When NFL owners convened for the annual league meetings in March 2003 at the plush Arizona Biltmore resort in Phoenix, they implemented league legislation that has become known as the "Rooney Rule." It initially required teams hiring a head coach to interview a minority candidate, and was expanded in 2007 to include general manager searches.
Ten years later, the NFL owners met at the same resort for another round of the annual meetings. The Rooney Rule was again discussed. But the conversation this past March was about refinement, because even though the rule was followed, the results were unsatisfactory for the league during this past hiring cycle. Not a single minority candidate was hired for one of the eight head coaching and seven general manager vacancies.
"We were disappointed in the results this year," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "We think that some of the changes we are making [will] make sure we get the right candidates better training, and we really are doing a better job of getting them in front of the people who are making the decisions. That is going to be the best way to pay dividends."
The league's first major step will take place in Philadelphia this week, when the NFL holds a career development symposium at Penn's Wharton School of Business from Monday to Wednesday. Potential head coach and general manager candidates will attend, with panels on such topics as the expectations of ownership and managing relationships with the front office.
This is not to minimize what has happened in the last decade, when a minority head coach or general manager was involved in seven of the 10 Super Bowls. But it's part of the league's initiative to expand that progress during the next decade after a confounding hiring cycle that left the league searching for improvements.
"We're using this as kind of a time to revitalize the rule, look at the last 10 years and come up with ideas for the next 10 years," Washington attorney Cyrus Mehri, the cofounder of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said at a February panel on the Rooney Rule at the American University Washington College of Law. "We had a record number of interviews, so at least being able to compete, going through the motions, that's happening."
On the second day of the Eagles' coaching search, team officials flew to Atlanta to meet with two Falcons assistants. One was Keith Armstrong, the special-teams coordinator, who is African American. That interview satisfied the Rooney Rule.
Three days later, the Eagles interviewed Chip Kelly, who was their top choice. After Kelly initially decided to stay at Oregon, the Eagles expanded their search and spoke with former Bears coach Lovie Smith. Armstrong and Smith were the only two minority candidates the Eagles are believed to have interviewed.
The Eagles ultimately hired Kelly, but the overarching issue of the hiring cycle was not lost on Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, whose first coaching hire (Ray Rhodes) was African American and who was on the diversity committee that instituted the Rooney Rule in 2003.
"There's a lot of bright, young coaches," Lurie said. "This was a search of many highly qualified individuals - white, minority, and others. So you're in a situation where you have a scarcity of jobs and a huge pool of qualified candidates, therefore you're going to have ups and downs of minority hiring."
Lurie identified one particular area that can improve: the college level. Stanford coach David Shaw would undoubtedly be a hot NFL coaching candidate if he wanted to leave his alma mater, and Vanderbilt's James Franklin and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin are two of the top emerging coaches in the country. But there were only 18 black head coaches at 124 Division I-A schools to begin the 2012 season.
Floyd Keith, the former executive director of the Black Coaches Association, said it's a sign of progress when sitting head coaches can be more selective and receive a pay increase to stay at their current school. Progress must be made, but Keith also said he would be "surprised" if the coaching landscape does not look different in the next decade, and said there would be no argument if one-third of the coaches are minorities.
"We were proactive at looking at head coaches in college because I think there's a lot of innovation going on there," Lurie said. "It's a shame that there isn't more minority head coaches in college, because that's a pool that's a ready-made pool with head coaching experience, innovation."
Mike Tomlin couldn't help but laugh. Tomlin, who wowed Steelers brass in 2007 and went from little-known Vikings defensive coordinator to Super Bowl-winning head coach in Pittsburgh, heard how the league appears to be trending toward offensive coaches.
"Is it trending now? Are you kidding me?" Tomlin said. "Since the beginning of time!"
Tomlin's view isn't far-fetched. Of the eight new head coaches, only one was a defensive coordinator. Three were offensive coordinators, and the other four were former head coaches with offense-heavy backgrounds.
The NFL began last season without a single black assistant coach calling offensive plays. That number increased to one when Jim Caldwell took over for the Ravens late in the season, and his play-calling helped Baltimore to a Super Bowl. Pep Hamilton, who was hired by the Colts this offseason, will call plays in Indianapolis. (Harold Goodwin was hired as Arizona's offensive coordinator, but he will not call plays.)
"That part of our pipeline, offensive coordinators, we were kind of shallow," Mehri said in February. "So we're really pushing to expand the Rooney Rule for coordinator positions, offensive and defensive coordinators, so we can enrich that pipeline even more. And so when we go to clubs and say, white and black, who are you pushing to be the next GM or head coach? We're incrementally pushing to give people more game-day opportunities or draft-day opportunities."
There was discussion about expanding the rule to the coordinator level at the owners' meeting, but it was not implemented. Goodell said it would continue to be discussed. One club said during the internal discussions that more flexibility is needed in allowing position coaches to interview for coordinator jobs.
"When there is an opening, it is good practice to allow your best people to interview and have that opportunity to get a new job," Goodell said. "That is what the whole effort here is about: to get the best people the best opportunities. . . . We are making progress on that, and hopefully some of the changes we are making will even be more beneficial."
The league's next step is this week's symposium. Tomlin noted the importance of the rule at all levels - coaching and front office - so there are not just more minority play-callers but also more minority decision-makers. Part of the advantage is simply networking and exposure, but the coming years will indicate whether last winter was an aberration or a reason for concern.
"I think, at least everyone I know is incredibly open to having superb minority candidates and hiring them," Lurie said. "I see a change in 10 years, where there's a real openness to minority hiring. It's just unfortunate the way it played out. But there's superb talent in college and the NFL in coaching. This is not a scarce resource."
These were the head coaches and general managers hired since the end of last season. None are minorities.