The NFL Has an Unspoken Problem With Its Coach Hiring Process

The NFL has rules in place to diversify the coaching search, but people of color are still not getting enough opportunities. The broken nature of the process is becoming a growing issue for the league. Improvements have to be made, or else the league will find itself engulfed in another scandal. 

What is the Rooney Rule, and why was it implemented?

For African-American coaches attempting to break into the NFL, the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same” rings truer and truer by the day. Only eight men of color were given head coaching jobs during the first 80 years of the league. The coaches were: Fritz Pollard, Tom Flores, Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, and Herman Edwards. That’s it. That’s the full list.  

Frustration over the lack of opportunities for non-white coaches came to a head in 2002, when Dungy and Green were both fired. They lost their jobs despite Dungy leading the Indianapolis Colts to a winning record, and Green having nine winning seasons while with the Minnesota Vikings.

In response to the news, civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran put together a study that showed that African-American coaches were less likely to get hired and more likely to get fired than white coaches were, regardless of winning percentage.

The NFL, wary of a lawsuit and a PR crisis, instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003 in order to fix the problem. The policy, named after former Steelers owner Dan Rooney, made interviewing at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior football operation jobs a requirement.

The idea is that by forcing teams to interview people of color, then those coaches will have the ability to network and get their names out there, even if they don’t get the job they’re interviewing for.  

The Rooney Rule made an immediate impact on the NFL. Marvin Lewis became the head coach for the Cincinnati Bengals the year the rule was implemented, and by 2006, there was a 22% increase in the number of African-American coaches. But as time went on, teams fell back on their old, and very problematic tendencies for coaching searches. 

NFL teams are still not doing the work to find minority coaches

Looking around the NFL in 2020, The Undefeated explains, scant evidence exists that nonwhite coaches are taken more seriously than they were 17 years ago. There are currently four coaches of color in the league. In the past three coaching cycles, only one coach of color has been hired. There are only two African-American GMs in the league, and no one has ever hired an African-American to be team president. 

The rule has good intentions, but in practice, it appears that it has been largely a failure. Nonwhite coaches continued to be interviewed, but they never felt like they have a real chance at getting the job, according to a report in The Undefeated.

NFL teams are passing up good coaching candidates

And it’s not like there aren’t coaches of color who are worth giving a chance. The Kansas City Chiefs have one of the best offenses in football. Throughout the playoffs, they regularly made two-score deficits disappear in no time.

And yet, their offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, only got one head coaching offer this offseason, and it was from his college alma mater, Colorado, says Bleacher Report. Bieniemy obviously isn’t the only reason for the Chiefs’ success.

Andy Reid is an offensive genius, and Patrick Mahomes looks set to have a legendary career. But being in the vicinity of greatness is often enough to get a head coaching job. To many experts, it makes no sense that Bienemy isn’t a head coach right now.  

But even if there weren’t legitimate candidates available, then that would present a different problem. The NFL is majority African-American, but the league has yet to show that the minds of those players matter to them when they’re not wearing a uniform. The Rooney Rule is a good idea, but until owners decide that they want to truly empower a nonwhite coach, then nothing will change.