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The Rooney Rule 15 years on: Nat Coombs & Solomon Wilcots on the rule’s success, failure and legacy

It’s been 15 years since Marvin Lewis was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals and diversity in sport remains as pertinent as it’s ever been. When Lewis took charge at the Bengals, it was significant not just because he transformed a franchise worst 2-14 record into back-to-back 8-8 finishes. But also because Lewis was the first minority head coach hired after the implementation of the Rooney Rule in 2003.

Undoubtedly the most important step for diversity in modern sporting history, but two questions nonetheless remain as the 15-year anniversary of the Rooney Rule approaches, coupled with the English FA’s decision to introduce it themselves. Firstly, has it actually worked? And secondly, is it still necessary 15 years on?

Spearheaded by and named after the late Dan Rooney — former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee at the time — the rule mandates that an NFL franchise must interview at least one minority candidate for their head coaching vacancies before making a hire, which has since been expanded to include general managers.

The rule was created in response to the 2002 firings of head coaches Tony Dungy — the only head coach to be fired with a winning record by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — and Dennis Green, who lost his job off the back of his first losing season despite making the playoffs in eight of the ten preceding years with the Minnesota Vikings.

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In reaction to this, civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochrane conducted a study demonstrating that minority head coaches were more likely to be fired than hired than their white counterparts, despite a better winning percentage.

This — combined with former players Kellen Winslow and John Wooten putting together a group of minority scouts, coaches and front office personnel to advocate for the rule — was the catalyst for its creation.

Measuring the success of the Rooney Rule is to observe the statistics. Between the founding of the NFL in 1920 to 2003, there were seven minority coaches, six of which came after 1979. By contrast, 14 minority head coaches have been hired since the rule’s inception. Purely statistically speaking, the Rooney Rule has arguably been a success. To leave the argument there is to do it a disservice, however, as statistics do not tell the entire story.

Despite the rule’s many positives, there are complications. But that’s not to say it hasn’t worked.

Solomon Wilcots — former player for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers and current Sky Sports analyst — recounts the story of how Mike Tomlin was hired as the Steelers head coach in 2007 as just one successful example of the Rooney Rule.

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“The Rooney family were prepared to offer the job to Russ Grimm, their offensive line coach, when Bill Cowher stepped down, or Ken Whisenhunt, who went on to be the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. But the Rooneys said that they had this rule and if they expected others to abide by it, they had to do the same.

“Mike Tomlin had only been a one-year defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. He came in and interviewed, and in the true spirit of the rule, Tomlin performed in a way that helped validate it. He came in and without that rule he would not have had the opportunity to interview for the job. Well, he blew the doors off. He was so impressive, so convincing, that they said this is our guy,” Wilcots told the Sports Gazette.

For context, Tomlin is still the head coach of the Steelers eleven years later. His win percentage stands at .654% and he’s failed to reach the playoffs just three times since 2007. He also became the youngest coach in NFL history to win the Super Bowl when his Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 in 2009.

Nat Coombs, host of the ‘The NFL Show’ podcast and a Times columnist, also agrees that the success of coaches such as Tomlin and Dungy —Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts also won the Super Bowl in 2007, beating the Chicago Bears 29-17 — demonstrates the rule’s function.

Anything that helps to ensure the right candidate gets the job, and more specifically an appropriate candidate is not overlooked for a job he or she would be suitable for based on their ethnicity, has to be a good thing. The Rooney Rule has quite clearly promoted head coaching opportunities for those from ethnic minorities who weren’t getting them.”

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However, the Rooney Rule can only do so much and issues persist. While it’s a requirement that franchise owners interview a minority candidate for a head coaching vacancy, the rule itself cannot change any preconceived opinions an owner may hold. Ultimately, it’s their decision whether they decide to take a minority candidate seriously, and the rule does little in changing that.

For Wilcots, the issue is that teams are forced to adhere to the rule, but they do not necessarily do so in the rule’s spirit.

