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Black coaches doing worse than ever and why this is a good thing

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In their "Freakonomics for sports" book, Scorecasting, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim challenge conventional wisdom, uncover the hidden influences in sports and use reams of data to investigate questions that tug at every fan. Are there really make-up calls in the NBA? Is there, in fact, a home field advantage? Is there really no 'I' in team?

In the following excerpt adapted from the book, the authors -- one a University of Chicago economist, the other a writer at Sports Illustrated -- consider why black NFL coaches are doing worse than ever, and why this is a good thing.

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will win try to win the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history. And Mike Tomlin -- already the first man under 40 to guide two teams to the Super Bowl -- will go for his second ring. A win would also make him the first African-American coach to win twice, surpassing Tony Dungy, who oversaw Indianapolis' championship season in 2008. What's more, had Lovie Smith's Bears beaten Green Bay in the NFC Championship, Chicago and Pittsburgh would have [made it] the second time in five years two black coaches would have matched wits for the Lombardi Trophy.

At first blush you'd think these are flush times for black NFL coaches. Well, yes and no. Overall, black coaches are doing worse than ever. And yet this is, ultimately, a good thing, a sign of progress. Let us explain.

Two days after the Tampa Bay Bucs ended their 2001 season, ownership fired the team's coach, Dungy, and replaced him with Jon Gruden. This firing left the NFL with two African-American head coaches, roughly six percent. On its face, it was a dismal record, especially when you considered that African-Americans made up nearly three-quarters of the league's players. And this wasn't just an "off year." In 1990 and 1991, there was just one African-American head coach in the NFL. From 1992 to 1995 there were two. There were three between 1996 and 1999. And there were two in 2002. This struck many as wrong, but statistics alone weren't enough to show bias. One could just as easily claim the disproportionately small pool of white players was, statistically anyway, more anomalous.

Yet Johnnie Cochran Jr. joined forces with another activist attorney, Cyrus Mehri, and decided to challenge the NFL's hiring practices. At the time, Cochran and Mehri had been working on a case targeting what they saw as biased hiring practices at Coca-Cola. In the course of the Coke case, they had crossed paths with Janice Madden, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in labor economics. Madden was in Atlanta, also working on the same case, using a statistical model to prove that women were not, as the company alleged, inferior salespeople. A thought occurred to Cochran and Mehri: Maybe Madden could initiate a similar study with respect to NFL coaches.

Although Madden shared a surname with a former NFL coach, popular NFL announcer and video game impresario, the football similarities ended there. She was not much of a fan. Her husband was a Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder, but she preferred to spend her Sundays at home. Still she made Cochran and Mehri an offer: "If you can put the data together for me, I'll do this pro bono." They did, and she did.

Madden found that, between 1990 and 2002, the African-American coaches in the NFL were, statistically, far more successful than the white coaches, averaging nine-plus wins a season versus eight for their white counterparts. Sixty-nine percent of the time, the black coaches took their teams to the playoffs, versus only 39 percent for the others. In their first season on the job, black coaches took their teams to the postseason 71 percent of the time; rookie white coaches did so just 23 percent of the time. Clearly, black coaches had to be exceptional to win a job in the first place.

Perhaps, one could argue, black coaches ended up being offered jobs by the better teams, i.e. the franchises that could afford to pursue talent more aggressively? Madden reran her study, controlling for team quality. Still, African-American coaches clearly outperformed their colleagues. If this wasn't a smoking gun, to Madden's thinking, this sure carried the strong whiff of bias. If African-American football coaches were being hired fairly, shouldn't they be performing comparably to white coaches? Given that the won-loss records of African-American coaches were substantially better, it suggested the bar was being set much higher for them.

When Madden went public with her findings, she was blind-sided by the criticism. The NFL made the argument that Madden's sample size -- in many seasons there were just two African-American coaches -- was too small to be statistically significant. Whose fault is that? Madden wondered. At the national conference for sports lawyers, an NFL executive dismissed Madden's work, suggesting that Madden could have run the numbers for "coaches named Mike" and for "coaches not named Mike" and come up with similar results. (Curious, Madden ran the numbers and found this wasn't the case.)

Still, due in no small part to the work of a female sociologist whose football knowledge was admittedly modest, the NFL changed its ways. In 2003, the league implemented the so-called Rooney Rule, named for Dan Rooney, the progressive Steelers owner who chaired the committee looking into the issue. The rule decreed that teams interview at least one minority applicant to fill coaching vacancies. Otherwise, the franchise would face a stiff fine. The league achieved its aim. By 2005, there were six African-American coaches in the NFL, including Dungy, who had been hired by the Indianapolis Colts.

And how has this new brigade of black coaches done? Worse than their predecessors. Much worse, in fact. From 2003 to the present, African-American coaches have averaged the same number of wins each season -- eight -- as white coaches. They are now slightly less likely to lead their teams to the playoffs. Their rookie seasons are particularly shaky: they lose slightly more games than white coaches do in their first season. In 2008, for instance, Marvin Lewis coached the Cincinnati Bengals to a 4-11-1 record, which was only slightly better than the job Romeo Crennel did, a few hours drive away in Cleveland, where the Browns stumbled through a 4-12 season. Lewis and Crennel still fared better than yet another African-American coach in the Midwest, Herman Edwards, who oversaw the misbegotten Kansas City Chiefs team that went 2-14.

But, as black coaches lose more games, Madden and other supporters nod with satisfaction. This "drop-off" is the ultimate validation of the Rooney Rule, an indication that black coaches are being held to the same standards as their white counterparts. "If African-American coaches don't fail, it means that those with equal talents to the failing white coaches are not even getting the chance to be a coach, Madden explains. "Seeing African-American coaches fail means that they, like white coaches, no longer have to be superstars to get coaching jobs." This is not unlike the average SAT scores of Jewish students declining once elite school dropped their quotas on Jewish matriculates. The diminishing numbers were, perhaps perversely, a sign of progress.

The Tampa Bay franchise that fired Dungy and replaced him with Jon Gruden? When the team let go of Gruden in 2009, management replaced him with Raheem Morris, then a 32-year-old African-American who was the team's defensive coach and had never before been a head coach on any level. While no one admitted as much, Morris was precisely the type of candidate unlikely to have been taken seriously prior to the Rooney Rule. In Morris' first two seasons, the Bucs have gone 13-19.

It's fitting that Pittsburgh has perhaps benefited most from the Rooney Rule. Tomlin is precisely the kind of candidate the Rooney Rule was designed to elevate. And he's made the most of the opportunity. In a perfect world, franchises take heed of his success. And the Rooney Rule is no longer necessary.