The San Francisco 49ers head coach search is officially underway, and that means the interview process begins. The 49ers likely have been planning for this scenario for some time now, which means they have an idea of coaching candidates they want to interview. It is entirely possible they want to promote Jim Tomsula or Vic Fangio, but they will go through an interview process before making their formal hiring. The interview process could provide a more capable candidate, but it also has to happen because of the NFL's Rooney Rule.
What is the Rooney Rule?
The Rooney Rule essentially requires a team interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior football operations jobs. The rule came as a result of recommendations that include establishing a database of coordinators and assistant head coaches that would be qualified coaching candidates
Is there an exception to the Rooney Rule?
Yes. Sometimes an assistant coach will have language in his contract guaranteeing him a team's head coach job if it comes open. The most notable example of that came when Mike Martz was promoted to head coach after Dick Vermeil retired. If an assistant has this language in his contract, the team does not have to conduct an interview process.
What is the Fritz Pollard Alliance?
This group has worked to find opportunities for minority coaching candidates. It started with a 2002 report by litigator Johnnie Cochran, civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri and labor economist Janice Madden. The report detailed the inadequacies in NFL hiring practices as it related to minorities. The report pointed to black coaches leading their teams to the playoffs more frequently, winning more games on average in their final season than white coaches, and winning more games in their first game than white coaches. It was obviously a very small sample size, but minority hiring has been a problem for the NFL (and other sports leagues).
Following the report, Kellen Winslow and former NFL Pro Bowler and executive John Wooten began contacting teams to discuss their hiring practices. Winslow, Wooten and the people mentioned above eventually took the name, Fritz Pollard Alliance. In 1921, Fritz Pollard was hired by the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football Association. He was the first black coach in the NFL, and another would not be hired until the Los Angeles Raiders hired Art Shell in 1989. During that time, Tom Flores was the only other minority hired to be a head coach, by the Oakland Raiders in 1979. The Alliance now includes a variety of minority coaches, scouts and other personnel people.
What does the Fritz Pollard Alliance do now?
They continue to work with teams to provide interview opportunities for minority coaching candidates. Chairman John Wooten met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the Alliance's latest list of head coach candidates. That list includes:
Teryl Austin - Detroit Lions defensive coordinator
Todd Bowles - Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator
Perry Fewell - New York Giants defensive coordinator
Leslie Frazier - Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator
Ray Horton - Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator
Pep Hamilton - Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator
Hue Jackson - Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator
Winston Moss - Green Bay Packers assistant head coach
Mike Singletary - Former San Francisco 49ers head coach, former Minnesota Vikings assistant coach
Does the Rooney rule work?
Sometimes, but there are issues. I'm not a huge fan of Jason Whitlock, but he made a good point in an article this summer. Whitlock talked about the importance of networking as opposed to just the interview process. As we frequently see, teams frequently have a guy in mind to be their next head coach. The 49ers were going to hire Jim Harbaugh in 2011, so long as he was willing. The Lions were dead-set on Steve Mariucci in 2003, and when five minority candidates turned down interviews, the team hired Mariucci without looking further, and the team paid a $200,000 fine.
Back in the 80s, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh put together his minority coaching fellowship. The program provided minority candidates a chance to intern with teams and get face time. Getting more minorities in head coach positions requires minorities moving up the coaching food chain and getting a chance to interact with the people responsible for promoting them. Getting a team to interview a token minority to satisfy a rule is not the worst thing in the world as it at least provides the interview. But the process needs more than that. Plenty of people land jobs strictly because of the interview process, but having a pre-existing relationship with the people doing the hiring is going to create more opportunities.