Tony Dungy’s letter to the NFL: How to improve the head coach hiring process

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference
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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.

  1. 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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

52 responses to “Tony Dungy’s letter to the NFL: How to improve the head coach hiring process

  1. Here’s the solution. Go buy a football team and run it the way you see fit. Otherwise you have no say so in who an owner decides to hire as a coach for his football team.

  2. At last, a clear and considered, mature voice who actually has ideas that could be effective and fair.

  3. The numbers of coaches who don’t make the playoffs by their 3rd year is staggering in that they don’t ever do it. That he’s using an example from 1969 is telling.

    The situation needs to be evaluated, but if a guy is still struggling to win games in year 3 then something is wrong with the coach or the front office.

  4. The coach hiring system is not broken. Teams hire the best man with the best system for their team. More times it’s white coaches.

    Most NFL players are African Americans, so the NFL’s system for hiring white players is broken then.

  5. The only reason Zac Taylor improved was the addition of Joe Burrow. Without Burrow he would be gone by now. Just keeping “any” coach and expect him to become Chuck Noll is wishful thinking.

  6. I like his idea of pushing back the start of the hiring process until after the Super Bowl and the automatic penalties for violating the start time.

    How about adding a coaching combine? The NFL could set up a get together with coaches nd team management like they do with players and team management. Require every team to send their GM and Head Coach and they have to interview at least X number of coaches. Every one knows in advance that these interviews are part of an effort to get the networking done that is so vital to being hired and promoted. Too often the hiring process is restricted to people you have worked with before or who are recommended by someone you worked with before. This would expose a lot of coaching candidates to more decision makers and more decision makers to qualified candidates.

  7. The only thing instituted was the rule to interview a minority head coaching candidate (that was increased to two minority candidates in 2020).


    Funny a lot if people missed that last part about having to interview two coaches, when they talk about the merits of the Flores lawsuit and the Giants.

  8. Thank you Mr Dungy for this well reasoned opinion on how to improve the HC hiring process in the NFL.

  9. Most of these ideas are things you would think a competent team would be doing while looking for their future head coach. Wonder how many follow a plan similar to this. Quite a few teams seem to change coaches quite regularly so obviously whatever plan they are using doesn’t work.

  10. Dungy is an intelligent, decent and moral human being and people taking shots at him and his character reflect back on the type of human you are. He played and coached for an organization that has been the model of consistency for the past 40 plus years, 8 SB appearances and 6 rings. Not many franchises can compare to that. I think his plan has merit and I agree owners being forced to hit the pause button and actually think about the lives they are affecting as an NFL owner instead of treating their team as just another rich man’s toy is a good idea. These people are billionaires and if they chose to treat their team like a strip club that is their prerogative. As long as fans continue to support owners who act like this nothing changes. Their money continues to flow whether they win or not!

  11. I bet most owners know who they want to hire before they fire the current coach. The NFL is about relationships. GM’s bring in coaches their comfortable with from previous relationships. Coaches bring in coaches they’ve coached with before an are comfortable with. Coaches bring in players they’ve coached with before even if they’re on the downhill side of their career because they are comfortable with them. Comfort brings trust. The last thing a head coach wants is a hot shot coordinator pushing him out so he can take over behind his back.

    I highly doubt the owners are going to stand by an let other teams interview their “guy” an hire them away because they had to wait.

  12. one of the most over rated coaches ever in the history of the NFL. Who cares what he says, is it because he’s the correct color? The Rooney rule is offensive to all people of color and racist at its core. The owners are always going to hire who they want and cant be forced to make a choice on skin colcor

  13. I think waiting until after the Super Bowl to begin the HC hiring process is a good idea, they wait until March to sign free agents and until late April/early May for the draft.
    Although it worked out OK for Kevin O’Connell for the Vikings job.

  14. Let’s be honest. Even if there were 30 black HC … someome will cry there are blacks being refused the HC job.

    According to Dungy, no blsck HC should ever be fired.

