Is It Time To Retire The NFL’s “Rooney Rule?”

January 7, 2011

This is the time of year when sports fans repeatedly hear about the “Rooney Rule.” It’s named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who has led the charge to ensure more minorities get opportunities to become head coaches in the NFL. Since 2003, the Rooney Rule has required NFL franchises to interview at least one minority candidate before filling a head coaching vacancy, even if the job was being filled from within.

The intent of the rule is terrific – making sure owners cast a wide net in their coaching searches and potentially giving someone who wouldn’t have been considered a chance to shine.

The reality is the rule has giant loopholes and too often we’re hearing about it in terms of “token interviews” – with owners unnecessarily putting minority coaches through the interview gauntlet just to fulfill the requirement before hiring someone they’ve already identified.

Frankly, it’s embarrassing to the league to hear reports for a full week that the Dallas Cowboys planned to give interim head coach Jason Garrett the job permanently, but couldn’t officially do so until they found a minority candidate to interview (they ended up talking to assistant coach Ray Sherman in what amounted to a complete charade). And it’s worse that minority candidates such as New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell are gun-shy about conducting interviews because they are not sure the interest is legit.

It’s hard to argue with the recent strides the NFL has made on the minority coaching front. Currently, 14 of the 32 NFL teams have hired a minority head coach and several, including the Minnesota Vikings, have hired more than one. But how much credit should be given to the Rooney Rule?

I think it did a great job of bringing the issue to the forefront at a key time, but I suspect the increase in minority hiring has more to do with common sense and general progress than it does the rule itself.

Many people point to Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin as a success story – someone who wouldn’t normally have gotten an interview, but blew people away and landed a job once he did. The fact is: Tomlin was actually interviewed after the team had already satisfied the minority requirement by speaking to another candidate, and he was hired by a pretty forward-thinking owner – Mr. Rooney.

Ultimately, the system is flawed and owners can easily skirt the rule if they want. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones once “interviewed” Dennis Green over the phone before hiring legendary coach Bill Parcells the following day. Even worse, owners who have not wanted to come off as disingenuous routinely put candidates through the full dog and pony show without any intention of hiring them.

I do see the value in candidates having a chance to hone their interview skills and raise their profiles with each opportunity, but that’s not enough. If a coach is not truly on the short list, it is disrespectful to bring him into the process.

Dan Rooney himself has been quoted as saying, “I really feel and hope that we will not need a ‘Rooney Rule’ very long.” Well, I believe now is the time to retire it. It is 2011 after all and things have changed in our country and the NFL. I’d like to think the majority of owners and fans want the very best head coach possible for their team – period. Your thoughts?