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Hiring coaches is hard. Would a Rooney Rule help?

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This is sort of a weird time of the year to be looking for a head coach. The first National Signing Day (which is the de facto only National Signing Day at this point) has come and gone, as have all the bowls. Many coaches that might be interested in your opening have now agreed to other gigs. But thanks to a chain of events completely outside their control, Hawaii is in the market for a new coach.

That search led to some unusually candid remarks about what looking for a coach at a place like Hawaii is like. Here’s former UH regent Jeff Portnoy, speaking to KHON, a few days ago:

“If anybody thinks that anybody’s taking the head football coach job and will be here for 10 years they’re deluded,” Portnoy said.

“Either they’ll get fired because they’re not doing what they need to do or they’ll put together a winning program and someone will poach them away because they have the resources to do that.”

“You wind up with a coach either who is dying to get his first job as a Division 1 head coach in hope that it’s a stepping stone, and it was for people like (DIck) Tomey and June Jones and now Rolo, or you find someone who has some reason to want to coach in Hawaii.

There are lots of reasons why Hawaii, specifically, can be a challenging job. It’s a gazillion miles away from everywhere else. It isn’t as well resourced as many other schools in the Mountain West. It’s a pretty expensive place to live, recruit, and operate a football program. The local culture is very different from lots of other college towns on the mainland. The list goes on.

But on some level, Portnoy’s really describing life at almost every G5 program.

Sure, the guy you hire might talk about how he doesn’t view your gig as a stepping stone, and how he wants to be there forever. And hey, maybe he does. But if the person you hire is successful, chances are, he will have opportunities to coach somewhere for more money, with more resources, and a chance to win more (or different) games. And if those opportunities don’t come, there’s a good chance you won’t want to stick with him forever. There are exceptions, but chances are, you’re hiring another coach in six years, maybe less.

That presents a huge challenge for athletic departments, given the outsized importance of the head football coach. Not only do you need to consider organizational and institutional fit, their ability to recruit, develop and hire a staff, manage a game, work with boosters, and more…all under a time crunch and usually with imperfect information, you also need to consider what kind of shape he’ll leave your program once he leaves. Because he’s going to leave.

So, if you’re thinking of maybe hiring a coach who is likely to get into major NCAA trouble? Or leave behind a smoldering crater of a roster? Or who did a bunch of really bad things? You don’t have to hire that person. There are lots of other coaches!

If you know that hiring a coach is going to be one of the most important decisions your program makes, and you know that you’re probably going to have to do it more than once, developing a deep pipeline of potential candidates should be a critical institutional priority.

There’s reason to think that process isn’t capturing as many quality candidates as it should. For one, the diversity numbers in FBS head coaching are terrible. Heading into the 2020 season, just 13 of the 130 FBS head coaches will be black. Less than 20 are coaches of color, period. Given how diverse the college athlete pool is, and given how critical working with diverse populations is to successful coaching, you’d think the coaching candidate pool would more closely resemble the player pool…but it doesn’t.

There are a lot of reasons for that. My colleague Richard Johnson wrote a great story on this a few years ago, and pointed out that many young black athletes are pushed into positions on the field that translate less into coaching (i.e, away from QB), and that other institutional barriers and biases limit the career progression of black assistants. If your rep in the industry is just that you’re the staff “recruiter”, for example, it might be harder to get a coordinator job.

One potential tool to help bridge this gap is a college version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one person of color for head coaching (and senior front office) jobs.

There’s no college version of this rule. Except, interestingly enough, in Oregon, where it’s the state law. Here’s my buddy Adam Rittenberg, of ESPN, taking a closer look:

The University of Oregon’s last two football coaches are an African American, Willie Taggart, and a Cuban American, Mario Cristobal. Oregon hired its first African American track and field coach in Robert Johnson. Portland State and Western Oregon’s athletic departments are both led by African Americans, Val Cleary and Curtis Campbell. The city of Portland and Multnomah County, which both implemented versions of the hiring law, have seen their lineup of bureau directors include more women and minorities.

“What the Rooney Rule has proven in the state, in the city and the county, is it works,” said Sam Sachs, a Portland activist who spearheaded the law and founded the nonprofit The No Hate Zone, which combats hate and racism. “It’s such an easy fix.”

