Minorities Wanted … Honestly?

By Jim Souhan
Updated: January 20, 2006

MINNESOTA — The NFL takes pride in its “Rooney Rule,” the requirement that teams with head coaching vacancies interview a minority candidate.

But like Gophers at the free-throw line, the Twins in pursuit of a slugger and Kevin McHale on personnel decisions, the NFL is about to go 0-for-Winter.

If you subtract the Herm Edwards transaction, in which he left the Jets for the Chiefs, there were nine NFL head coaching jobs available this month.

Six teams have hired white assistant coaches with no previous NFL head coaching experience. One (Houston) is about to hire a white assistant coach with no previous NFL head coaching experience. One (Buffalo) might hire a white guy who does have NFL head coaching experience. And one (Al Davis’ Oakland) will hire anyone desperate enough to take orders from Davis, which limits the coaching search to seeing-eye dogs, manservants and Ed McMahon.

This year’s class of coaching hires is in danger of becoming the Average White Band, just when we thought the coaching fraternity had a chance to become a Rainbow Coalition.

The nine teams with openings met the requirements of the Rooney Rule and interviewed minority candidates.

Those men will be reduced to tokens if all of the coaches who are hired turn out to be white.

And if that, indeed, becomes the case, then we will find ourselves in Phase 3 of NFL minority-hiring trends.

Phase 1 was the bad ol’ days, when minorities weren’t considered candidates, much less coveted leaders. This lasted as long as the Paleolithic Era, and can be remembered as similarly primitive.

Phase 2 occured in recent years, leading to this season, when Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis and Lovie Smith — half of the NFL’s black head coaches — became coach of the year candidates. (The other three black coaches are Edwards, who has made the playoffs; Dennis Green, who has twice qualified for the NFC title game; and Romeo Crennel, a renowned former defensive coordinator.)

Phase 3? That could be occurring this winter, as NFL teams carefully interview minority candidates, nod their heads approvingly, then rush out to hire the white guy with the biggest jaw. (Or, in the Vikings’ case, the biggest mustache.)

You would think the track records of the current black coaches would prompt NFL owners to strongly consider minority candidates. Apparently, the Cover-2 defense and West Coast offense are NFL trends to admire, but hiring a minority as head coach is something you applaud only when others do it.

Take the St. Louis Rams. They will hire Scott Linehan, the former Vikings offensive coordinator, over Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who is Latino.

Linehan vs. Rivera: Doesn’t that look like a tossup, or perhaps a matchup slightly favoring Rivera, who ran the Bears’ fearsome defense this season?

Linehan is relatively inexperienced. He’s talented, promising and a good guy. Which is the way you hear Rivera described.

Take the Vikings. They broke land speed records in hiring Brad Childress, who appears competent but has never been a head coach. Compare his résumé to that of, say, Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis or Colts assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, and it’s hard to distinguish one from another.

Take the Packers. They hired someone named Mike McCarthy, whose claim to fame was running the so-called offense of the San Francisco 49ers, and developing No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith into the worst quarterback since Marty Domres.

Lewis, Caldwell and Rivera got passed over for this guy?

Admittedly, this is tricky stuff. We all know that if nine teams hire new coaches, at least a couple should, considering the number of black players and assistant coaches in the league, be minorities. But it’s tough to say which team is making a mistake.

I have no idea if Childress will be better than Caldwell, or if Linehan will be better than Rivera.

Each team, in its own vacuum, can justify its hire. And each team, by virtue of the price of NFL franchises and the highly competitive nature of the league, must be allowed to operate without micro-managing interference from the league.

But c’mon, all you NFL bosses, let’s get real. If Lions GM Matt Millen, the Inspector Clouseau of sports executives, hires a low-profile white assistant, can it really be a great idea?