By Jason Keidel
As a shameless shill, who freely bleeds black & gold, I admit I broke a few fingernails scratching my head over the hiring of an obscure coordinator from the NFL armpit of Tampa Bay. Mike Tomlin? Who’s that, a coach, coordinator, a commentator? He was the neophyte coach of my Pittsburgh Steelers, just their third sideline boss since they hired Chuck Noll in 1969 — the year I was born.
Here we are, nine years later, and Mike Tomlin is the one of the most tenured and most respected head coaches in the NFL, perhaps the most highly regarded of any west of Bill Belichick. His Super Bowl ring branded the Steelers’ hometown, ‘Sixburgh.’
That hiring may not have happened if not for the Rooney Rule, named after the Steelers’ eternal patriarch, Art Rooney. The Rooney Rule, in place since 2003, requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coach openings.
The Rooneys are NFL royalty, like the Mara family in New York City. They even spawned a wildly gifted actress whose name bears an amalgam of the two football empires (Rooney Mara). But there’s nothing royal or regal about the diversity in the NFL, especially when it comes to head coaches.
Tomlin’s hiring feels less like a positive preamble and more like a eulogy. If the numbers are to be believed, then there’s nothing to suggest that football — which brands itself a progressive, enlightened entity that leaps well beyond other sports in the realm of ideas — has breached the 20th century, much less the 21st.
Based on the data, it looks like NFL owners view the Rooney Rule as little more than a formality, an implicit box to check on their path to real (see: white) candidates. According to CBSSports.com, out of the NFL’s 22 head-coaching vacancies between 2012 and 2015, only one was given to a minority candidate — when the Jets hired Todd Bowles. Herm Edwards was the only minority candidate to get a first-time head-coaching gig among 22 vacancies between 1997 and 2001.
So essentially nothing has changed over two decades.
Between 2012 and 2016 the NFL took a chance on 21 first-time white coaches, yet just one black coach.It spawns a chicken/egg argument. What are the roots of the problem, prejudiced owners or just poor placement of minorities?
An article from ESPN.com unearthed some haunting numbers. The road to the head-coaching headset leads directly from coordinators and former head coaches. Indeed, 94 percent of head coaches hired over the last 20 years (133 of 141) had been NFL coordinators, pro head coaches or college head coaches.
Since minorities rarely get second chances, the most fertile soil for minority talent is found in coordinator positions. Yet 80 of the 85 offensive coordinators, quarterback coaches and offensive quality-control coaches are white. Considering the latest head-coaching hiring frenzy targeted offensive minds, it left little room for minorities. And once the trends turn back to the other side of the ball, consider that 23 of 32 defensive coordinators are white.
Over the last 20 years, white coaches were given second, third and fourth chances to be a head coach 41 times, while there were just 20 total minority hirings.
Add it all up and you’ve got 120 whites hired for 141 positions over the last two decades, revealing a clear chasm on the bridge to management. It’s hard to pave the path to head coaching for minorities when two-thirds of NFL players are black, while just one-third of NFL coaches are black.
You can’t force owners to hire minority coaches, nor can you read their minds. What we do know is that all owners are white, tend to be older, and fly in Learjets around the world that the rest of us live in.
So the struggle must seem abstract, at best, to these billionaires, all of whom hop between high social clouds, and many of whom inherited their empires. Lost on the born rich is the notion of farming your soul for the strength to endure. How do you ask them to relate to the blue-collar stiff, much less those stuck under the hard fist of bigotry when they don’t even shop for their own groceries, pump their own gas or walk their own dogs?
Art Rooney built the Steelers from the absolute bottom. Likewise, Al Davis erected the Raiders into an iconic brand, and was eons ahead of the curve, hiring Tom Flores and Art Shell as head coaches long before the legislative beak peeked into the league.
If hiring people of color as head coaches were a priority among NFL owners, it would have happened.
We also know that the NFL, for all its platitudes about mining science and society for their avant-garde policies, responds only to pressure, and largely works from the outside-in.
They only cared about concussions once players started killing themselves. They only cared about domestic violence after Ray Rice flattened his soon-to-be wife in an elevator. And they will only jam the panic button over the Rooney Rule once there’s some scalding evidence that owners overtly avoid minority candidates. Circumstantial evidence, however damning, won’t be enough.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.