  15. Brian Flores hired 21 assistant coaches. Only 5 were black. Is he a racist or did he hire who he thought was best for those positions?

    I guess we could ask the white attorneys he hired for his landmark case.

  16. PRETEXT: Whatever your expertise, we’re looking for the other thing makes it a legitimate business-based decision. That always protects from discrimination claims. If there are no SMOKING GUNS to support vicious discrimination, we rely on circumstantial evidence regardless of what our experience & eyes tell us.

    That is why revealing real evidence as in interpersonal emails/texts will be fought to the end. Imagine the things said when they think no one is watching.

  17. Michael Lombardi proposed a great idea quite a while ago. The premiss is a leadership clinic for minority coaches wanting to improve their leadership skills and how to prepare for head coaching interviews and how to run a team. I think it is a step in the right direction if the NFL truly wants to change their system.

  18. Be careful what yall are wishing for .. If you want equality in the NFL then also look at the players also..Go all facets.. Would love to see teams with 25% Black, 25% White, 25% Hispanic, 25% Asian… There are plenty of College players to fill the teams..Owners can pay all the same pay scale..Since Media want to dictate to owners who they can hire .. There you go .. The new look NFL..I guess if they want to get government involved that is what you will get..

  19. The biggest problem with racism in this country is that it is mostly perceived or used as an excuse for not accomplishing something. These owners don’t care about skin color. That’s ridiculous. They are hiring who they think is best for the job.

  20. “Here’s the solution. Go buy a football team and run it the way you see fit”

    It doesn’t work that way. In order to become an owner, the current owners, Good Old Boys, have to vote to allow you to be an owner. There’s a reasonwhy there are no Black NFL owners, andit’s not because there aren’t any Black people that want to own NFL teams.

    THe same problem exists with Black Coaches and Black owners.

  21. Does anyone reading this honestly believe there are owners in the League in 2022 who would sooner lose games than have a black coach?! This entire argument is entirely obliterated when we look at the entirety of the players by race. In fact, fully 57% of the NFL’s players are black. With whites making up only 23% of players. You know why? Because football at the professional level is COMPLETELY driven by performance. The best players rise to the top. The owners want winning teams.

    Blacks make up roughly 13% of the population of America. Currently there are two black head coaches. Which means that currently blacks are “under represented” by .06%. In other words if the league hired two more black coaches they would be accurately represented. Which is EXACTLY WHAT THE LEAGUE DID IN 2006!

    There have been 23 black head coaches in the NFL. One of them won the Super Bowl. In reality the league has been far more open to black leadership than dozens of other top corporations.

  22. Imagine being stuck with Adam Gase for more than 3 years. Because that’s what is called “investment”.

    Funny thing though. In construction there are NO quotas, and depending on trade, very different demos. But the one constant? Most shops who hire their labor are white owned. Good or bad, it is what it is.

    And those workers aren’t running around talking about “systemic” anything.

  23. “Blacks make up roughly 13% of the population of America. ”

    You can choose any statistic you want to support your claim. But reality is that the NFL IS 80% Black. Use that statistic to do your math.

    People tend to hire others that are most like themselves. The owners thinking that WHite coaches give them the best chance of winning is what is called “implicit bias”, and that is the root of the problem. They are NOT trying to be racist. But they truly believe that White guys are smarter and make better coaches.

    That is racism.

  24. Most owners have no idea what they’re looking for in a coach or GM. They really don’t. The Rooney’s should be advising all the owners about how to set up a stable organization, and what to look for. Then, trust what you’re doing and give it time to work.

  25. Why didn’t Ryan Poles hire Eric Bieniemy?
    Why didn’t Kwesi Adofo-Mensah hire Joe Woods or DeMeco Ryans?

  26. If NFL owners believed Putin could coach a playoff team, the Giants, Jags, Lions, etc. would hire him so fast. They Owners don’t give a shag about race, it is about winning.