Just judging by outcomes, it would appear the Oregon legislation has been effective in pushing public school athletic departments to work harder at diverse hiring. And the school officials that Rittenberg spoke to have pretty positive things to say as well. Here’s Oregon State AD Scott Barnes, for example:

Before becoming AD at Oregon State, Barnes held the same job at Pitt, which shares a football training facility with the Steelers. He met occasionally with Steelers owner Art Rooney II, and one time asked Rooney about the rule that bears the family’s name.

Barnes even took Pitt’s staff to a discussion on the Rooney Rule, and had been considering implementing it throughout the athletic department.

“Shortly after, I left for Oregon State, and it was sitting here waiting for us,” Barnes said. “We’re better for it. I don’t think there’s any question. It’s given us a chance for sure to go broader and deeper in terms of finding quality minority candidates in our searches.

But even with a closer association with the Steelers and Art Rooney, Pitt didn’t voluntarily establish a similar rule. In Oregon, it took the dogged work of activists to really push lawmakers to codify that requirement. That effort hasn’t been replicated anywhere else, even though other state lawmakers had shown some potential interest in similar rules.

The Rooney Rule doesn’t legislate equality of outcomes (it’s very much not a quota for hiring), and even the Oregon legislation doesn’t appear to have especially stiff penalties for non-compliance. But, if this story is to be believed, it does appear to have had some positive impact on at least forcing administrators to interview a larger pool of candidates.

Right now, it looks like state (or federal) legislation is the only way this rule expands, as NCAA membership, even at a conference level, doesn’t appear interested in doing it for themselves. Here’s Ohio State AD Gene Smith, one of the most plugged in ADs in the country (via the same article):

“I don’t see it happening from an NCAA level,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “They don’t control hiring practices. A member school would create legislation and then it would have to be passed by all 372 Division I members. That’s not going to happen. In a conference, an institution would have to bring it up in a meeting and all 14 schools would have to pass it. That’s not going to happen. The reality is, it has to be something like a state initiative, like they have in Oregon.

There’s a lot of issues NCAA membership hasn’t been able to agree on, and increasingly, outside actors are pushing for change. U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, as part of a wide-ranging look into college athletics, is pushing for changes in “the NCAA’s lack of accountability for athletes who commit sexual assault, other serious misconduct, and the practice of transferring to other institution”. The federal government’s interest in regulating the NIL marketplace has been well documented. More than a dozen states so far have shared that interest.

I wonder, now that we’re approaching a world where legislative bodies are more interested in NCAA affairs, if the timing is right for other states to investigate diversity hiring practices for athletic departments, and push for changes. Would NCAA membership resist? Are schools intellectually okay with outside bodies regulating how they do hiring, or conduct their affairs? If the statehouse does it, well, at least you don’t have to worry about those changes being pushed by a self-interested rival school?

My interest in addressing this isn’t just out of a sense of social justice. I think having a wide, diverse pool of coaching candidates…racially diverse, culturally diverse, diverse in experiences, philosophies, etc is an absolute institutional necessity. You’re not getting the best possible coach if you’re not looking everywhere you can. That might even include talking to folks who didn’t even play college football at all. That hasn’t stopped folks like Mike Leach, Bill Clark or Paul Johnson from having successful FBS head coaching careers. Who knows where the next Bill Clark is?

To be clear, a Rooney Rule would not completely solve this problem. After all, the NFL is badly struggling with coach diversity too. As Tyler Tynes at the Ringer recently noted:

The ongoing failure of the Rooney Rule is that it is working as intended. It wasn’t meant to be the bright torch of change to make professional football fair and equitable. It was a bridge to an interview, and in this way, it has been successful. But it’s meant only to eliminate one barrier to professional advancement. It’s not designed to address systemic racism still in place, keeping black and brown talent from getting the top jobs in the sport. The rule provides blanket cover for those who deserve the real blame for the crisis of opportunity in the NFL, those who retain hiring power, and who ignore the virtue of what Cochran and Mehri fought to enact.

Institutional racism doesn’t vanish just because more black coaches get interview opportunities. When the ADs are mostly all white, and the boosters are mostly all white, and if college football still exists in a society that is shaped by racist power structures, well, challenging and changing all of that goes beyond the purview of one rule.

But that one rule might be a start. Perhaps there are other ones. The current NCAA legislative system may make it impossible for schools to decide on implementing these rules themselves, but perhaps somebody else might do it for them.

But state obligation or not, a smart AD should start looking everywhere they possibly can, from as many backgrounds as they can, for their next coach.

Because chances are, they’re going to have to fill an opening sooner than they’d like.

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