Photo: David Cornwell
Epilogue: Where do we go from here?
by David Cornwell and Jimmy Raye
“The NFL has a responsibility to provide access and a welcoming approach to minority candidates, but the candidates also have a responsibility to learn career and networking skills.”
– David Cornwell and Jimmy Raye
The absence of a minority hire as a head coach or general manager for the 2013 NFL job cycle was discouraging, but it’s not a reason yet to wring hands, lose faith or remain frustrated, not as long as the NFL responds as it did in the off-season to the lack of minority hires. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell demonstrated in the offseason a re-commitment to past league programs that were designed to fill the hiring pipeline with qualified candidates – minority and white aspirants alike.
My name is David Cornwell, and I serve as executive director of the NFL Coaches Association. I work with Jimmy Raye, the president of the association and a pioneer among minority assistant coaches. We are both African-Americans, but we are committed to serving our constituency of both minority and white NFL assistant coaches.
Jimmy’s NFL coaching experience spans five decades from his first job with the San Francisco 49ers in 1977 to his position as a senior offensive assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When Jimmy joined the 49ers’ staff, there were only three other black assistant coaches throughout an NFL that at the time numbered 28 teams. Six years later he was one of the first black offensive coordinators when Los Angeles Rams head coach John Robinson appointed him for the 1983 season.
My experience addressing NFL minority opportunities dates back to Pete Rozelle’s tenure as the league’s commissioner. I was hired in 1987 as assistant general counsel and director of equal employment, and I continued in that role with Rozelle’s successor, Paul Tagliabue, until 1993.
In the 2013 offseason, when none of seven openings for a head coach or eight for a general manager were filled by a minority candidate, the NFL and Goodell took action. In May, the league re-established the NFL Career Development Symposium at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.
The NFL symposium originally ran from 1998 to 2008, and alumni from those symposiums include current minority head coaches are Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings) and Ron Rivera (Carolina Panthers) as well as current white head coaches John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens), Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis Colts) and Mike Smith (Atlanta Falcons).
Discontinuing the symposium was a mistake. Re-establishing the symposium was a significant step that hopefully duplicates its success in the future.
The NFL has a responsibility to provide access and a welcoming approach to minority candidates, but the candidates also have a responsibility to learn and develop networking skills. We want to see the best person for the job hired, but without the NFL Career Development Symposium, there are fewer avenues for minority candidates to access the pool.
The symposium teaches career skills to assistant coaches and junior executives that aspire to be named a head coach or general manager. The instruction takes place in the presence of NFL owners and executive personnel.
At the 2013 symposium, Goodell was joined by team owners and presidents Robert Kraft (New England Patriots), Woody Johnson (New York Jets), Dan Rooney (Pittsburgh Steelers), Shahid Kahn (Jacksonville Jaguars), John Mara (New York Giants) and Michael Bidwell (Arizona Cardinals). They participated on panels and in breakout sessions.
The environment provided mingling opportunities and such networking fosters a pool of candidates. Ideally, we want candidates to place their name in circulation from what they’ve learned and who’ve they met.
Let’s say I’m an assistant coach and my goal is to become a head coach. When I attend the NFL symposium, I have the opportunity to meet Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn. During the season, then, when my team faces the Jaguars, I’m sure to be out on the field early to see if there is a chance to say hello to Kahn. That’s how networking through the NFL symposium pays off. When jobs come open in the offseason, hopefully I’ve made a lasting impression on NFL owners and general managers I’ve met.
We feel this approach differs from the Rooney Rule and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which were both established in 2003 to promote minority hiring. The important distinction is we want to see a “numerical measurement” of minority candidates rather than a “measurement goal.”
Let me explain. What this means is we prefer a numerical measurement that identifies the number of qualified minority candidates fed into the pool.
This approach differs dramatically from a measurement goal. A measurement goal requires a team to interview at least one minority candidate. This dangerously crosses the line to a quota – a word Jimmy and I don’t like to see used.
The Rooney Rule and Fritz Pollard Alliance no doubt played a role in getting folks interviewed, but I’m not sure they played a role in getting folks hired. That, of course, is the objective. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, unfortunately, has developed into a clearinghouse. We should not have a single entity identifying candidates. That isn’t the way teams find white coaches.
When the Rooney Rule and Fritz Pollard Alliance were established in 2003, the objectives were explained at a conference for sports lawyers that I attended. The goal was to establish a rule that requires teams to interview a black candidate. I spoke up and said, “Don’t do it. You’re establishing a ceiling instead of a floor.” I was concerned teams would only interview one black candidate and then move on. That, as we’ve seen, was precisely what happened.
With the Rooney Rule/Fritz Pollard measurement goal, a minority candidate’s name is provided to a team. But that club may not have the proper background on the candidate to learn if the name fed to them was the right fit for the job. The name provided might be a defensive coach, but the team prefers to hire an offensive coach.
A measurement goal misses the point of building a pipeline to replenish the pool with a variety of candidates from year to year.