  27. They should have all eligible coaches enter a draft. Teams would pick amongst who is in the list. Every third coach HAS TO be a minority. Sell its TV rights, televise the interviews…do it at the end of March. Push off Free agency till April 7. Boom!!! More drama, more fan engagement, and more money.

  28. The bottom line is that teams have the right to hire whoever they want,regardless of his skin color.

  29. Incentivize change by rewarding teams with minority play callers with an extra 3rd round draft pick. Then the pool of qualified candidates will become large and impossible to ignore.

  30. It’s tough when most of those new hires go to bad teams. It happens to white coaches as well teams need to give them enough time. The problem much like QBs, a lot of these guys just aren’t very good and are immune to criticism due to their skin color.

  31. Tony said none of this is good for the game. I understand what he’s trying to say but the NFL keeps growing and growing. Viewership and profit are at an all-time high. It’s obviously not adversely affecting the NFL in terms of dollars and cents. Even minority viewership is up.

  32. All this “it’s their team” stuff, “they can hire who they want” is, really, stupid.

    So long as NFL teams play in tax payer funded facilities, they can and should be regulated just like utilities, common carriers, and other businesses. Federal law prohibits discrimination in hiring. The results of the head coaching and GM hiring practices across the NFL going back at least 50 years paint a pretty damning picture.

    The league better manage itself before the Justice Department steps in. The new litigation is just the start. This issue is not going away.

  33. radar773 says:
    February 13, 2022 at 4:40 pm
    “Blacks make up roughly 13% of the population of America. ”

    You can choose any statistic you want to support your claim. But reality is that the NFL IS 80% Black. Use that statistic to do your math.
    Being a good football player is not really relevant to being a good head coach. The statistical reason that the percentage of Black players dominates the percentage of White players in the NFL is athleticism, but being a head coach does not require athleticism.

  34. The only thing I disagree with is the requirement to interview minority candidates. This is still the Rooney rule, which I contend leads to fewer minority coaches in the long term. It forces teams to at least consider factors other than merit, which dilutes the finalist talent pool. Ergo, guys get fired because the statistical chance of not hiring the best coach increases. I agree with all his other changes. The answer is a better process and getting more coaches of color in the pipeline.

  35. I’m so tired of race being thrown into everything.

    If black players think that playin in the NFL is modern day slavery, stop playing football and go be an accountant or stock broker. If black coaches think they’re being unfairly discriminated against because a team thinks someone of another race is a better fit, go find another job somewhere else.

    You are not owed a damn thing just because your skin is a darker shade than someone else’s.

  36. For those who believe an NFL owner should be able to hire who ever he wants, I say return all the tax abatements, stadium funds, and other goodies which the minority tax payers are forced to pay.

    As for those with the idea of making percentages equal general population, you ideas may be helped with the aid of a good statistical methods course followed by a math logic class.

  37. Good ideas Tony. But the one constant are the owners. They want to do whatever they want, and that’s why they’ve not adopted any meaningful procedures for improving minority hiring. Without the owners holding each other to account, we won’t be in any better shape 10 or 20 years from now.

  38. I wish he was this concerned about the new oppressive republican state laws efforts to subvert the black vote.

  39. Using Pittsburgh was the ideal team is stupid. They won 4 super bowls 45 years ago and have a 1-2 over the last 42 years. Tomlin has not got them back to super bowl in 11 years and probably should be fired.

    What is the point of waiting a month after the season to start interviewing candidates? Dungy bases his theory on hiring a coach for 10 years and hoping he turns the program around. That is coach talking who wants to see friends keep jobs long after it is apparent their way is not working.

    The point about Bengal coach is spot on. he would be gone if Burrow had not been drafted and that is luck of the draw not great coaching.

    Actually, what should happen is dropping the Rooney rule and allowing owners hire who THEY want for a head coach and quit trying to rig the system to help coaches of color. By the way, how many black coaches have won a super bowl? Tomlin for sure but I cannot remember another black coach winning the super bowl..

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