Rooney Rule wobbles as NFL's fetish for young, white coaches continues

<span>Photograph: Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports

Since the end of the 2017 season, 18 NFL teams have made coaching changes. Two of that number, the Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns, have had three different head coaches in four years.

What’s notable in 2020 is the dearth of minority candidates getting anything more than the league-mandated interview for those vacancies. This week critics are pouncing after the New York Giants hired Joe Judge, a little-known 38-year-old assistant for the New England Patriots, as their new head coach. While experienced minority coaches like Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Miami Dolphins assistant head coach Jim Caldwell await serious consideration for a top position, less experienced (white) candidates like Judge are securing some of the game’s most coveted jobs.

The question is whether minority candidates feel they have any recourse against the league, or if they simply have to continue waiting for their turn. What remains obvious is that team owners, in a league where more than 70% of players are black, are not making significant efforts to diversify the coaching ranks. Not only do the jobs continue to go to white coaches, they’re going to white coaches with limited experience.

The NFL passed the “Rooney Rule” in 2002 – named after late Pittsburgh Steelers owner and diversity champion Dan Rooney – which mandated at least one interview of a minority candidate for any team’s head coaching vacancy. It was implemented to try and diversify a position historically occupied by white men and in part because of research by civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri arguing that black coaches had fewer opportunities as head coaches despite historically strong performances. After an initial surge of hires – the percentage of minority head coaches before the rule was 6% and rose to as high as 22% – there are currently only four minority head coaches among 31 teams (the Browns, at time of writing, have yet to replace the fired Freddie Kitchens).

Related: Are NFL owners making a mockery of the Rooney Rule?

Some question whether the Rooney Rule is having any effect at all. The only minority candidate recruited in this current coaching carousel is Washington’s Ron Rivera, who became just the third minority head coach hired during this volatile three-year cycle. Rivera joined Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins and Steve Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals, but Wilks was fired after the 2018 season.

Wilks provides a cautionary tale of what it takes to become a black head coach and how quickly that dream can dissolve. When he was hired by Arizona in 2018, Wilks was 48 and had 23 years’ coaching experience in the NFL and college football. After a 3-13 season in his first year in Arizona, the Cardinals fired Wilks and replaced him with 39-year-old Kliff Kingsbury, a white candidate with no NFL experience who had been fired by Texas Tech University after compiling a 35-40 record over five seasons. This came in the same offseason that the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor, the 35-year-old quarterbacks coach of the Los Angeles Rams, another man with no NFL head coaching experience.

Wilks’s fate seems kind compared to that of Jim Caldwell, who was arguably the best Detroit Lions coach since the 1950s. When Caldwell took the Detroit job in 2014, the Lions had logged just one winning season since 2001. In his first year, Detroit won more than 10 games for the first time since 1991. They also clinched two playoff berths in four seasons. Caldwell was fired in 2017 after a 9-7 campaign, despite finishing every season he was in charge with at least seven wins. His replacement – New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia – is 9-22-1 in his first two seasons.

Maybe the most dispiriting element for minority coaching candidates isn’t simply the lack of minority head coaches – there are currently four (Rivera, Flores, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Anthony Lynn of the Los Angeles Chargers) – but the perception that they aren’t taken seriously when interviewed. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported last year that the topic is so uncomfortable that most minority coaches refuse to go on the record to discuss it. The agent for Pittsburgh secondary coach Teryl Austin told The Athletic that he felt his client received a “token” interview from the Lions in 2017.

The biggest snub this year is Bieniemy, the Chiefs offensive coordinator who has presided over the professional development of the 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes and helped guide arguably the league’s most exciting offense. His boss, head coach Andy Reid, has seen his former assistants become Super Bowl winners (Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson) and respected offensive minds (Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy) after leaving his tutelage. Bieniemy may yet be named the head coach in Cleveland, but he wasn’t hired after interviewing with the Jets last year, who instead went for Adam Gase, who was coming off an underwhelming career at the Miami Dolphins. Another odd exclusion is Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who presided over one of the league’s best defenses in Buffalo, but was not even linked to an interview for one of the recent openings.

Whether they are affiliated with a successful team (Judge, Patricia and Flores were all assistants under Bill Belichick at the Patriots; Taylor was the QB coach on the 2018 NFC champion Rams) or vaunted for their technical innovation, young coaches are extremely popular hires right now. The biggest problem facing minority coaches in the past was that they needed to check boxes – position coach, coordinator etc – before being considered for a head coaching job. The Athletic’s Tim Graham documented the striking lack of black offensive coaches in the NFL in 2018, making it even more difficult for a young minority coach to be considered a “whiz” like Kingsbury or Taylor. As a result, they’re losing to coaches like Judge, who are younger and far less experienced. “You almost have to have an Obama-like aura to get an opportunity,” passing instructor George Whitfield told Graham. “There’s no such thing as a flier. It’s not like you have to come in with a five-pound resume anymore.

The one striking exception is Flores. He is only 38 and never rose to coordinator as a Patriots assistant, but his affiliation with six-time Super Bowl champion Belichick likely bolstered his profile with the Dolphins. Would Flores, a young, inexperienced black coach, have been considered had he not worked for the Patriots? It’s impossible to tell, but the hirings of Patricia, Flores and Judge suggest that an association with a genius like Belichick will help your future head coaching chances.

Teams are ultimately going to hire the coach they want to hire, but the striking imbalance between white and minority coaches suggests that it’s not the Rooney Rule that’s the problem, but team leadership. With so much turnover – remember that over 60% of teams have made at least one coaching change in the past three years – it’s confusing that veteran black coaches like Caldwell and Frazier aren’t given another opportunity. Perhaps this is because of a complete lack of diversity in ownership ranks and front offices, perhaps it’s because of lacking enforcement for teams who engage the Rooney Rule in bad faith.

Until it is addressed, however, players in a predominantly black league will be risking their health for the entertainment and enrichment of owners and coaches who don’t look like them.