The numerical goal, which the NFL symposium develops through networking and career skills, is needed to provide a stocked pool. The owners and their search committees are made aware of the minority candidate’s qualifications before the formal interview takes place. If they’re focused on an offensive coach, they’ll find an offensive coach to interview – or vice versa.
From 2010 to the 2013 offseason – a period of time when no NFL symposium staged – there were 23 openings for a head coach, but only two black candidates were hired. The Oakland Raiders promoted Hue Jackson from offensive coordinator in 2010 to head coach in 2011, but fired him at the end of the season. The Kansas City Chiefs promoted Romeo Crennel from defensive coordinator to interim head coach late in the 2011 season. The Chiefs removed the interim tag in 2012, but they fired Crennel at the end of the season.
The Rooney Rule/Fritz Pollard Alliance served a purpose to raise awareness of the lack of minority coaches in the NFL, but Jimmy and I don’t believe either program possesses the tools to fill the pipeline with minority candidates as effectively as the NFL symposium and future programs that could be developed.
If we look back 20-plus years to the first black head coaches hired, they benefitted from the media placing their names in circulation. In the mid-1980s, national publications such as Sports Illustrated and Pro Football Weekly and local newspapers reported on the NFL’s abysmal minority hiring record. The stories shined a light on promising candidates that included Art Shell, Dennis Green, Jimmy Raye, Tony Dungy, Johnny Roland and Billie Matthews. Essentially, the media built the first pool of candidates with stories that raised these names as coaches who deserved an equal opportunity.
Shell, Green and Dungy were provided a chance and those pioneer black head coaches led their team to playoff berths. In the 1995 season, Ray Rhodes was voted the NFL Coach of the Year in his first year leading the Philadelphia Eagles. By the 2006 season, we had progressed to the point where we saw two African-Americans on opposite sidelines in Super Bowl XLI when Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts defeated Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears.
In the last seven seasons, Super Bowl titles have been claimed three times by teams with a black general manager – the New York Giants’ Jerry Reese (XLII and XLVI) and the Baltimore Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome (XLVII) – and twice by a black head coach – Dungy and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin (Super Bowl XL).
Every Super Bowl since the Dungy-Smith breakthrough in XLI has featured at least one of the teams with a black head coach or black general manager. But the success of pioneer black head coaches and general managers hasn’t translated into a growing pool of candidates. The NFL remains decades behind the NBA in terms of identifying candidates. At the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, there were 13 African-American head coaches among the 30 basketball teams. In addition, coaches such as Doc Rivers, Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins, Maurice Cheeks and Mike Brown – to name a few – have been hired, fired and rehired for another job.
Without a growing pool of candidates, we risk another 2013 shutout of minority candidates. The explanation most commonly given for the shutout was owners sought offensive coordinators (that doesn’t explain the lack of general managers hired), while most black coordinators are on the defensive side of the ball.
We recognize and accept that there are trends that appear in NFL hiring cycles. Teams opt for offense or defense, motivators or disciplinarians and experience or fresh energy. But understanding there are trends serves to place an increased need on building pools.
Another recent trend in the NFL has seen teams hiring venerable retired general managers as consultants. If Ernie Accorsi, Ron Wolf and Bill Polian are to be opinion makers and resources for teams in hiring, then minority coaches need to find their way into their networks.
We cannot assume every time a black man doesn’t get hired, it’s because he’s black. But we also can no longer accept that the only way a black man can get hired is if there is special program, such as the Rooney Rule/Pollard Alliance, for black coaches.
The point is to create access and then build relationships. That’s what everybody has to do. That’s how you get jobs. Our job is to make sure the playing field is level for minorities – and not unfair to non-minorities.
The NFL can help raise the awareness of qualified candidates through the media with its own NFL Network. In the context of new technology, there is a thirst for information. We would like to see the NFL Network use NFL assistant coaches – black and white – to appear as spokesmen to discuss issues such as safety rules, other initiatives and team-by-team looks. That’s not a minority program, but it includes minorities in it. We want the NFL to use our assistant coaches to help it continue to grow.
When I worked in the NFL office, Reggie Roberts, now the vice president of communications for the Atlanta Falcons, and I would write a story on a black candidate and send it out to national writers. They would use it in their news and notes. We created a buzz around coaches.
I see emerging candidates in Mel Tucker, the defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, and Ray Horton, the defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Pepper Johnson is a linebackers coach with the New England Patriots. George Stewart is a wide receivers coach with the Minnesota Vikings. They have built relationships. They are serious about their craft and want to continue to climb the ladder.
The ability to lead an NFL team requires expertise, work ethic, communication skills and decisive decision-making. These are characteristics that are not limited to offensive or defensive coordinators or skin color.
As demonstrated by the NFL’s response to restart the NFL Career Development Symposium, you can be assured the Commissioner Goodell has this issue on his radar screen.
There is reason to be optimistic. When you emerge from the emotional aspect of this issue, you see we still have a ways to go. But the objective is being addressed.