IOWA CITY, IA — Black head coaches are few and far between in the NFL, with only six African-American head coaches currently leading one of the 32 teams despite vigorous league-wide efforts to increase diversity.
But a new study by University of Iowa researchers finds little evidence of discrimination in the promotion of assistant coaches to head coach. Moreover, the study suggests the NFL would do better to focus on recruiting African-Americans into positions as entry-level position coaches if it wants to increase the number of black head coaches.
"The results suggest that race is not an important factor in promotion decisions for head coaches," said John Solow, an economics professor in the UI's Tippie College of Business. "However, experience, age and performance as an offensive or defensive coordinator are significant factors for NFL teams."
Solow's paper, "Moving On Up: The Rooney Rule and Minority Hiring in the NFL," was co-written with Benjamin Solow, his son and an Iowa graduate now attending graduate school at the University of Bologna in Italy, and Todd Walker, an economics professor at Indiana University. Their study looked at the impact of the NFL's Rooney Rule, a league requirement since 2002 that NFL teams with a head coaching vacancy interview at least one minority candidate.
While some view the lack of minority representation among head coaches as evidence of discrimination because 75 percent of the league's players are African-American, Solow said his research doesn't bear out that NFL teams are engaging in racially biased promotion practices. Only a small percentage of NFL head coaches had significant careers as players; most went into coaching shortly after playing in college.
He and his co-investigators looked at every promotion of a top-level assistant coach -- meaning an offensive or defensive coordinator -- to fill a head coaching vacancy in the league from the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 through 2008. Although teams sometimes hire head coaches from the college ranks, Solow said that most head coaching vacancies were filled from the ranks of offensive or defensive coordinator positions. During those years, 80 seasons were played by teams with African-American head coaches, compared with 2,058 team seasons headed by white coaches.
From the coordinator group, Solow said teams most value the combination of youth and experience when assessing head coaching candidates. During the study period, the mean age of a first-year head coach was about 49, with 13 years of professional coaching experience.
"And, as expected, their success as a coordinator was also an important factor," he said. "Coaches with good records get promoted, those with bad records don't. NFL teams want to win, so they hire the candidate who gives them the best chance to win."
Given this, he said the Rooney Rule's focus is misplaced if the league wants to increase the number of minority head coaches. Coordinator positions are usually filled from lower-level position coaches, so Solow said a better option for the NFL would be to work to recruit African-Americans into positions as positional coaches. That way, he said they develop the experience and leadership ability as they work their way up the coaching ladder that NFL teams look for in a head coach.
Unfortunately, the Rooney Rule applies only to head coaching vacancies so it has little effect on filling positions where it's most important. At the start of the 2009 season, only 12 minorities held one of the league's 67 coordinator positions, a mere 18 percent representation in the pool from which most head coaches are selected.
"If the league introduced African-American coaches into the front of the pipeline instead of at the end, more of those coaches would have the experience teams are looking for and be more likely to be hired as head coaches," Solow said. "By encouraging minorities to think earlier in their careers to consider coaching when their collegiate playing careers end, the NFL could increase the number of minority assistant coaches generally and ultimately, their representation among head coaches."