Much has been said and written about the NFL’s Rooney Rule and whether it’s right or wrong, working or not, needs to be expanded or has outlived its purpose. Here we’re not going to cover any of that, but rather what the rule is and how it works. The Rooney Rule requires that any NFL team looking to fill a vacant head coach position must interview at least one minority candidate.
The NFL formed its Committee on Workplace Diversity, chaired by Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, in 2002 in response to public criticism and rumblings of possible legal action over its lack of minority head coaches. That December, the NFL owners unanimously adopted the committee’s recommendations, most notably the rule that has been tagged with the committee chairman’s name.
A year later, the NFL issued guidelines clarifying some aspects of the Rooney Rule, such as the requirement that teams conduct interviews in person. The previous offseason, the Cowboys had complied with the rule by having a phone call with former Vikings coach Dennis Green. Green assured the league office that it had been a serious, detailed interview, but under the guidelines that wouldn’t have counted.
The rule doesn’t specify what a “minority” is, but the NFL has stated that it includes members of groups historically underrepresented as head coaches, such as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. So racial groups are covered, but not nationalities, as in 2007, the NFL told the Raiders that the team hadn’t fulfilled its obligation under the rule by interviewing Southern Cal quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, an Armenian American.
A team may name an interim head coach from within the organization without having to comply with the Rooney Rule. If they go with someone outside their current staff, then the rule applies. For example, the Saints had discussions about hiring Bill Parcells as an interim coach for the 2012 season while Sean Payton was suspended. They ultimately decided to stay in-house with Joe Vitt (and Aaron Kromer while Vitt was suspended), but they would’ve had to interview a minority candidate before hiring Parcells.
A non-minority interim head coach can’t be given the permanent (or, more accurately, non-interim) position unless the team has abided by the rule. The Rams fired Scott Linehan four games into the 2008 season and named defensive coordinator Jim Haslett interim head coach. The Rams and Haslett then renegotiated his contract to provide that he would be ensured the non-interim job if the Rams won at least six of the remaining 12 games, but the NFL rejected it based on the Rooney Rule.
The rule does not apply when a team has a preexisting contractual commitment, approved by the NFL, to make one of its current assistants its next head coach. These “head coach in waiting” arrangements are rare in the NFL, with the last one occurring in the pre-Rooney Rule days. In January 2000, as the Rams were preparing for the NFC championship game, the team agreed to designate offensive coordinator Mike Martz as the Rams’ next head coach upon Dick Vermeil’s retirement in exchange for a promise by Martz not to take another job. Vermeil had stated that he would coach through the 2001 season, and Martz, the architect of St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense, was a hot candidate. Vermeil surprisingly stepped down after the Rams won the Super Bowl a few weeks later and Martz was elevated to the big chair.
The Rooney Rule has only been violated once. In January 2003, shortly after the rule had been enacted, the Lions were looking for a head coach and general manager Matt Millen made no secret of his desire to hire Steve Mariucci. Mariucci, a Michigan native, had recently parted ways with the 49ers despite a 57-39 regular season record and four playoff appearances in six seasons. Millen reportedly contacted five minority candidates about interviewing, but each declined because he didn’t believe that he had a real shot at the job. Concerned about someone else snatching the guy he wanted, Millen hired Mariucci without complying with the rule. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue hammered Millen (personally, not the Lions organization) with a $200,000 fine, and warned that the next violator would owe $500,000.
The rest of the league apparently learned from Millen’s mistake, and many teams have found ways to comply with the rule even when it has been apparent that their respective short lists really only consisted of a single name. The Cowboys’ 2003 call with Green occurred when it was common knowledge that Parcells was all but signed, sealed, and delivered, a year later the Dolphins talked to former Raiders head coach Art Shell while LSU’s Nick Saban seemingly prepared for his introductory press conference in Miami, and in 2010 the Seahawks brought in Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier despite it being widely reported that Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll was the guy in Seattle. The greatest eyebrow-raiser may have been the Redskins’ interviewing of secondary coach Jerry Gray in late 2009 before firing Jim Zorn and quickly replacing him with former Broncos and Raiders coach Mike Shanahan. To date, no coach that has been interviewed has afterwards claimed that it was a sham, but they could also be concerned about the impact those statements might have on future opportunities.
The NFL expanded the Rooney Rule in 2007 to also apply to team president, general manager, and equivalent openings not held by team owners or their family member. Some have called for the rule to also cover offensive and defensive coordinator and assistant head coach positions, since those are the jobs that most directly lead to head coaching positions. If that change were made, the NFL would probably also have to loosen its tampering rules for assistants. Currently, a team doesn’t have to allow its assistants under contract to talk to other teams except for head coaching jobs. Teams would be in a tough spot if they were required to interview more candidates but their competitors were able to deny permission to talk to the ones in whom they are interested.