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Lack of diversity still big problem in NFL

Sure, Smith didn't go extra mile in seeking head coaching job, but he should have gotten better look

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

8:47 PM CST, January 26, 2013

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One longtime acquaintance on an NFL coaching staff called with a rhetorical question that pops into my head whenever somebody mentions the league's problem hiring African-American head coaches.

"Do you know how hard it is to win 10 games in the NFL?'' the coach asked.

Statistics prove his point: In the last five seasons, 55 NFL teams have won 10 or more games in a season, an average of 11 per year. That means 21 teams — two-thirds of the league — typically don't.

The Bears went 10-6 and fired Lovie Smith anyway.

They had valid reasons; after nine seasons in the same place, complacency had crept into the organization and the offense needed an overhaul the Bears understandably didn't think Smith could pull off given his history with offensive coordinators. They sought a change in direction that was easy to endorse.

This isn't about Smith losing his last job. This is about him still chasing his next one.

Why is Lovie Smith still unemployed?

You can believe the Bears made the right move firing Smith and still think several teams did the wrong thing in overlooking a veteran NFL head coach who offered struggling franchises stability. You cannot consider Smith's plight without acknowledging all eight of the NFL's head coaching vacancies were filled by white men — a league embarrassment exacerbated by minority candidates being shut out of seven general manager openings too. Smith's unemployment underscores the dilemma facing the NFL as the league gathers for Super Bowl XLVII this week in New Orleans with its fewest number of minority African-American head coaches — three — in a decade.

Smith interviewed with the Eagles, Bills and Chargers and, in each case, lost out to a coach considered an offensive guru with zero NFL head coaching experience. Sources say Smith believed the Bills provided the best fit but instead they hired Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, a .500 college coach.

Unlike the other seven teams, the Jaguars hired a defensive-minded coach: Gus Bradley. Bradley, 46, is a first-time head coach who made his first order of business hiring Bob Babich as defensive coordinator. A team committed to a defensive head coach opted for an unknown with no experience without interviewing someone whose defenses the last nine seasons led the league in takeaways.

It took Andy Reid, with a better overall resume and winning percentage (.583), one week to get rehired by the Chiefs. It will take Smith (.562) at least one year. It must be Reid's warm and fuzzy nature.

Even comedian Chris Rock noted the obvious disparity on Twitter: "Andy Reid wins 4 games and everybody wants him Lovie smith wins 10 games and can't get a job.''

There was nothing funny about Rock's underlying message. How the league confronts serious issues in the wake of recent coaching hires will determine how committed the NFL really is to diversity.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes opportunities of minority candidates, requested in a letter to the NFL that the Rooney Rule be expanded to include offensive and defensive coordinators. We can debate the true value of the rule, adopted in 2003, that requires NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and GM-level jobs.

Without it, the league might have been deprived the successes of head coaches Mike Tomlin, Leslie Frazier and even Smith. With it, we still hear cries of tokenism after African-American candidates with little chance of getting jobs make the rounds for interviews. But in a league trending toward offense, where 70 percent of the players are African-American, any rule expanding the network of potential minority coaching candidates remains an absolute necessity.

When the Colts hired Pep Hamilton he joined Jim Caldwell of the Ravens as the NFL's two African-American offensive coordinators. Thus broadening the Rooney Rule to include coordinators cannot hurt a process that has become too closed and homogenous.

Coaches also could do more to help themselves.

It should be noted a prideful Smith had no interest in taking a coordinator job, especially with his Bears contract providing 5 million reasons to be patient. But Smith stayed mum after he was fired, hardly the gracious exit that makes a positive impact across the league.

Take yourself back to Dec. 29, 2003 — the day the Bears fired Dick Jauron. Jauron showed up at Halas Hall and delivered a classy speech thanking the McCaskeys. I remember one league executive remarking that Jauron, like many smart coaches, treated his farewell news conference as an introductory job interview for prospective owners and GMs. In a league shaped by perception, last impressions can be as powerful as first ones if handled correctly.

Instead of reminding us how hard it is to win 10 games in the NFL, Smith left Chicago without saying a word and expecting his credentials to speak for themselves. Too often for African-American coaches in the NFL, they fall on deaf ears.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh