The Jim Harbaugh hiring process told all of us a lot of things last week. We learned that hype and star power could translate into contract offers of between $7 and $8 million per year for a coach unproven at the NFL level. We also discovered that Stanford’s administrators really, really like having a good football team–so much so that they were willing to pony up $5 million per year before bonuses to keep Harbaugh around. For those of you keeping score at home, that figure would have made Harbaugh the second-highest-paid coach in all of college football, just $100,000 shy of Texas’ Mack Brown.
For this writer, though, the main lesson to come out of Harbaugh’s hiring is that the NFL needs to take a good, hard look at its Rooney Rule. The rule, which stipulates that any team with a head-coaching vacancy must interview at least one minority candidate, ended the week with its reputation in tatters.
The San Francisco 49ers, the team that eventually hired Harbaugh, made sure to conduct a token interview with Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson before they initiated discussions with the Stanford coach. At the time, everyone knew that Harbaugh was San Francisco’s top target, so it was obvious that the Jackson interview was designed solely to comply with the Rooney Rule.
Another controversy emerged surrounding the Miami Dolphins’ courtship of Harbaugh, which included their owner flying to the Bay Area to try to persuade the coach to take his talents to South Beach. The Fish were reportedly willing to make Harbaugh the NFL’s highest-paid coach, but per the Rooney Rule, the team could not offer a contract to Harbaugh–prior to flying to San Francisco, owner Stephen Ross had not interviewed a minority candidate. In this case again, the Rooney Rule was clearly a sham; the Dolphins wanted Harbaugh and interviewing anyone else would have been a waste of both the team’s and the candidate’s time.
Indeed, had the Dolphins offered Harbaugh a contract last week (regardless of whether or not he accepted), they would have been severely penalized by the league for noncompliance with the rule. It was later determined that the team did not make a contract offer, and thus did not run foul of the NFL.
Current Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier offers another example of the Rooney Rule’s failings. Frazier, who is African American, was promoted from interim to permanent head coach after Minnesota’s season ended, but prior to his promotion he interviewed for seven head coaching vacancies–some of those interviews were blatantly conducted solely to satisfy Rooney Rule requirements. Perhaps most egregious among them was his interview last season with the Seattle Seahawks. The team clearly wanted to hire then-USC head coach Pete Carroll, but could not bring him in until it had interviewed a credible minority candidate.
So what’s the solution to the Rooney Rule dilemma? Its proponents point to these token interviews as a necessary evil, and that the league has seen a proliferation of minority head and assistant coaches since its initial implementation. It is true that the NFL coaching ranks have seen more minorities in recent years, but it’s impossible to trace this increase solely to the Rooney Rule’s influence. However, it’s not implausible to suggest that it has had a net positive influence in giving more access to minority coaches to break into NFL coaching circles.
Because of those improvements, I do not advocate scrapping the Rooney Rule altogether. Rather, I think a simple modification could preserve the positive effects of the rule while eliminating the embarrassing token interviews that teams and assistant coaches are required to go through: teams can go after a single candidate without having to interview a minority coach.
In Harbaugh’s case, he was the clear-cut top choice for the 49ers; they wanted him and him only, and there’s no reason to believe that they would have interviewed anyone else in their hiring process. This would also apply to promoting interim coaches to full-time head coaches; this offseason provided an interesting example, where the Vikings did not have to interview anyone else before promoting Frazier to head coach, but the Dallas Cowboys had to interview a minority candidate even though they just wanted to promote interim coach Jason Garrett to the top job.
However, if a team interviews two or more candidates, then one of them must be a minority. With no clear front-runner, a minority candidate would have a credible chance at being hired and a fair shake at making his case to the owner. There are plenty of talented minority coaches in the NFL, and this system would fulfill the original intent of the rule–to give these coaches equal opportunities and access to high-level positions–without forcing us to go through interviews that everyone knows will not result in a hire.
Kabir Sawhney is the first person to make a pun about taking one’s talents to South Beach. Applaud his creativity at ksawhney “at” stanford.edu.