NFL Stepping Backwards In Black Hires

By Sean Jensen
Updated: January 29, 2008

MINNESOTA — Nearly a year ago, on television’s grandest stage, the nation celebrated a monumental moment in African American history.
Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears led their respective teams to Super Bowl XLI, a remarkable achievement since the first African American head coach of the modern era (Art Shell) didn’t get his chance until 1990.

Yet with Super Bowl XLII days away, that momentum has seemingly stalled.

African Americans were shut out of three NFL head-coaching jobs, not to mention three front office positions, and only Kevin Sumlin landed one of the 18 Division I-A college vacancies.

Even worse, at least one NFL club conducted what appeared to be token interviews, while several colleges didn’t even fake the charade. The Miami Dolphins singled out Bill Parcells as the executive vice president of football operations as their savior.

Then, after interviewing a couple of African American candidates, hired the two men they were long rumored to want from the outset: Jeff Ireland as general manager and Tony Sparano as head coach.

At the college level, Texas A&M and Mississippi, two public institutions, didn’t even bother to interview any minority candidates before hiring Mike Sherman and Houston Nutt.

“The fact that people are considered; that probably is progress,” Dungy said. “But you look at the bottom line, and you ask, ‘What happened?’” Something is afoul in football.

Dungy and Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director John Wooten provided positive spins on the recent NFL hirings (the Washington Redskins have yet to replace Joe Gibbs).

Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches & Administrators, admitted that he was “disturbed” by what’s happened at the collegiate level.

“We’re up to 8, which is actually an all-time high,” Keith said before letting loose an uncomfortable laugh. “But high compared to what?”

“Disturbed” is diplomatic.

Appalling is more appropriate to describe the racial “advancement” that has been made in the nation’s most popular sport, one in which more than half of collegiate and 70 percent of NFL players are identified as African American.

Only five of the 32 NFL head coaches are African American, while six of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches are African American (the other two minorities are Mario Cristobal of Florida International, who is Latino-American, and Ken Niumatalolo of Navy, who is Polynesian-American).

Race is not often mentioned when managers in Major League Baseball, or coaches in the National Basketball Association or NCAA are hired and fired. That’s because the percentages aren’t as abominable as football, and plum jobs have been handed to black and white candidates, alike.

“You would think colleges would be ahead of the professional game. It’s an academic environment, and it’s not all supposed to be about winning, and it’s more open minded and progressive,” Dungy said. “But it just seems like when they do open up, the door has been closed for minorities.”

Specifically, minority coaches generally get their foot in the door as head coaches at programs that “historically haven’t been good,” Dungy said.

“That’s the tough part,” he said. “There seems to be a struggle to get an opportunity when a Nebraska opens up, or a Michigan opens up.”

Some people are wondering whether the Rooney Rule — the NFL mandate that teams interview minority candidates before hiring a head coach — has served its purpose.

But the questionable searches being conducted, most obviously by the Dolphins, should raise red flags about the commitment of NFL owners of honoring the Rooney Rule.

In fact, if anything, the NFL should expand the reach of the Rooney Rule to other front office positions.

A league spokesman said that is not under consideration at the time, and Wooten said his organization would not “push for that,” noting that Joey Clinkscales of the New York Jets and Reggie McKenzie of the Green Bay Packers were among those who recently interviewed for general manager jobs.

“Is it where we want it to be? No,” Wooten said of the diversification of the NFL. “There are still bumps. But the lights are shining on the bumps, and everyone is working together.”