After the 2001 NFL season, two of the league’s three African American head coaches were fired. This left the league, in which roughly 70% of players were of color, with only one African American head coach. Indeed, in the league’s 80-year history, there had only been six.
In response to the firings, and in light of the league’s poor coaching diversity track record, civil rights lawyers Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. alleged that African American coaches were systematically disadvantaged in pursuing head coaching positions. To build their case, they commissioned Dr. Janice Madden, a labor economist at the University of Pennsylvania, to analyze the win-loss records of all NFL head coaches over the previous 15 years and to then compare them by race. Dr. Madden’s analysis revealed that no matter how the data were sliced African American head coaches were outperforming white head coaches:
In their first season on the job, African American head coaches averaged 2.7 more wins than white head coaches
In their final season before being terminated, African American head coaches averaged 1.3 more wins than white head coaches
Overall, African American head coaches averaged 1.1 more wins than white head coaches
African American head coaches qualified for the playoffs more frequently than white coaches (by a 67% to 39% margin)
In conclusion, Dr. Madden wrote, “No matter how we look at success, black coaches are performing better. These data are consistent with blacks having to be better coaches than the whites in order to get a job as head coach in the NFL.”
With Dr. Madden’s study, which was both statistically significant and peer reviewed, as the foundation, Mehri and Cochran drafted a report – titled Black Coaches in the NFL: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities – and released it at a press conference during which they threatened litigation if the NFL did not address the issue of inequity in coaching opportunities.
Ultimately, the parties did not litigate. They negotiated. And from the negotiation was born the Rooney rule. Named after Dan Rooney, who championed the idea among NFL owners, the Rooney Rule required that every club looking for a head coach interview at least one minority candidate.
To support the Rule, and to organize the NFL’s community of color, John Wooten, a trailblazing African American front office executive during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, called a meeting at the 2003 NFL Combine. Over a hundred coaches, scouts and front office personnel of color showed up, and Wooten, Mehri and former San Diego Chargers Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow stressed the importance of collectively pushing for equal employment opportunity throughout the NFL. The group resolved to form an organization and took the name Fritz Pollard Alliance in honor of Fritz Pollard, the NFL’s first African American head coach.
Wooten became the FPA’s first chairman, and with help from a small volunteer staff, including Hall of Famers Kellen Winslow and Harry Carson – both of whom have served in the Executive Director role – he worked tirelessly to grow the organization and guide it in serving the NFL’s community of color.
The FPA’s advocacy with respect to the Rooney Rule – which now also applies to the general manager position – as well as to other diversity and inclusion initiatives has unquestionably transformed the complexion of the NFL. Since the FPA’s founding, clubs have hired 14 head coaches of color and 12 general managers of color. And given the opportunity, those head coaches and general managers of color have thrived. Indeed, since 2007, 10 NFL clubs have reached the Super Bowl led by a head coach or general manager of color. Before the FPA’s founding, it had never happened.
Although the FPA has always been, and continues to be, principally focused on achieving equal employment opportunity in the NFL, we recognize that the NFL does not exist in a bubble and that equal opportunity efforts are necessary across society. As such we have sought to inspire, and in many cases have directly advised, both public and private sector entities in pursuing diversity and inclusion through implementing the Rooney Rule concept. Among them: the United States Congress, the Division I-A Athletic Directors’ Association, Nike, and the United Kingdom’s Professional Footballers’ Association.
Wooten retired in 2019 and longtime NFL executive Rod Graves took over the FPA’s day to day operations. While we are proud of our history and what we have accomplished, we are eager to continue the fight. We intend to be as impactful going forward as we have been in the past.
The Rooney Rule
Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations opportunities.
Cyrus Mehri, counsel to the Fritz Pollard Alliance and an advocate for minority coaching opportunity, discusses the impact of the Rooney rule in the NFL and the progress it has created on the NFL Network’s Total Access with Rich Eisen.
Dave Anderson of the New York Times commented that the Rooney Rule provides African American candidates a fairer shake. He said:
“It didn’t come easy, diversity never does. But at last, the National Football League has sharpened the teeth of its guidelines to provide at least a fairer shake to African-Americans who aspire to be one of its 32 head coaches.”
Super Bowl XLI
A Historic moment with two African-American head coaches going head to head in the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLI was the first time two African-American head coaches were coaching in the event. Featuring the Indianapolis Colts lead by coach Tony Dungy and the Chicago Bears lead by coach Lovie Smith. The Colts defeated the Bears, 29-17, overcoming a 14-6 first quarter deficit to outscore their opponent 23-3, in the last three quarters resulting in Tony Dungy being the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.
Both coaches led their teams out of long Super Bowl appearance droughts. The Colts made their first appearance in a Super Bowl game since winning Super Bowl V in the 1970 season during the team’s tenure in Baltimore. Meanwhile, the Bears made their first appearance since winning Super Bowl XX in 1985. It was only the second time that two pre-expansion era (pre 1960) teams met in the Super Bowl.
Dungy was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2001, and head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 2002 to 2008. On December 18, 2008 after securing his tenth straight playoff appearance with a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dungy set a new NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances by a head coach.
Super Bowl XLI marked the second Super Bowl appearance for coach Smith, his first appearance was with the 2001 Saint Louis Rams as their defensive coordinator. He began his professional coaching career as a linebacker coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under the guidance of Tony Dungy.
Tomlin became the second African-American head coach and the youngest head coach ever to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.
As the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin was the third youngest head coach in any of the four major professional sports. As the tenth African-American head coach in NFL history, and first in Steelers history – he lead his team to victory in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 making Tomlin the youngest head coach ever to do so.
Reese’s first two seasons at the top of the franchise’s football operations included a 22-10 regular season record, a victory in Super Bowl XLII and an NFC East championship.
Jerry Reese was hired as the General Manager of the New York Giants on January 16, 2007 and was with the organization until 2017. In his first draft as GM of the Giants, seven of his eight picks contributed immediately and helped build the Giants into a Super Bowl team.