Dan Rooney’s Most Tangible Legacy: The Rule That Bears His Name

You have likely spent the past week reading a series of articles recalling the life of Pittsburgh Steelers owner, president, and chairman Dan Rooney following his passing and how so many people from so many different walks of life held him in such high regard. He had far more of an impact in his life than most do, to be certain.

But the most tangible aspect of his legacy may well prove to be the guide that bears his name: the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule began to take shape as a concept in the late 1990s and early 2000s upon reflecting on certain unavoidably obvious patterns in coaching hires. While the NBA’s coaching ranks became vastly more diverse in the 1990s, the NFL had just seven minority head coaches in its entire history.

Among those seven were Tony Dungy and Dennis Green, both veteran coaches, both of whom were fired during the 2002 offseason in moves that many questioned. In response, a study was released that showed that minority head coaches were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired when accounting for variables.

Later that year, the diversity committee, chaired by Dan Rooney, passed the Rooney Rule, which requires that teams holding a head-coaching vacancy are required to interview a minority candidate for the job. The reasoning was that, aside from implicit and explicit bias, the coaching fraternity had become too incestuous, making it difficult for those who are not in the inner circle to move upward.

Since the passing of the Rooney Rule, there have been a great number of new head coaches of a minority background. Today, there are currently seven, including three in the AFC North with the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, Hue Jackson in Cleveland, and Marvis Lewis of the Bengals. Todd Bowles of the Jets earned his first head-coaching opportunity in 2015. The Chargers and Broncos this offseason hired Anthony Lynn and Vance Joseph, respectively, who are rookie African-American head coaches. Ron Rivera of the Panthers is the sole non-African-American minority head coach. The Steelers interviewed Rivera in 2007, thus satisfying the Rooney Rule, prior to interviewing and ultimately hiring Tomlin.

Inclusion and opportunity have always been values that Rooney embraced. You can go back to the roles that the likes of Joe Gilliam, Tony Dungy, and Joe Greene have played in the diversification of the game over the past 50 years. The Steelers may currently have the most diverse coaching staff in the league.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the Rooney Rule. It has already expanded before, in 2009, when it was opened to all minority candidates rather than just African-Americans, as well as to all senior football operations positions.

The logical next step for the role would be for it to extend further into the coaching ranks to include coordinator positions. Going much deeper than that, however, may interfere too much with the hiring process, much of which is internal in nature.

Rooney helped spearhead the first incarnation of this rule, and it will bear his name for many years to come—beyond even when a younger generation of fans are unaware of whom it is named after. It will be perhaps his most tangible impact on the game, which also serves as a societal example.

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