During his time as the owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis was known as a trailblazer, an outside thinker, and a conspiracy nut. He believed the league and especially the commissioner’s office conspired against his Oakland franchise any chance they got. Despite this belief, it did not stop Davis to turn the Raiders to one of the premier franchises in pro football from the 1960s to the 1990s. During his tenure, Oakland won three Super Bowls, had a vast array of Hall of Fame players and coaches, and marketed themselves to one of the most recognizable franchises in the world. Another fact about Al Davis: He hired the NFL’s first two minority coaches. In 1979, Davis hired Tom Flores to replace the legendary John Madden. Flores would coach Oakland to two of their three Super Bowl victories. Following his departure, Davis hired former Oakland player and Hall of Famer, Art Shell to become the first African American head coach in 1989. Let that sink in for a moment. It took an eccentric owner for an African American to become a professional football coach by 1989! By 1985, 52% of NFL players were African American, but it still took another four years for the league’s first black head coach.
According to the 2014 NFL players census, African Americans made up a vast majority of players in the league at 1155 total players. That is about 68% of the league compared to white players, who made up only 28% of the league with 470 players. Unlike sports, such as baseball where the majority of players are white, it makes little sense why there was a super majority between black and white head coaches. Prior to 2003, there were a total of six minority head coaches in the modern NFL game. The year of 2003 was a turning point in NFL history because it was the first year of the “Rooney Rule”.
Anyone who follows football knows about the Rooney family. Since their founding in 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers has been owned by a member of the Rooney family, from Art Rooney to Dan Rooney. Like Al Davis and the Raiders franchise, the Steelers has had a long history of employing and giving African Americans opportunity on and off the field. The Pittsburgh Steelers built a dynasty in the 1970s on the talents of African American players, such as Mel Blount and Mean Joe Greene, from small schools and historical black universities no one else looked at.
Though I said 2003 was a turning point in the NFL, it began following the 2002 NFL season, when the league’s two African American head coaches were fired. In Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers fired Tony Dungy following three straight playoff appearances, while the Minnesota Vikings had fired Dennis Green, who had his first losing season since being hired a decade prior. The fact that two of the best coaches in the league had been fired, both black and both having a great track record, was enough to finally implement this rule.
The rule itself forces an NFL franchise to interview one minority candidate when an opening for head coach or senior football operation jobs such as general managers, vice presidents, etc. Now with a decision such as this, there will always be a crowd of detractors crying affirmative action. That being said, you can not argue with results. Since 2003, there have been more than double the number of minority head coaches in the NFL (14 to 6). This year in the postseason, three different teams had minority head coaches with the Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Rooney’s own Pittsburgh Steelers. This season itself had the most minority general managers and top executives with seven and six coaches. If the Panthers were to win the Super Bowl, Ron Rivera would join Tom Flores, former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, and current Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, as the only minority Super Bowl winner head coaches.
In today’s NFL, the majority of coaches are still white. However, there have been miles of improvement since Tom Flores’ hire. A minority head coach is not shocking or surprising anymore. There are now talks in expanding the rule into NCAA football, where less than 8% of the head coaches were African American. And as time goes on, I expect to continue to see more black and brown faces leading teams out of tunnels and on to the field.