Gruden, the Raiders and the Rooney Rule: What Happens When a Team Seems Locked In on a Candidate?

The Rooney Rule was put in place to ensure that minority candidates are considered for coaching and GM jobs. But when a team has wanted a candidate for years, like the Raiders have with Gruden, does the rule make sense? Tony Dungy and John Wooten weigh in on the current state of the rule
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The Raiders’ pursuit of Jon Gruden began in earnest about two years ago—a passion project of owner Mark Davis that, to some, defied logic. The courtship, if it comes to fruition, will make reportedly make Gruden the richest coach in the NFL and provide him with an ownership stake in the team (Forbes recently valued the Raiders at $2.1 billion), despite the fact that he’s been out of the league for about a decade and went 22-24 over his final three seasons as head coach of the Buccaneers.

Still, given Gruden’s place in the current football landscape—he is a wildly popular analyst on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” and his hands-on evaluations of collegiate quarterback prospects have become must-see television during the draft process—luring him away from one of the cushiest jobs in media would be a gargantuan hire at a time when the franchise is planning to leave Oakland and start anew in Las Vegas after next season.

It’s no surprise that during this frenzied hunt for Bigfoot, Davis seems to have undermined the spirit of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for all general manager and head coaching vacancies. With almost the entire world already associating Gruden with the Raiders job, how can a minority candidate legitimately make his or her pitch for the position and have it be taken seriously?

Ethically, the Raiders—a typically progressive organization that hired the NFL’s first modern-era black coach (Art Shell), had a female CEO (Amy Trask) for more than a decade and has an African-American general manager (Reggie McKenzie)—are in a pickle. They could schedule an interview with a minority candidate and face the inevitable blowback of it being a sham. Or they could pay a fine for flouting the Rooney Rule, as the Lions did, to the tune of $200,000, for not adhering to the rule in 2003.

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In an effort to sort out the situation, The MMQB asked Tony Dungy, longtime NFL head coach, and John Wooten, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, for their thoughts on the central, nagging question: Should the Raiders be up front and simply pay the fine instead of conducting a hollow interview to satisfy the rule? Or, would that just set a dangerous precedent for NFL teams that are scrambling to hire their top head coaching candidate in a tight window?

“I’ve always thought that the spirit of the rule was to get people to slow down the process—not just to consider minority candidates, but to slow down and consider everybody,” Dungy says. “You may change your mind. You may find something you didn’t set out to find when you go through the process. But to me, if you’re determined, you’ve made up your mind three months in advance or six weeks in advance that you’re going to hire a certain person, I would rather you go ahead and do it and not [violate] the spirit of the rule … If you’re interviewing without an open mind and open heart, it doesn’t make a difference anyway.”

He added: “I would rather everything be above board. If you’re going to hire Jon Gruden, you made up your mind and it’s everything but signed, sealed and delivered, then, you know, you should just move forward.”

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Dungy is a bit of a romantic when it comes to coaching hires. He believes in the legacy of former Steelers owner Dan Rooney—an owner who only made three head coaching choices between 1969 and 2016. Rooney knew what he wanted but was almost painfully deliberate. He allowed himself to be surprised by candidates, including Mike Tomlin, the current coach. Tomlin wasn’t hired until late January 2007, a little more than a week before Super Bowl XLI. This year it would be surprising to see any teams take so long to fill their vacancies.

Now, Dungy says, meeting Rooney Rule standards is like an NFL team kicking an extra point after scoring the game-winning touchdown. It’s a rule, so they follow it.

“I really feel like the rule is in place and people ought to follow it, but there probably is room to say ‘we really should encourage this to be something all teams strive for, but it’s not something we can really force people to do,’” he says.

I asked Dungy specifically if this would be an acceptable scenario: Have the Raiders come out and say they were locked in on Gruden and didn’t want to conduct a phony interview just to satisfy the rule, so they would pay their fine directly to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which could fund a handful of minority coaching scholarships across the NCAA and NFL in 2018. At the least, such a move would help foster more potential candidates.

Dungy, though, warned that a large potential penalty would only encourage people to “go through a charade” to avoid it. The money would help, but the problem would persist.

This is, in essence, the position minority coaches find themselves in. There is a rule in place to help them get in front of owners and general managers. There is a track record of successful minority coaches such as Dungy, Tomlin and Lovie Smith, who have led their teams to Super Bowls. However, the league is currently plagued by a mania that causes many owners to act rapidly in order to secure the candidate du jour. In previous years teams have fired coaches with a week left in the season to get a jump on the hiring process.

For now, Wooten, who chairs the alliance that develops minority candidates for head coaching or general manager jobs, is hoping that the Gruden rumors are just that.

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“We have not been informed that that [Gruden] is a done deal,” Wooten said. “Those are just rumors. I know that Reggie McKenzie is very much alerted to the situation. So we just have to let them do what the rule requires. It could very well be that they already interviewed a minority long before this. I’ll have to wait and see what happens there myself.”

Wooten said he was satisfied with a similar controversial process that took place earlier this offseason, when the Browns hired general manager John Dorsey less than 24 hours after firing Sashi Brown. Wooten said Browns executive advisor Jim Brown sent him a list of minority candidates that Cleveland did, in fact, interview before hiring Dorsey, even if they did not seem to take much time weighing the potential choices or publicly discuss who they interviewed.

“I think the league has done a good job,” Wooten said. “The owners and general managers around the league have done a good job adhering to the spirit of the rule overall.”

Dungy, meanwhile, is not naïve about the process. In 2002 he received a call from Colts owner Jim Irsay telling him “you’re the guy” only a short time after Jim Mora was let go. When owners call him every offseason to solicit his advice for potential head coaching candidates, he always stresses that they take their time, even though it would take a swing and miss of the grandest proportions to force NFL teams into a more patient approach.

Maybe Gruden is a harbinger in that way. Or maybe he’s just another example of how predetermined the process really is. 

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