January 27, 2006

Few blacks coaching in NFL, despite league pressure on owners

By LaRue Cook
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON — Ten coaching vacancies, nine new faces, no new black coaches.

On Jan. 2, termed “Black Monday” in the National Football League, five teams were left without coaches heading into the 2006 offseason. Five more firings would follow.

Less than a month later, only the Oakland Raiders remain without a leader, and of the nine hires, former New York Jets coach Herman Edwards is the lone minority.

The “Rooney Rule,” which was the primary topic at a discussion held by the American Constitution Society Tuesday, states that teams must interview at least one minority candidate for a head-coaching vacancy. But even with a record 25-plus black coaches in the running for the 10 vacancies, there are still just six black head coaches in the 32-team league.

Cyrus Mehri, a labor lawyer who has worked with the NFL, said that, although Edwards’ lateral movement to the Kansas City Chiefs was a first for a black coach, he was still not pleased. Mehri, who is the co-author of the report “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities,” which prompted the Rooney Rule in 2002, named nine black candidates – including Art Shell, Jim Caldwell and Ron Rivera – who he said are at least as qualified as the new head coaches.

“We still believe that there is a double standard,” Mehri said. “We believe that there is an uphill battle. It’s not a level playing field, and there is evidence of racial bias in the hiring cycle.”

The discussion follows a season in which the best record (Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts) and Coach of the Year (Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears) were held by black coaches, and when three of the six black coaches took their teams to the playoffs – Smith, Dungy and Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Michael Hayes, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame and NFL vice president of player and employment development, said he is optimistic about the Rooney Rule.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about with what’s going on now,” Hayes said. “The commissioner and the executive staff … and a lot of other people believe this is the right thing to do. It’s just trying to get the right answer.”

Hayes said that the “right answer” didn’t lie so much in the Rooney Rule, which is named for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, and its “commitment to a process,” but in a “commitment to diversity” on the sidelines and in the front office.

Fritz Pollard was the NFL’s first black head coach, in Akron, Ohio, from 1921-1937, but a successor wouldn’t come until the late ‘80s when Oakland hired Art Shell. Since then, the NFL has seen seven more black head coaches with Edwards, Dungy, Smith, Lewis, Romeo Crennel of the Cleveland Browns and Dennis Green of the Arizona Cardinals still in the league. Ossie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens is the only black general manager.

The “Black Coaches” report compared the five black coaches from 1986-2001 to the 86 white coaches, finding that the black coaches went to the playoffs 67 percent of the time compared to 39 percent for white coaches.

Mehri said that black coaches are still overlooked. Crennel was named the Browns’ head coach in 2005 but not before four seasons as defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, where he helped them to three Super Bowls in four seasons. Rod Marinelli, who was hired by the Detroit Lions, never served as a coordinator but was a defensive line coach for Tampa Bay.

“The path is longer, and the road is harder for African-American coaches to get coveted positions,” Mehri said.

Leonard Shapiro, a discussion panel member and longtime NFL writer for The Washington Post, said owners in the NFL, a league in which 65 percent of athletes are black, are blatantly overlooking talented black coach ing candidates.

“Owners are reluctant to hire black coaches,” Shapiro said. “It’s 32 rich white guys, and most of them travel in a rarified corporate air. It’s a different culture, and some aren’t willing.”

With no set criteria for evaluating coaches, Hayes wondered just “how many owners have the ability to assess coaches.” Kellen Winslow, a fellow Hall of Famer, agreed, saying “the hiring process is very subjective,” which is why some coaches aren’t finding their way into the circle.

Shapiro called college athletics “another frontier” for black coaches. Just six black coaches reside in Division I-A out of 132 teams. Shapiro said black coaches “aren’t seeing the talent jump from college” like white coaches.

Winslow called on black athletes and parents to aid in the process as he did with his son, Kellen Winslow Jr., who played at the University of Miami and is now in the NFL under Crennel.

“I heard a reporter ask someone at the Dr. King march just last week,” he said, “‘What would Dr. King say to student athletes today?’ The man replied, ‘Do not go to a school where you can’t coach.’”

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