Patriots owner Robert Kraft joins SC6 to explain how Steelers chairman Dan Rooney strived for inclusiveness within the NFL and how the sport is better off for his efforts. (1:05)
Perhaps the least understood aspect of the NFL’s Rooney Rule is why it is named after Pittsburgh Steelers patriarch Dan Rooney.
The year was 2002, and the NFL was under heavy criticism for its weak record of hiring minority coaches. Worse, the year before, two teams — the Minnesota Vikings and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — had fired prominent black coaches and replaced them after interviewing only one (white) candidate. The league entered 2003 with just two black head coaches. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue knew he had a problem, so he called on the owner who most possessed the empathy, sensitivity and strength within league circles to attempt change.
The resulting policy was not Rooney’s idea, nor did he dictate its specifics. As chairman of the league’s diversity committee, he played a more important role — one that provides a template for remembering him after his death Thursday. Rooney delivered the credibility Tagliabue needed to impose a more inclusive hiring process on owners who resented the oversight.
To this day, reasonable people can disagree about the effectiveness of the Rooney Rule. There are eight minority head coaches in 2017, but as an ESPN study has pointed out, it remains difficult for them to crack into the pipeline. The policy requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for its head coaching opening, but it does not apply to assistants, and it has on many occasions led to “token” interviews designed to meet the criteria before a favored white candidate could be hired.
At the same time, it has produced undeniable success stories, events that simply would never have happened if the rule did not exist. It also highlighted inclusivity as a path to success. Look no further than Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whom Rooney hired at age 34 after just one season as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator.
There is almost no chance that Tomlin would have been hired at that point in his career prior to the policy. Rooney admitted as much in 2007, saying: “Before the interview, he was just another guy who was an assistant coach. Once we interviewed him the first time, he just came through, and we thought he was great.”
Given a formal chance to present himself, Tomlin won over a franchise that at the time appeared to favor longtime assistant Russ Grimm. Since then, the Steelers have appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one, and have the NFL’s third-best winning percentage (.644). Tomlin has the sixth-most wins in league history for the first 10 years of a head coaching career. Diversity among job candidates isn’t just a matter of compassion; casting the widest net increases the chances of finding the best coach.
Rooney had learned that lesson decades earlier when the Steelers hired Bill Nunn Jr., a Pittsburgh-area sports writer, as a scout in 1967. They made him their first black personnel executive two years later, and then watched as he built the Steelers’ 1970s Super Bowl teams in part with players from historically black colleges who had been overlooked by other teams. In 1974, Joe Gilliam became one of the NFL’s first black quarterbacks to start a game when the Steelers used him in place of Terry Bradshaw, who was on strike.
That history wasn’t the only factor in making Rooney best-suited to lead social change in the NFL. He was also unique in his ability to build league consensus behind the scenes. Retired NFL executive Joe Browne said via Twitter that “no NFL owner ever worked better” to maintain labor peace.
Indeed, NFL people spent Thursday celebrating Rooney’s character and contributions to the league. In a statement, Tagliabue memorialized Rooney as “an extraordinary man of faith, conviction, reason and peace.”
Outside the league bubble, however, Rooney almost certainly will be remembered for the rule that bears his name. Its results can be debated, but its spirit cannot. Dan Rooney will forever be associated with ideals like fairness, opportunity and inclusivity. Who wouldn’t aspire to that?