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Column: Is the Rooney Rule working for minority candidates?

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

As usual with the well-intentioned crowd, the effort may be altruistic, but the results often fall far short of the desired goal.

The 2015 NFL season was the league’s 13th under the auspices of the so-called “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when looking for a new head coach.

It was largely implemented as a reaction to the firings of Dennis Green in Minnesota and Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay back in 2001-02 with the spin being a white coach in similar circumstances, coming off his first losing season in a decade like Green or winning records overall like both Green and Dungy would likely have kept his job.

Of course, that was an incredibly simplistic way of viewing things at the time because there were many more issues with Green and the Vikings that contributed to his firing, and the Bucs liked Dungy but felt they needed a different type of personality to get them over the hump, something that proved prudent when Jon Gruden came in and took the team to a Super Bowl XXXVII win.

Despite the flawed reasoning, however, the rule improved things for minorities somewhat and by ’06, the hiring of African-Americans jumped from six percent to 22 percent. Currently we are back down to 15.6 percent with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati and Mike Tomlin for Dan Rooney himself in Pittsburgh leading the way.

Lovie Smith seems safe for at least another year in Tampa, while Jim Caldwell’s fate in Detroit is likely tied to the new general manager that will be hired. The Jets’ Todd Bowles, meanwhile, may have been the best rookie coach in the ’15 class.

With “Black Monday” looming again, the next hiring season is set to kick off and the Rooney Rule seems to have created three categories of minority candidates: legitimate ones (think Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson), those who have upped their league profile by being “included” in coaching searches (Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin), and those being used to fulfill an organizations’s obligation (see Duce Staley’s interview in Philadelphia earlier this week).

To date, no organization has ever admitted that the rule contributed to the hiring of a minority, even Rooney himself, but plenty have come off looking poorly by simply paying lip service to the requirement, the latest being the Eagles, who are zeroing in on Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase or Kansas City OC Doug Pederson.

So, Philadelphia stayed inside the building to interview a running backs coach on virtually no one’s radar rather than bringing in a so-called legitimate minority candidate.

I first wrote about it this type of subterfuge back in 2008 when everyone in football was aware that Bill Parcells was going to hire his friend and long-time favorite, Tony Sparano, in Miami.

Wary of a potential fine, which by prior precedent would have been about $200,000 at the time, Parcells brought in that era’s “Rooney Rule-fulfillment candidate,” then-Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, for the courtesy interview despite already having the wink-wink deal in place with Sparano.

The whole process was disingenuous back then and remains so today whether it’s Frazier being used or Staley.

Advocates of the Rooney Rule have always argued that any interview for a minority candidate — sham or not — can help by getting a name circulated around the league.

To me, however, that’s always been specious reasoning.

The Dolphins search was Frazier’s first interview, but he was already far better known around league circles than Sparano, then Dallas’ O-Line coach, and when Frazier finally got his chance, he was elevated in Minnesota, which knew him best so his prior interviews contributed little.

Staley on the other hand is at least somewhat better known outside of Philadelphia now, but he still has to take a number or organic steps before any other organization would even put him in the conversation.

Over a decade into its existence the Rooney Rule still exists to make decision-makers feel better about themselves but it’s real-world efficacy remains limited.

How else can you explain the fact that organizations are still blatantly circumventing the spirit of the rule with such transparency?

— John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen@phanaticmag.com or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also catch John this season on ESPN Southwest Florida every Monday at 3 PM ET; on ESPN Lexington every Thursday at 6:05 ET, and live every Tuesday from 2 to 6 PM ET at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City for the NFL Wraparound on ESPN South Jersey.

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