A banner year for minority coaching hires couldn’t have come at a better time for Paul Tagliabue and his chances at Pro Football Hall of Fame selection.
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During his 16-plus years as NFL commissioner, Tagliabue helped oversee implementation of the so-called Rooney Rule. Teams with a head-coaching vacancy are now required to interview at least one minority candidate. The mandate bore fruit this month with the hiring of Anthony Lynn (Chargers) and Vance Joseph (Broncos) to join Jim Caldwell (Lions), Hue Jackson (Browns), Todd Bowles (Jets), Ron Rivera (Panthers), Mike Tomlin (Steelers) and Marvin Lewis (Bengals).
The eight minority head coaches match the record set in 2011.
In comparison, the NFL had just introduced its first African-American coach of the league’s modern era (the Raiders' Art Shell) when Tagliabue assumed the league’s top leadership role in 1989. Progress was slow to follow until the Rooney Rule was enacted in 2003.
The positive results from the initiative will be a cornerstone of Tagliabue’s case for the Hall of Fame, which will be presented to voters Feb. 4 in Houston. Previously rejected as a modern-era candidate, Tagliabue is being introduced under the “contributor” category. Tagliabue would still need to receive at least 80 percent of the vote to get elected.
During a Tuesday night interview with co-host Bill Polian and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Tagliabue shared his memories on the rule's origins and its subsequent impact on the NFL and beyond.
“It was a culmination of a lot of work by many people, including Dennis Green, Tony Dungy and Romeo Crennel. These coaches were really forces for equality of opportunity.
“It was not about affirmative action. It was about merit being recognized.”
“Go back to 1998. Those coaches and others came to the league office and met with me and (former Giants general manager) George Young, who was working in the league office at that time. We tried to analyze what could be done to get more minority coaching opportunities in the league, not just at the head coaching position. If someone could get an interview even if passed over, they might end up being the offensive or defensive coordinator or get an opportunity down the road in a year or two. We made this an explicit goal.
“Fast-forward to 2002. [Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman] John Wooten, [famed attorney] Johnnie Cochran and others did a study that showed we were not making real progress, that just jawboning the issue was not solving the problem. They told us more had to be done. Otherwise, the teams might find themselves in court for a lack of effort in terms of quality of opportunity and having a system that was kind of a buddy system based on a closed network rather than a merit-based system of evaluating talent.
“I spoke with [Steelers owner] Dan Rooney. He had been a leader in this space. Tony had coached there and in Minnesota with Dennis Green’s staff. I spoke with Herman Edwards, who was coming through the pipeline in Tampa. I spoke with several other owners including [the Eagles'] Jeff Lurie and [the Broncos'] Pat Bowlen. Jeff had hired Ray Rhodes (in 1995).
“I told those owners we needed to have a formal policy to put in place. They — the owners — have to put in place. It was not something the commissioner could do. If the commissioner said, ‘Every owner has got to interview minority candidates when they’re hiring a head coach,’ someone would inevitably say, ‘What the hell do you know, commissioner? You’ve never hired a head coach in your life.'
“I recognized that. I said, ‘You need to persuade the other owners to do this because it’s the right thing to do. Not only the right thing to do, it will make your teams better because you’ll be finding talent that is otherwise not being discovered.’
“So at a league meeting, Dan Rooney stood up and said, ‘Commissioner, I would ask you to put together a committee of owners and general managers to talk about minority hiring at the head coaching position.’ Of course, that would filter down to other positions on the coaching staff.
“After a number of meetings of a committee that included Jeff Lurie, Pat Bowlen, Dan Rooney, [Ravens general manager] Ozzie Newsome, [then-Falcons GM Rich McKay] and [then-Colts GM] Bill Polian came the so-called Rooney Rule. We had a conference call of all the owners and everyone stood up and said, ‘I as an owner agree this is the policy the league should have. We need to take it upon ourselves to make it work.’
“From that point forward, it’s worked pretty well. I had to fine one team [the 2003 Lions] because they inadvertently screwed up and overlooked the requirement of the rule in hiring a head coach. But it’s still an issue in the NFL. How do you find the talent that’s out there?
“It’s an issue in college sports, too. And it’s not just coaches at this stage of things. It’s front-office talent. One of the problems that’s unique to sports: If you’ve got a great coach on your staff who’s an outstanding coordinator or offensive/defensive line coach or whatever, you try to hide him from the competing teams. You don’t want to make him known.
“It’s a culture of competition in a sports league which is unique, different from the business enterprises. You have an incentive to implement your staff of the future and hide your talent. To go to clubs and say you’ve got to make your talent known and give them the opportunity to go to the league office and do practice interviews to (potentially) leave for another team that might be in your division or conference. … That’s a unique dynamic.
“But the Rooney Rule addresses that and forces people to open up and be transparent when it comes to hiring. I think it’s produced a big change in the mindset of a lot of businesses. Other sports leagues — not just in the U.S. — have adopted the concepts. Some did it before the NFL.
“I think it still needs attention and work but progress is being made. As George Young used to say, ‘It’s about finding talent. It's not giving the lazy person the opportunity that he doesn’t deserve.’’