GM searches. He suggested a process and the league adopted what was called the Rooney Rule.
But the rule was only a small part of the process. We have followed the rule but by and large have ignored the process. And now 20 years later, it’s been deja vu. At the end of the 2021 season, two African American coaches were fired, leaving only one in position at the time. Many of the same problems still exist, and the litigation did come with Brian Flores’ lawsuit.
Dan’s hope was that decision makers would follow this process and it would lead to successful outcomes—that is, choosing the best candidate for each franchise. Here was the process he followed, which was very successful for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Set the blueprint for what you want in your head coach. That is certainly different for every franchise but establish in your mind what the parameters are.
For Dan, it was a defensive-minded coach who would be invested in the city and the franchise for the long term. For another franchise it might be an offensive-minded quarterback coach. Someone else might prefer a candidate with previous head-coaching experience. There are many possible criteria but spell out the ones that are most important to you and lay out your blueprint.
I’ve lived the other side of this. My first interview ever was with a team that said at the end of our meeting they were looking for an offensive-minded coach who had previous head coaching experience. Since I was a defensive coach who had never been a head coach, it was no surprise when I didn’t get the job.
I’ve talked to owners who have said they wouldn’t hire a coach who hadn’t been an offensive or defensive play caller. Listing the qualities that are top priorities to you and your organization is a great first step, which leads us to:
- Do an exhaustive search looking for people who fit those parameters. Take your time, research candidates you don’t know, and interview as many people as you can who fit your blueprint. Those interviews must include minority candidates.
- After doing an exhaustive, inclusive search, pick the best candidate for your franchise. Then stick with that candidate and be committed to a long-term process.
When Dan selected Chuck Noll in 1969, the team won one game in Chuck’s first year and didn’t have a winning season in any of his first three years. But Dan was committed to the long-term plan. Had he fired Chuck after three years, he would have missed out on 20 more years of excellence and four Super Bowls.
Zac Taylor’s Cincinnati Bengals won two games his first year and four games his second year. In most cases today, we don’t see teams stick with a coach who struggles like that out of the gate. But Cincinnati did and they are in the Super Bowl this year.
David Culley won four games in his first season with Houston and was fired due to “philosophical differences.” Pat Shurmur won nine games his first two years with the Giants and was fired. His replacement, Joe Judge, won 10 games his first two years and was fired. We’ll never know what could have happened had teams been committed to their coach for the long haul.
That is the process Dan laid out. Unfortunately, you can’t mandate the process. The only thing instituted was the rule to interview a minority head coaching candidate (that was increased to two minority candidates in 2020). Unfortunately, only implementing the rule but not the process has not helped matters. In fact, it may have hurt the process in some cases.
Looking at Dan’s blueprint, I can recommend two things that would help owners make better decisions.
- Have a job description and let it be known what you are looking for.
If your number one criterion is to fix your quarterback, then every candidate who interviews needs to know they must have a plan to do that. If you prefer someone with previous head-coaching experience, you can concentrate on those candidates. Having those things identified in advance will allow you to utilize your time better and focus your search.
- No interviews before the Super Bowl and no hirings until 10 days after the Super Bowl.
We need to slow the process down and make it fair for every candidate. Right now the interviewing and hiring process is done in a self-imposed tight window from the end of the regular season to the week before the Super Bowl – a window in which many of the best candidates are also involved in preparing for playoff games.
This hurts the process in a couple of ways. It puts the owners under unnecessary pressure to make a decision quickly, and it forces many of the best candidates to go through the process when they are totally engaged in trying to help their current team get to the Super Bowl. This can’t produce the best outcomes.
It also has had an inordinate impact on minority coaches because for the most part, the minority coaches who are getting the interviews are in the playoffs. Last year, Eric Bieniemy interviewed for five different jobs in a three-day span. Since 2019, he has had 15 interviews, and only one – last week with the Saints – has taken place after his team was eliminated.
This recommendation would level the playing field. Owners would not feel like they have to hurry up and hire their coach so he won’t be behind in compiling his staff. It would also take away the disadvantage of candidates being in the playoffs and not being able to devote full time, thought, and energy to the interview process.
For this plan to work the Commissioner would have to make sure these rules were followed and teams didn’t try to circumvent them with “unofficial” interviews or secret agreements. Any violations of the policy would be penalized with the loss of that team’s first round draft choice in the upcoming draft.
You might ask me, “Why should I have to spend a month after the regular season doing nothing when I have to replace my head coach?”
It is true that you might get behind in the short term. But if we are looking at it as a 10-20 year decision, then those few weeks don’t seem so significant. Hopefully that time would be spent researching possible candidates and learning about people you don’t know. You might discover some coaches you’ve never heard of who fit your blueprint perfectly.
The NFL has also taken this approach before, with the draft, which used to be in January.
Think how much time, energy, and research goes into making that pick. People realized they needed more time to conduct due diligence on prospective NFL players, and the correct decision was made to move it back. I would argue the selection of your head coach is just as important.
I know this is radical and it won’t necessarily produce an instant increase in minority hiring. We know that you can’t mandate hires and if someone does not want to hire a minority candidate there is nothing that can be done. However, giving our owners the best opportunity to make decisions and giving the candidates the best opportunity to showcase themselves to the owners will make for better, more informed decisions. And, in my opinion, if we make more-informed decisions, we will get more minority hires because there are plenty of excellent candidates out there.