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Minority NFL assistants question if 'Rooney Rule' is being followed

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider

The firing of Hue Jackson continued a negative trend for black coaches, or is it just coincidence? (Getty Images)  
The firing of Hue Jackson continued a negative trend for black coaches, or is it just coincidence? (Getty Images)  

This firing season has been long and brutal, with some coaches saying it has been one of the worst in recent years. The most merciless he’s seen in over a decade is how one assistant coach described it. Another said this: blacks are being shut out of the process.

That is a theme among a significant number of black NFL assistant coaches. Based on interviews with a number of black assistants the feeling is that some teams in the NFL are skirting the Rooney Rule -- which since 2003 has required NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate before making a hire.

Some assistants said that several NFL teams have blatantly defied that rule. These assistants did not want to be identified out of fear of reprisals from the NFL. They also would not identify the teams.

An NFL spokesman vehemently denied this, saying every team has complied with the mandate.

It’s difficult to tell who is and isn’t complying. Some black assistants and interim coaches, like Miami’s Todd Bowles, have been identified in media reports as interviewing with teams for head coaching positions (including the Dolphins). There is no master list of every candidate interviewed by every team looking for a coach.

What is certain -- and something black assistants point out repeatedly -- is the number of black head coaches fell dramatically because of firings. This year could see the largest drop-off in minority head coaches in one season in the modern history of the NFL.

In 2011 there were a record 11 minority head coaches: Ron Rivera, Lovie Smith, Marvin Lewis, Jim Caldwell, Mel Tucker (interim), Romeo Crennel (interim), Todd Bowles (interim), Leslie Frazier, Hue Jackson, Mike Tomlin, and Raheem Morris.

Crennel was retained but Caldwell, Tucker, Bowles, Jackson and Morris are gone, meaning that in one year nearly 50 percent of the league’s minority head coaches were fired. Even excluding the interim coaches this could end up being the worst firing season for minority head coaches in the history of the NFL.

Since Art Shell was hired as the Raiders' head coach in 1989, the NFL has never had more than two black head coaches fired in a season. Again, even if you do not count interim coaches, three were fired this year.

One assistant called this “a troubling time for black coaches in the sport.” Another said he feels the number of blacks may start shrinking again without league emphasis on the Rooney Rule.

In fairness to the NFL, the league office has effectively attacked this issue and the numbers show it. According to data provided by the NFL the number of total minority coaches has gone from a low of 14 out of 262 coaches in 1980 to 199 out of 610 (32.6 percent) entering this season.

The number of minority head coaches since 1989 (only one -- Shell) has increased or stayed the same every year except two. So the Rooney Rule has worked. But this year will show the biggest dropoff in minority head coaches since the first one was hired, causing consternation among minority coaches.

Bowles said in an interview with the Miami Herald he was resigned to whatever his future was in football. “You kind of know what you’re signed up for when you come into this business,” Bowles said. “As a former player and coach for 10-plus years, all you can control is coaching your guys and make sure they’re ready to play.”

Bowles doesn’t know if he’ll get another head coaching opportunity. Based on the way things are going for black head coaches -- at least this year -- his chances seem slim.


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