Though they obeyed the letter of the law, the timing and execution of the Eagles coaching search begs the question of whether the team complied with the spirit of the Rooney Rule. Franchise owner Jeffrey Lurie explained that they fired Chip Kelly with a week left in the season to “get a jump start on our head coaching search.” A few days later (and before the regular season concluded), they’d interviewed Duce Staley—a former player on the team who’d spent six seasons in the building thereafter, including three as the running backs coach—and didn’t formally interview any minority candidates thereafter*.
A little over a week before the Eagles would eventually land Doug Pederson, Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole said that the NFL was concerned that the franchise had “manipulated” the Rooney Rule by interviewing Staley, an in-house candidate who had just three years of experience as a position coach. Reached today for comment, league spokesman Brian McCarthy told TBL this report was “not true.”
“The Fritz Pollard Alliance conducted its due diligence into the Eagles head coaching search,” Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney who helped introduce the Rooney Rule, tells TBL. “The Club was very transparent and open with us. We are convinced that the Club complied with the Rooney Rule. They interviewed an internal candidate that from the outside may not have been well known, but inside the building he has the DNA to someday be an NFL Head Coach – a natural leader, who has a command of the room, and the respect of all of the players.”
“We did convey to the Club that we believe it is a best practice in the League at this point, to cast a wide net to not only consider, but to interview more than one minority head coaching candidate,” Mehri continued. “The last few years, almost every club has done that. Mr. Lurie has always been one of the League’s most progressive owners and one of the owners most committed to diversity. We expect him to continue his leadership.”
Staley was retained on Pederson’s staff for next season.
With Lovie Smith getting fired in Tampa Bay and Hue Jackson getting hired in Cleveland this offseason, the status quo of six minority head coaches—Todd Bowles, Marvin Lewis, Mike Tomlin, Jim Caldwell, and Ron Rivera are the others—is preserved for next season. It’s hard to say exactly what number would be satisfactory, but in a league that has 32 teams, where nearly 68% of the players are African-American, under 20% would not seem to suffice.
Undoubtedly, there are deeper systemic issues here. There needs to be better ascent up the coaching ranks to coordinator positions, particularly on offense. Division I college head coaches, the best of whom become NFL candidates, are more than twice as white as in the pros. Former players are not becoming head coaches at rates of previous generations.
While few would argue that the Rooney Rule has not had a positive impact in aggregate, more can be done. For example, the NFC East, the division with the largest markets and which gets maximum primetime exposure, has had one non-interim African-American head coach—Ray Rhodes—in its entire history.
In late 2009/early 2010, Washington reportedly interviewed an initially-unnamed candidate prior to replacing Vinny Cerrato with Bruce Allen, and in-house candidate Jerry Gray, a secondary coach, before replacing Jim Zorn with Mike Shanahan. Gray was apparently interviewed before Zorn had even been formally relieved of his duties. In both of these circumstances, Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman John Wooten said the franchise was compliant with the Rooney Rule.
At the time, PFT’s Mike Florio argued that the Rooney Rule should be amended to specify that teams must interview at least one minority candidate from outside the building in order to remove any suspicion, warranted or not, that occurrences like these Washington meetings were quid pro quo shams.
“Frankly, it’s just too easy (in most cases) to persuade a person already on the payroll to ‘take one for the team,’” wrote Florio. “[E]specially if the wink-nod-cough-fart request to interview comes with the wink-nod-cough-fart implication that loyalty in this regard will be rewarded. An outsider to the organization will have no reason to interview other than to try to get the job, and thereafter will have no incentive to claim that it was a legitimate interview process if the candidate doesn’t truly believe that it was.”
As Wade Phillips told us last season, coaching is a relationship business. And as Bomani Jones tweeted a few weeks ago, even if you don’t wind up getting the job, you never know who in a room will be impressed by an interview and have hiring power down the road. These opportunities to make new connections are not afforded to in-house candidates, who are already known to the interviewers.
The Rooney Rule has had a net positive effect, but reformation to require at least one minority interviewee from outside the building would be a welcome step.
*Elsewhere in the process, the club was the first to interview former Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who would take the Dolphins head coaching job. They also met with Pat Shurmur, their own offensive coordinator and interim coach, as well as now-Giants coach Ben McAdoo. They reportedly “turned their attention squarely” to Tom Coughlin, who withdrew himself from consideration, before landing on Doug Pederson. As far as other minority candidates go, a reportedly scheduled interview with Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin never materialized, and they made a “very late” call to Hue Jackson, who signed on with the Browns.