Black Coaches Rise to Top in NFL Poll

Six of the National Football League's 32 coaches are African-American, and three of them are likely to lead the Coach of the Year poll. Mike Pesca examines what sets these coaches at the top of their game in an ultra-competitive league where the majority of players are black.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.

In a few minutes, why we're obsessed with celebrities and their love troubles.

But first, the National Football League's regular season winds down this weekend, and now it's time for the playoffs. The Colts, Bears and Bengals are among the teams that have already made the playoffs. The coaches, all of whom are black, are likely to finish at the top three vote-getters for coach of the year. For a league that has historically been slow to get African-Americans into leadership positions, the NFL seems to be making strides. NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

The Oakland Raiders' motto--Just win, baby--could be, without the word `baby' the unofficial slogan of the entire league. The Raiders' quest for wins led them to hire Art Shell as head coach in 1989. He became the first African-American head coach of the modern era. Shell led the Raiders to winning seasons in five of his six years, but his example didn't exactly open the floodgates for other black head coaches. Today the NFL has more black head coaches than ever before: six out of a league of 32 teams. One of them, Herm Edwards of the Jets, says that he and the current coaches of the Bengals and Bears were helped by an official program the NFL started two decades ago.

Mr. HERM EDWARDS (New York Jets): I asked Al, the first one to become a head coach that worked in a minority internship program that they started back in the mid-'80s. So through that I think some other guys have come. I think Marvin Lewis is another guy that went through that. I think Levi Smith was another guy that went through that, also, and so I think it's benefited a lot of guys, but not only as head coaches, as coordinators and just getting in the league.

PESCA: The internship has been around for a while, but what really increased the ranks of black head coaches was something called the Rooney rule. Named after Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney, who pushed it through, it requires teams that have a head coach opening to interview at least one minority candidate. This, Coach Edwards says, went right at the league's problem, which wasn't overt racism; it was a reluctance to get out of their comfort zone.

Mr. EDWARDS: You, all of a sudden, as the interviewer--you have to go out and do your homework. You can't fall in that little trap of I'll call--make two phone calls to some guys that have hired guys and these are the guys. I mean, it makes you work a little harder. There's nothing wrong with that because you have to investigate different avenues and different potential candidates to interview, and I think that's a good thing.

PESCA: At first the Rooney rule was a guideline with no fines. But groups like the Fritz Pollard Alliance argued that it needed more teeth. Fritz Pollard was a black player and coach 80 years ago. The group that bears his name tries to get more African-Americans into head coaching and front-office positions. John Wooten, a former NFL player and scout, now heads the alliance. He remembers arguing to the NFL's commissioner that he needed to fine teams that didn't interview minorities during the hiring process.

Mr. JOHN WOOTEN (Fritz Pollard Alliance): The NFL is a league of rules. They penalize you if you don't have your socks up. They penalize you if you flinch. So consequently, if you penalize for those things, why wouldn't you penalize someone for breaking the rule that all of you have agreed to?

PESCA: Richard Lapchick is the director of the Institute for Diversity in Ethics and Sport at the University of Central Florida, which compiles statistics on hiring in all sports. He assesses the Rooney rule quite simply.

Dr. RICHARD LAPCHICK (Institute for Diversity in Ethics and Sport): I think we have six black coaches in the NFL because of this rule.

PESCA: The rule has its critics and one violator. The Detroit Lions did not interview a minority candidate when they hired Steve Mariucci to be their head coach. Mariucci was seen as a plum candidate, one that needed to be scooped up immediately. Going through the process, critics say the charade of bringing in someone you know you aren't going to hire would be a waste of time, maybe even an insult to that candidate. But Richard Lapchick says look at college football for a second. Last year there were only three black head coaches out of 119 teams. But in the off-season another was hired: Ron Prince of Kansas State.

Dr. LAPCHICK: I say that there's no question that in some cases you have showpiece candidates come in to fill this quota of who you interview, but that oftentimes you will get people in the room who you didn't expect to shine who will shine and shine so much that they'll either be offered the opportunity, which--now this recently happened at Kansas State--Prince, the guy who they hired, was barely on their list and they had him in an interview and it was just--he just blew everybody away. They stopped the hiring process and hired the guy.

PESCA: College football has a long way to go in terms of minority hiring, and so does the NFL itself. When it comes to the front office, there's only one black general manager in the league. But remember, in every NFL locker room there's some saying about winning: It breeds winning. It's contagious. It's not everything, it's the only thing. And if a black head coach, Tony Dungy of the Colts, Marvin Lewis of the Bengals or Levi Smith of the Bears winds up holding the Super Bowl trophy, they'll probably be holding the door open for more opportunities for other black coaches in the NFL. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

CHIDEYA: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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