On the eve of Super Bowl XLV, at the beginning of Black History Month, ThePostGame.com spoke with N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at Temple University and author of "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL." Former NFL defensive back Alan Grant asked Duru about Mike Tomlin, the Rooney Rule, President Obama, and more.
TPG: How important is Mike Tomlin to the progress of African-Americans in professional football?
Duru: He’s huge. In my view, Mike Tomlin represents the success of this movement more than anybody else. Over the years, there were occasionally black coaches who were hired, and they had long resumes and a few gray hairs. It was unthinkable for a young African-American to be given a head job in the NFL. He represents the fruition of the culture change in the NFL. He represents the hope that we are not going to be restricted by what we used to think of as a head coach.
TPG: And what if he had failed?
Duru: Had he failed, there was still enough success over the six years before he got the job – with Marvin Lewis (pictured below) and Lovie Smith — that it wouldn’t have destroyed the movement. But it would have dampened it. It would have suggested we were going too far too fast. If Tomlin had failed, Raheem Morris wouldn’t have gotten his job.
TPG: Does Mike Tomlin have anything left to prove?
Duru: No, Tomlin has nothing left to prove. He’s molded the Steelers into his own team. He can burnish his reputation and what he’s done. But he’s proven it all at 38.
TPG: Is Mike Tomlin pro football’s Barack Obama?
Duru: I think in some ways, yes. I was reading an article during the summer when Obama was fighting for the Democratic nomination. The question was, ‘Why now?’ Why all of a sudden do people believe a black person can win? One of the reporter’s conclusions was that Obama was helped in part because people had begun to see an increased number of black head coaches of sports teams. That suggested a young African-American could succeed in running the country. It made people think Obama could win. There is a belief now, in this country, that the non-prototypical human being can fill the leadership role.
TPG: Some of the early black head coaches, like Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards (pictured below), were seen as players’ coaches. Tomlin is more outwardly intense. Is that a sign of progress as well?
Duru: I would think that Tomlin is definitely more intense, but he doesn’t strike me as a Tom Coughlin, as a scowling, Rex Ryan type of character. I would not characterize him in that regard.
TPG: Is America ready for a black Rex Ryan?
Duru: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. Ray Rhodes is the angriest head coach of color that we’ve seen. But he wasn’t that demonstrative.
TPG: Why hasn’t Mike Tomlin been called brilliant or a boy genius like Josh McDaniels or Jon Gruden before him?
Duru: There will always be some people who refuse to acknowledge talent where there is talent. What Tomlin has done has been extraordinary. When he came to Pittsburgh, he didn’t ride on what Bill Cowher had done. He ran a training camp that one player said was “intentionally savage.” He got those guys to buy into his program. It’s hard to deny he’s a great coach. Tomlin wasn’t a "minority" interview. The Steelers already had Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt in house. Those are two coaches they knew had a chance to run the team. They also interviewed Ron Rivera. Their search was far and wide. Mike Tomlin is already among the cream of the crop and he’s a testament to the Rooney Rule.
TPG: What inspired you to write the book?
Duru: I was working for Cyrus Mehri, the civil rights lawyer out of D.C. Mehri and Johnnie Cochran had just begun to organize the Fritz Pollard Alliance. It was an alliance of coaches, front office personnel and scouts dedicated to pushing civil rights forward in football. I watched this small group of people grow, and I saw the league begin to transform. There was a culture shift -- away from an old boys network. There was increased diversity among coaches and GMs. And there was impact outside of football. Even the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Urban League approached the NFL with questions about how to implement a form of the Rooney Rule.
TPG: Is sport reflective of society or is it escapist?
Duru: You can’t diminish the power of sport. That’s why people get so angry when these topics are discussed -- you can’t escape anymore. In the book, I mention that Cyrus and Johnnie got death threats and negative attention. I said in my story on the Rooney Rule (for ThePostGame.com) that it wasn’t perfect. But I still got some ugly comments. People who want sports to be escapist don’t want sports to be a part of society. But I think it’s possible for sport to be the very best of society. Look at what Jesse Owens did in Berlin, or the integration of baseball, or what Nelson Mandela did with rugby in South Africa. Sport has a huge role in society. We should harness it.
TPG: How has the Rooney Rule changed things?
Duru: Before the Rooney Rule came into play, the NFL wasn’t concerned about the hiring process. It was people recommending their friends -- an old boy network. The league wanted to slow down the hiring process. Most of these guys are moguls of some sort, and they take their time when hiring people in their other businesses, so why not take your time here? Rushing hurts in two ways: 1) You’re less likely to get excellence, and 2) Because most small groups are homogenous, those groups tend to have less people of color. But if you broaden your search, then you get a better coach. I think we’re starting to see more broad searches and better coaching.
TPG: Does it surprise you when people mistake the Rooney Rule for an affirmative action mandate?
Duru: (Laughing) It’s astounding to me how people can still be so misinformed about it. The Rooney Rule is not a quota. It’s just an interview.
TPG: Do you get the sense that because Barack Obama is president, there’s a widespread belief that all racial disparity has been eliminated?
Duru: In the aftermath of the black president’s election, there was an increase in white supremacist activity. So evidence runs to the counter. Race remains an issue in this post-racial society. But I think sports can lead the way to change.
TPG: Why are so many people defensive on the topic of race?
Duru: People don’t listen. They take a position on something and when they hear a different position, they shut down. People are making the same arguments they made years ago, even if the conversation and opposing argument has changed. They don’t investigate. They just shut down.
TPG: Once upon a time, black coaches who "made it" -- like Denny Green and Ray Rhodes -- made it because they had the seal of approval from Bill Walsh, who was extremely active in the minority coaching program. Now guys like Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, Herman Edwards and Mike Tomlin are all guys who have the Tony Dungy seal of approval. What’s the significance that a black man is now the voice of reason?
Duru: Tony Dungy is the most respected guy in the National Football League. He’s transcended race. He won a Super Bowl, so of course he has that credibility, but everyone respects his integrity. Rex Ryan is a big, tough fellow. But Ryan was genuinely hurt when Tony Dungy criticized his use of foul language (on HBO’s Hard Knocks). Dungy’s stamp of approval is very important.
TPG: Why does there seem to be greater progress in the NFL than in college football?
Duru: I think the main thing is the number of stakeholders involved in college. In the pros, the head coach answers to the owner and the general manager. But in college you have not just the athletic director, but the boosters, the alums, and the town. It’s hard to convince all of those people to go in a non-traditional direction.
TPG: What’s the most memorable scene, conversation, or lasting impression from this experience?
Duru: I think it was Tony Dungy writing the foreword for the book. I know he’s extremely busy, but when I asked him, he said he would be honored to write it. After all he’s been through -- the peaks and valleys -- he’s a humble, straightforward person who is always willing to give of himself.
TPG: How does the so-called hardcore fan fit into your audience?
Duru: Woodie Dixon (General Counsel to the Pac-10 Conference) said it on the book jacket: “Without knowing this story, you simply cannot understand the evolution of sport over the past 50 years.” If you’re a hardcore fan, I think it’s incumbent that you explore the issue of race. Everybody should want the best coach for their team. When you take a contrary position (to the Rooney Rule), you run the risk of sabotaging what you love.