An ownership could, in their hearts and minds, have an idea of who they want to hire. With the Rooney Rule they will bring the guy in and interview him and they’re just going through the paces. They’re wasting the person’s time and maybe they’re wasting their own time, so they’re not functioning in the spirit of the rule. They’re still looking to circumvent the rule and hire whoever they want.

“The policy itself is imperfect, but you can’t force people to do the right thing, you can’t force people to hire someone they don’t want to hire. But what we’re saying with the Rooney Rule is, let’s go outside of your comfort zone to at least interview people that you would not have thought possible or deemed worthy of that interview and then maybe they get an opportunity as a result.”

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Coombs agrees, stating that despite the success of the rule as a whole, there is still a concerning dearth of minority coaches and owners trying to circumvent the rule is a key reason why.

“The implementation of the rule is subject to abuse, or teams box-ticking without seriously entertaining candidates from an ethnic minority background. There is still a significant lack of ethnic minority coaches in the game.”

As it stands, there are seven minority head coaches currently in the NFL, which is roughly 22% of NFL franchises. The longest-serving are Tomlin (2007) at the Steelers and Lewis at the Bengals (2003). The other four — Vance Joseph at the Denver Broncos, Steve Wilks at the Arizona Cardinals, Hue Jackson at the Cleveland Browns and Anthony Lynn at the Los Angeles Chargers — were all appointed between 2015 and 2018.

In response to the FA’s decision to implement the Rooney Rule within English football, dating back to January 2018, the second question posed is whether the Rooney Rule is still necessary in 2018. According to Coombs, it very much is.

“I think the stats bear this out. Whether it’s conscious or otherwise, there is a clear disproportionately low number of managers in the UK from an ethnic minority background.”

Wilcots shares this belief, as the rule will force the decision-makers to look outside of their comfort zone, something they, perhaps, would not normally think to do.

“People tend to hire those who are more like themselves. They don’t mean any ill will, they are just looking for someone who shares the same values, maybe share some of the same background, the same beliefs.

“So typically, they’re going to hire someone who looks like them, worships like them, behaves like them and believes like them. That means they’re not going to go outside the box and hire someone with a different background. Through this rule it at least puts people who are outside that box into the mix.”

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The Rooney Rule, therefore, is one that has seen some success, certainly in the cases of Tomlin and Dungy, but it is nonetheless a flawed process that has not yet reached the crux of the issue. That being, attitudes.

“The intent was admirable, some success was seen with the furthering of coaches who may not have had the opportunity otherwise. But did teams fully embrace the spirit of the rule? Questionable,” Coombs lamented.

It’s this lack of success, though, that makes the Rooney Rule all the more necessary today, Wilcots said. Abolition is entirely out of the question. It’s a case of examining what went right and what went wrong, and subsequently developing the existing framework.

“First of all it would be a tragedy to do away with that rule. My first question would be what’s going to happen instead? We’ve got to rely on men to do the right thing? Think about roundabouts and the reason why we have lights that govern our traffic… Because we couldn’t trust that everyone is going to stop! People tend to do what’s best for them.”

15 years on from the implementation of the Rooney Rule and while diversity, or lack thereof, is still an issue that haunts not just the NFL, but sports all around the world, there is an acknowledgement that the Rooney Rule has had a positive impact. The hope, now, is that it can have a similar impact on football in Britain.

Featured photograph/U.S. Navy/Flickr

Jack Nevill
Jack Nevill is a History Graduate from the University of Nottingham and a current student on the International Sports Journalism masters degree program at the University of St Marys. A passionate sports fan since he was young playing Football, Rugby and Cricket for many years before taking a serious interest in the NFL in recent years, translating this passion into hosting and producing an NFL podcast since 2017, as well as being a fan of sports such as Boxing and MMA. Jack believes that the biggest issues still affect the smallest of sports and the people that play them and wants to tell these stories, but fundamentally thinks that the mandate for any Sports Journalist is to educate and entertain the widest audience possible.
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