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Is it time for the NFL to re-evaluate the Rooney Rule?

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Two former Steelers recently gave their thoughts on the usefulness of the procedures in hiring a new head coach named after their former team president

Pittsburgh Steelers v Washington Redskins Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

It’s a very delicate topic. In fact, many people shy away from discussing issues of race, particularly in professional sports. But as the coaching carousel continues to turn this time of year, the effectiveness of the “Rooney Rule” is often a topic of discussion.

The Rooney Rule was adopted in 2003 as a policy in the NFL which requires every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview, at minimum, one minority candidate. In 2009 the rule was expanded to also include general manager positions or anything equivalent by a specific franchise.

The intent of the Rooney Rule was to make sure viable minority candidates were getting the opportunity to interview for head-coaching positions in order to showcase their qualifications. There is nothing in the Rooney rule which forces a team to employ a minority candidate, it is simply giving an opportunity that may not have been available otherwise. Many times in the NFL, coaching hires come due to past friendships and work experiences. Rather than just promote a coach from within the organization, teams are forced to at least look at a minority candidate when it comes to the head coach position.

Not only are the Pittsburgh Steelers associated with this rule due to their former team president and owner Dan Rooney being the person who ushered in this policy, they are also an example of using the interview process and the rules associated with it to find the best candidate. In the 2007 off-season, head coach Bill Cowher decided to step away from football leaving the Steelers’ head coaching position vacant for only the second time in 40 years. The Steelers seemed as if they were just going to promote offensive line coach Russ Grimm to the position, although offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was another viable candidate. Then out of nowhere, another candidate emerged in Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. As we all know, Tomlin ended up being the choice and the rest is history.

While some may say Mike Tomlin was hired because of the Rooney Rule, I beg to differ. Mike Tomlin was given the opportunity because of the Rooney Rule. Mike Tomlin‘s abilities is what landed him the position of Steelers head coach. And, as far as I’m concerned, the Steelers made both the correct and an excellent decision. Whisenhunt went on to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals for six seasons and even reached the Super Bowl where they ultimately fell to Tomlin and the Steelers. After moving on for a year as the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, Whisenhunt got another head-coaching job with the Tennessee Titans. Lasting only two seasons, Whisenhunt returned to the Chargers in 2016 to reprise his role as offensive coordinator only to be relieved of duties earlier this past season. As for Grimm, he followed Whisenhunt in both of his head-coaching destinations as the offensive line coach but is not currently coaching in the NFL.

So the Pittsburgh Steelers got their head coach who may not have even been given an interview if not for the Rooney Rule. The Steelers did not simply just check the box to fulfill their obligations. Unfortunately, many feel this has not been the case with a number of NFL franchises as they seek to employ new head coaches.

Former Steelers’ outside linebacker and single-season sack leader James Harrison recently made similar comments on Fox Sports.

Harrison‘s biggest complaint is the large contract going to a coach who has never coached in the NFL and has only had mild success in college. While teams should feel free to hire the best person they see fit, it’s not that Harrison doesn’t have a legitimate point.

Another former Steeler who has voiced his opinion recently is Ryan Clark on NFL Live. Clark’s statement about the Rooney Rule being merely a formality can be seen in his tweet below:

Personally, I find the entire process interesting as a legitimate argument can be made on both sides. If a team knows who they would like to have as their head coach and it is the best fit, they have every right to hire that person. Additionally, simply shuffling around the same minority candidates to fulfill a rule with all the open positions doesn’t seem to be following what was intended. Perhaps it is just a cycle with the current candidates for NFL head coaches. But I don’t think so.

Earlier in the 2019 season, reports came out that the Washington Redskins were interested in hiring Mike Tomlin as their next head coach and would possibly be inquiring as to his interest. Although I never bought into the idea of Tomlin going to another franchise, or do I feel the Tomlin should even be considered a candidate for termination, I was asked if there were any names around the NFL or college who I would see as a quality candidate to be the next head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I entertained the question and came up with two coaches: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

Without realizing it until the last few days, I had chosen two minority candidates. I hadn’t even thought about it. All I had done was thought about two coaches who I felt are offensive innovators and selected them as possible coaches for the Steelers. No thought was given to ethnicity, nationality, or anything of the sort. I simply just picked the two candidates I thought would be best suited for the job.

Isn’t that how it should be?

There are two things that the Rooney Rule should NOT do. Unfortunately, there are many who believe either one or the other of these reasons is why the rule is unnecessary or ineffective. The two things are:

  1. A head coach should never be selected simply because they are a minority.
  2. A head coach should never not be selected simply because they are a minority.

Shockingly, there are some people who still believe Mike Tomlin was only hired so the Steelers rule named after one of their own would look better. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous. But some people think he was hired because he was a minority.

Unfortunately, I am sure the NFL has plenty of cases where a coach was not hired because they were a minority. This has to stop.

In a perfect world, there would be no need for the Rooney Rule. Coaches would simply be selected based on their qualifications and best fit for each individual franchise. Ethnicity would never be a factor and wouldn’t even be brought into the equation.

But we do not live in a perfect world. In fact, there are countless imperfections in our world. But if in the NFL, and in life, we would simply see people for who they are rather than color of their skin or where they came from, it would be a big step in the right direction.