Less than 2 1/2 years after two Washington attorneys issued a scathing report criticizing the NFL for its poor record in the hiring of minority head coaches and top front-office personnel, there likely will be a record number of six black head coaches when the 2005 season starts, and possibly the first black owner in league history.
Five black head coaches started and finished the 2004 NFL season and will be back on the sidelines next year. A sixth, Terry Robiskie, served as interim coach of the Cleveland Browns after the team fired Butch Davis late in the year. The Browns are expected to announce the hiring of New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who also is black, as their head coach not long after the Super Bowl.
On the ownership front, there have been published reports in Minneapolis and St. Paul that Reggie Fowler, an Arizona entrepreneur who played briefly in the old United States Football League, has an exclusive agreement with Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs to begin negotiations to purchase the team. McCombs has been trying to sell the team for the last two years, and his asking price reportedly is in the $650 million range. He bought the team in 1998 for $246 million.
Fowler owns Spiral Inc., a manufacturing company that makes aviation simulation equipment and also is involved in real estate management, with sales of $314 million last year, according to Black Enterprise magazine. Fowler reportedly has assembled an ownership group that would meet NFL financial requirements, and he would be the lead owner of the franchise.
Officials associated with the NFL say the record number of black head coaches is a direct byproduct of a rule that NFL owners established in December 2002 requiring any team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate. The rule is named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, chairman of the league's workplace diversity committee.
The rule also calls for a team or an individual from that team to face a penalty if the guideline is not followed. So far, there has been only one fine, a $200,000 penalty levied against Detroit Lions President Matt Millen, who did not interview a minority candidate before he hired Steve Mariucci to be the Lions' head coach in 2003.
The league's workplace diversity committee was formed not long after a report on the dearth of black head coaches was released on Sept. 30, 2002, by Washington attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnny Cochrane. After the Rooney Rule was adopted, the lawyers also helped form the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization with a mission of adding minority coaches and front-office personnel at all levels of the game.
"We think that [the Rooney Rule] has been outstanding. The thing we set out to accomplish with it, we think we're doing it," said John Wooten, chairman of the Pollard Alliance and a longtime team executive and former Pro Bowl offensive lineman. "Everything is going to have a hitch here and there. But the clubs are very conscious of how the procedure should work, and I think they're committed to giving an open opportunity and selecting the best person."
The NFL had 173 minority assistant coaches in 2004, 14 of them offensive or defensive coordinators, both league records. A coordinator job has been a traditional steppingstone to a head coaching position. There also are three minority general managers, also a record.
Rooney said this week that he has been pleased with the way teams have generally followed the rule. "It's working pretty good," he said. "I'd like to see a few different people do it a few different ways, but I think we're getting the job done. We're also getting a lot more people being interviewed, and that's been a big improvement over what it was before."
"The rule was never intended to get a quota of minority coaches, but to make people slow the process down and look at more candidates," said Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy. "I think in most cases, that's exactly what we've seen happen. And when you interview, you may not get that job this time, but if you impress the owner, he might tell another owner who has a vacancy, and he might call, too."
There have been three head coaching vacancies this year. The first opening, in Miami, was filled quickly when the Dolphins hired Nick Saban, the head coach of Louisiana State, which shared the national championship in 2003-04 with Southern California.
Saban, who is white, was the Dolphins' first choice, but the team interviewed one minority candidate, former Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell, now director of football operations for the NFL. Gene Upshaw, Shell's teammate in Oakland and executive director of the NFL Players Association, said he convinced his longtime friend to go through with the interview.
"I know people want to say that Shell was just window dressing in Miami," Upshaw said. "But he met with [owner Wayne] Huizenga, and he believed it was a serious interview. I told him he had to go do it, and he said afterward he was glad he did. You never know what might happen down the line, and that's how everyone has to approach these things."
The San Francisco 49ers hired Mike Nolan, the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator, as their head coach this month, but came very close to offering the job to a minority candidate, Tim Lewis, the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. The 49ers are considering another minority candidate, Charles Bailey, director of pro personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars, for their vacant general manager position.
Some around the league took note when the Green Bay Packers recently hired Ted Thompson, formerly director of football operations with the Seattle Seahawks, as their new general manager. Packers President Bob Harlan had announced that Mike Sherman, who held both the general manager and head coaching titles, would be replaced at general manager so he could focus on coaching.
Thompson, who is white, had been in the Packers organization before and Harlan did not interview a minority candidate. That disregarded a memo sent to all the clubs by league counsel Jeff Pash in early December urging teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any front-office vacancy. But the owners have never attached a penalty to not interviewing minorities for front office vacancies.
"I called Dan [Rooney] and asked him about it," Harlan said. "We had a [minority] candidate in the building" — Reggie McKenzie, the team's director of player personnel — "but I felt like I didn't want to promote someone over Mike [Sherman] who had worked under him before."
Dungy and others would like to see the same penalty as the one that applies to head coaching searches imposed on teams that don't interview minority candidates for front-office jobs.
"If it's good for the coaches, why not all areas?" he said.
Rooney doesn't see that happening. He said owners are concerned about losing talented minority employees they have recruited into their organizations and trained for bigger and better jobs down the line and "they just don't want to lose their good young people."