Has NFL Hiring Become Color Blind?

African-American influence will be strong at Super Bowl again, but with the coaching searches complete, it will be a step backward for minority coaching numbers across the league. Only Romeo Crennel was hired this offseason, with Winston Moss shut out again.

One of the more compelling bits of Super Bowl XLVI trivia, courtesy of John Wooten, is that the game marks the sixth consecutive year in which at least one of the teams in the championship matchup will include either a head coach or a general manager of African-American descent.

"It's something of which we're most proud," Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation and fresh back from the Senior Bowl practices, said earlier this week. "It's a pretty significant accomplishment, and one that shows just how far we've really come in the league. A lot of people have missed that (point), overlooked it, but it's a pretty big step. It's a long way from where we were. There's still a long way to go, but we've also come a long way, you know?"

For the uninitiated, the Fritz Pollard Alliance advocates for and tirelessly promotes improved diversity and inclusion in the league in the hiring of head coaches and general managers. The estimable Wooten, now 75, and connected to the NFL in some capacity for nearly five decades, is a terrific and respected standard-bearer. His points — normally dispassionate, carefully measured, sanguine, and meticulously reasoned — are typically worth noting.

When Wooten speaks, in that deep bass voice of his, it behooves one to listen.

So it's meaningful, we've hopefully established, to point out that Wooten and the Fritz Pollard Alliance have no problem with the manner in which the seven teams who will have new head coaches in 2012 have conducted interviews and concluded their respective hiring processes. Said Wooten by phone: "We understand it. We know that there are good and deserving white coaches, guys who have paid their dues, the same way there are good African-American coaches. We understand that black coaches won't get every job. We just want them to be part of the process."

The mere reality that no one else has even mentioned the six-game Super Bowl streak, especially in the era of factoids, seems to validate the process. The element of race may have finally risen to the level of non-starter. Yet the raw numbers suggest that 2012 might represent a small step backward for the African-American coaching community. Still, Wooten isn't quite ready to sound the alarm or to begin issuing inflammatory statements.

"The progress," Wooten said, "is definitely there for everybody to see."

That said — and we're not as adroit as some of our more vulpine colleagues when it comes to being an Internet traffic-driving and spit-stirring provocateur — 2012 will be the first season since 2004 in which there are as few as five black head coaches for the start of a campaign. That's just an observation, please note, and certainly not a social commentary designed to promote debate about league ownership's hiring practices in the seven precincts with new sideline bosses.

Since 2006, the NFL has had six or more African-American men every year begin a season as head coaches. The streak will end, though, in 2012. The coming season will represent a net of minus-two in terms of black coaches. There were seven African-American coaches at the outset of 2011, tied with 2006 for the most ever. Three of them — Hue Jackson (Oakland), Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis) and Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay) — lost their positions. The only black man to land one of the seven vacancies for the 2012 season was Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, who will get a second chance at a top job. Ron Rivera, who in 2012 will begin his second season as the Carolina coach, is Hispanic-American.

As far as general managers, the appointment of Reggie McKenzie in Oakland as the Raiders' first-ever GM, raises to six the number of men in that position. That is the most in NFL history, and perhaps reflective of the kind of progress of which Wooten often speaks.

Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome is widely regarded as one of the NFL's premier talent scouts, if not the best in the league. Rick Smith of Houston fashioned a roster that took the Texans to their first playoff berth. Detroit's Martin Mayhew was the architect of the Lions' first playoff qualifier since 1999.

"If you can do the job, you can do the job," Mayhew said.

Of the 12 playoff teams from the 2011 season, half had either black head coaches or general managers. Three of the last four Super Bowl games, including this year's, had an African-American head coach. Indianapolis had a black head coach, first Tony Dungy and then Caldwell, for 10 straight seasons until the latter was recently fired. Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, who will begin his 10th season with the Bengals in 2012, is the league's third-ranking coach in terms of continuous service to a team, behind just Andy Reid of Philadelphia and New England's Bill Belichick. Lovie Smith of Chicago ranks fourth. Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin has been to the postseason four times in five years, led the Steelers to a pair of Super Bowl appearances, and has one championship ring.

The six-Super Bowl streak cited by Wooten began, of course, with Dungy and Smith as the coaches for Super Bowl XLI. The following season, Jerry Reese was the New York general manager when the Giants upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Then it was Tomlin as coach and Arizona general manager Rod Graves for Super Bowl XLIII, Dungy again in Super Bowl XLIV, and Tomlin for an encore in Super Bowl XLV.

A week from Sunday, Reese returns with the Giants for Super Bowl XLVI.

"I don't really think (color) is an issue," Lewis said.

Yet as the ever-sage Wooten noted, there is work to be done.

Just three times in 10 years, counting 2012, has there been more than one full-time black head coach hired in the league. In the two dozen seasons since Art Shell was the first modern-day black coach, with Oakland in 1989, only 13 African-American men have been head coaches, six of them, including Crennel, two times.

"We've talked about getting more (minorities) in the so-called 'pipeline,' and I think we've succeeded in that," Wooten said.

Maybe so. Thanks in large part to the Rooney Rule, enacted in 2003 and mandating that franchises interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching spots — and subsequently amended to include general manager positions — the number of potential African-American coaches and GMs has increased. But certainly we're certainly not talking about a quantum leap here.

During this firing-and-hiring season, which concluded on Thursday (barring any surprises) when the Tampa Bay Bucs tabbed Greg Schiano of Rutgers to succeed Morris, the number of black head coach candidates essentially remained static. A half-dozen African-American candidates — Todd Bowles, Crennel, Jerry Gray, Ray Horton, Mel Tucker, and Winston Moss — interviewed for the seven openings. Of the three black men who were interim head coaches late in the season, Crennel was the lone one to land his team's head coaching gig on a full-time basis. Only the Raiders, where Moss was considered to be the early front-runner because of his relationship with McKenzie, interviewed more than one minority candidate.

Said one of the black candidates, who preferred to speak without attribution because of the sensitivity of the issue, and because he hopes to land a head coaching spot one day: "On the plus side, never once did I feel like I was a so-called 'token' interview or that they were just talking to me to satisfy the rules. At the same time, for whatever reason, I never felt like I was going to get the job, either. But I'll keep going when they call. It's like everything else; the more you do it, the better you get at it. I mean, interviewing is a practiced art, OK?

"I just hope the practice pays off someday."

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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