One of the men who spearheaded diversity in the NFL is delighted that the league strengthened its mandate to diversify in the face of regression by requiring teams to interview more outside candidates for top jobs on the sidelines and in the front office. He’s also pleased that a scheme collapsed that would reward teams with better draft positions when they hired and retained minority head coaches.
But John Wooten is not satisfied; and, as usual, he’s got a better idea, and it’s rooted in the basic problem: There are not enough qualified coordinators. So: Incentivize the process.
“Rather than giving a reward to the team that’s receiving the new coach, give the reward to the team that developed them,” Wooten says. His reward: Compensatory picks in the draft, similar to what teams receive when they lose top players to free agency.
Wooten, a Pro Bowl guard in the 1960s who ran the Eagles’ player personnel department from 1994 to ’97, helped write the Rooney Rule 17 years ago. He chaired the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the minority coaches’ advocacy group, from its inception in 2003 until he retired last year. The Alliance still consults with the league. Wooten left frustrated. Minority hiring in the NFL peaked with eight head coaches in 2016, but, despite a job-search modification in 2018, only four NFL teams have minority coaches today. Worse, there were seven minority general managers in 2016. There are only two minority GMs today: Chris Grier in Miami and Andrew Berry, whom the Browns just hired away from the Eagles.
The situation embarrassed the NFL, especially after the two minority candidates who faced off in the Super Bowl as coordinators didn’t get a sniff at open jobs, while white candidates with lesser credentials got their shot.
Eric Bieniemy ran the most-dangerous offense and the most-dangerous player in the NFL, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the last two seasons, but he was not hired by any of the three teams that interviewed him: the Browns, Panthers, or Giants. Similarly, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who ran the league’s No. 2 defense, got one interview, with the Browns, and didn’t get the job, either. It went to Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, whom Saleh had just smothered in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Patriots special-teams and receivers coach Joe Judge got the Giants job. Baylor and former Temple head coach Matt Rhule, who has one year of NFL coaching experience — he was the Giants’ assistant offensive line coach in 2012 — was hired by the Panthers.
“We recognize, after the last two seasons, that we can and must do more,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
That’s what Wooten has been saying all along. You could feel the satisfaction through the phone as he sat in his home in Arlington, Texas, on Wednesday afternoon.
“I had to smile," he said. “These are things we’ve been asking for for years.”
Closing the Eagles’ loophole
The original Rooney Rule was a toothless truce that followed the controversial firings in 2002 of Tony Dungy by the Buccaneers and Dennis Green by the Vikings, which left just one black coach in a league in which 70% of players were black. The original rule stated that teams needed to interview at least one minority candidate for any head-coaching job. That included coaches already employed by the team, which left a loophole large enough that even Jeffrey Lurie couldn’t resist it.
The Eagles’ owner interviewed Duce Staley for the vacant head-coach position that Doug Pederson got in 2016. Staley has head-coach potential, but he was a third-year running-backs coach at the time. Those sorts of shenanigans led the league in 2018 to institute a requirement that teams interview at least one minority from outside the club. As of Tuesday, that number doubled. It is the most-important facet of the new rules, Wooten said.
“I was happy to see when they made them interview an outsider, and now I’m glad they moved from one to two,” Wooten said. "You can’t just walk down the hall and say, ‘I interviewed the black guy down the hall.' "
Wooten has always insisted that the pipeline needs to improve, and he expects it will, since teams must now interview at least one external minority candidate for coordinator positions.
“For years, the league didn’t want to address the inequity at the coordinator level,” said Wooten, whose farewell speech stressed the need for more black quarterbacks coaches who could rise to offensive coordinator positions. “Now they recognize the issue.”
The third-most encouraging sign: Teams and the league office must now interview minorities and women for top-level executive positions.
Twenty-four years ago, just weeks after the Eagles’ Ray Rhodes won his Coach of the Year award, Wooten told me that the key to increasing the number of black coaches in the NFL wasn’t just having more sharp coordinators, or putting black coaches in front of the white owners for a ive-hour interview. It was convincing those owners that dark faces belonged in the C-suite. This would make owners more comfortable with dark faces on the sidelines.
“I was the guy pushing for Ray Rhodes in 1995,” Wooten said.
It is not entirely coincidental, Wooten said, that Grier was in Miami when Brian Flores was hired as head coach in 2019. Or that Shashi Brown was an executive vice president and the acting general manager in Cleveland during Hue Jackson’s tenure as coach (though reports differ as to Brown’s endorsement of Jackson). It doesn’t always work that way; Ozzie Newsome, who is black, hired John Harbaugh, who is both white and never was an NFL coordinator, and Harbaugh led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win. Wooten’s issue isn’t that too many white guys get jobs. It’s that too few black guys get their foot in the door.
The numbers never lie
In its 2019 report, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave the NFL, whose player population is more than 70% minority, a D+ for hiring people of color as head coaches. It got F’s for hiring minorities as top executives and GMs. Those were far-worse grades than the NBA, with 81% minority players in 2019, and Major League Baseball, which was 41% minority.
Does that mean that 70% of NFL head-coaching and GM jobs should be held by people of color? Not necessarily. It does, however, underscore the league’s indifference to the issue, since 12.5%of head coaches and 6.25% of GMs are minorities. And the league knows it.
“At all levels, there are minorities ready to kick down the doors in the NFL,” Wooten said. “Presidents, executive vice presidents, head coaches — all levels. You have to cast a wide net.”
It can work.
In 1995, when the Eagles were searching for Rich Kotite’s replacement, Wooten campaigned for Rhodes, who had won five Super Bowls as a 49ers assistant. Within two years Rhodes reached the playoffs twice and was NFL Coach of the Year. Yet, it’s as if time stood still.
Bieniemy and the Bucs’ Byron Leftwich are the only minority offensive coordinators in the NFL, which overwhelmingly chooses its head coaches from the offensive side of the ball. Leftwich and Pep Hamilton, the Chargers’ new quarterbacks coach, are the only NFL assistants with QB pedigrees in a league obsessed with quarterback-centric head coaches. Still, Wooten has faith.
At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Wooten has always been a calm, gentle man; patient, contemplative, deliberate. It’s what made him a great scout. He is comforted that Steelers owner Art Rooney II, son of the rule’s namesake, Dan Rooney, chairs the league’s Workplace Diversity Commission, which developed the new rules. Wooten watched in shock with the rest of the football world when, in 2007, Art Rooney II hired Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher over Steelers top assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt.
Tomlin won a Super Bowl two years later. He remains the Steelers’ head coach. The other three minority head coaches are the Dolphins’ Flores, the Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, and the Redskins’ Ron Rivera, a former Eagles linebackers coach.
One step forward. Two steps back. And now ... a giant leap?
“I’m pretty positive about what they’re doing,” Wooten said. "I’ve been under four commissioners: Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, and Roger Goodell. None of those commissioners are as committed to what we’re talking about as Roger Goodell."
His faith is not universal.
I texted an NFL assistant Tuesday night to see whether he thought the rule changes will make a difference. He replied:
“Great question. ... TIME WILL TELL."