<
>

System's flawed, but better than before

We can't see history, even if it's just over the horizon.

Art Shell holds the distinction of being the first black coach of the NFL's modern era, the first since football pioneer Fritz Pollard some eighty years ago. Fifteen years after that historic promotion, perhaps Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, will become the first black Bill Belichick/Dom Capers/Norv Turner -- all of whom served several years as assistants before receiving a second head-coaching opportunity.

Sure, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green got second chances at being a head coach, but neither followed the route taken by Shell, the NFL's senior vice president of football operations who compiled a 56-41 mark (including playoffs) as head coach of the Raiders from 1989-94, then went on to serve as offensive line coach for the Chiefs and Falcons. He hasn't coached since 2000.

"If you have ever been a head coach, you want the chance to do that again," Shell said.

Monday Shell completed a controversial interview for Miami's head coaching job, which pretty much belongs to LSU's Nick Saban.

Even so, good for Shell. And good for minority coaches.

The Shell interview didn't sit well with some, particularly the Pollard Alliance, the group that advocates minority hiring in the NFL. To them, and critics of the "search" process agree, the sit-down with Shell was a sham and a mockery. Call it a "shamockery." They believe Shell is nothing but a token interview for a franchise that already has a new coach in place but does not want to incur a hefty fine (though the public relations hit, believe it or not, probably would be softer) by violating the "Rooney Rule," the league's policy, named after Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, requiring teams to interview at least one minority for its head coaching vacancy.

And this is supposed to be a bad thing?

The system certainly isn't perfect, but it's better than it was.

Shell made a wise choice by dismissing the Pollard Alliance's reported efforts at discouraging him from partaking in the charade, much the way black coaches boycotted the Lions' coaching search in 2003 when it was clear that Steve Mariucci was Matt Millen's man, resulting in a $200,000 fine for Millen.

"I can't be concerned with what they're doing with Nick Saban," Shell, 58, said last week. "If you have an opportunity to get in front of a team and tell them about yourself, you need to do it."

University of Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, who also is black, on the other hand rejected the chance to interview before it was offered, saying, "Do you think they're going to hire me? Let's be honest. Why should I waste my time?"

Because that's how times change.

Shell taking a chance on himself and his impressive résumé (which includes three playoff berths and an AFC Championship Game appearance) and taking the trip to South Florida definitely was time well spent. For him and for the cause of increasing diversity among head coaches, only good can come of any interview. A few things can happen here. Maybe the Saban deal falls through, and the Dolphins end up having to turn to Shell. Or maybe Saban turns out to be the next Steve Spurrier, flops, and a few years down the road, Shell, having made such a good impression on owner Wayne Huizenga, is the leading candidate to replace him. At the very least, Huizenga may recommend Shell to another owner(s) looking for a head coach.

Bottom line, you never know.

That used to be the problem when it came to hiring head coaches, owners not knowing or wanting to know enough about black coaches to give them the chance to head their teams. White owners would rely on each other or media or their own assistants for prospects. Thanks to the "Rooney Rule" and the league's minority internship program, darker faces now populate the sidelines and coaching boxes. Today there are six black head coaches, including Cleveland interim boss Terry Robiskie. The number isn't what it probably should be, but it's better than 20 years ago, when there were none.

I'll settle for progress.

The Miami slight isn't turning back the clock or setting back black coaches. Is Shell bailing the Dolphins out? Absolutely. But it was his choice to go through with it (honestly, my initial thought, a conspiracy theory shared by one of the league's black coaches to whom I spoke, was that Shell's bosses in the league office instructed him to), and a wise one to take advantage of the Rooney Rule and get his name, and more important his face, back out there. It's like they say about the BCS: It's the best system we have. And it's been an effective one. The Chicago coaching gig could have been Saban's last year, if he wanted it. Is Lovie Smith the Bears' head coach if they aren't mandated to interview minorities? Perhaps so, perhaps not. We don't know for sure and we don't have to.

Without the "Rooney Rule," Huizenga, other than a courtesy conversation with interim coach Jim Bates, can just get on with doing the Saban contract without interviewing anyone, let alone a minority who hasn't been a head coach in a decade whom they have little to no intention of hiring.

A moratorium on hiring until after the regular season or the postseason isn't the answer to the problem of diversity. And black coaches aren't the only ones missing out on this particular opportunity because the Dolphins won't risk waiting another two weeks until the pool of potential candidates deepens and risk losing Saban. Excluding Bates, there are just as many qualified white guys being left out, too, here. At least the Dolphins can say they're equal lack-of-opportunity employers.

It's like this: interview or no interview, fine or no fine, owners still are going to hire who they want to hire. And more often than not that coach is going to look a lot like him, or at least his son. If Miami was made to wait until after the playoffs, giving, say, Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel the chance to interview, does Crennel overtake Saban in Huizenga's eyes, the way Dungy and Herman Edwards did to land the Colts and Jets jobs, respectively? It's doubtful, and not because Crennel isn't a good coach whose players swear by him, but because Miami already has gone the way of successful coordinator and didn't make out quite so well. The heat is on in South Florida for the Dolphins to make a splash this time. So they need to get a so-called "hot" guy.

That's my only real criticism of the Dolphins. If they're going to go with a defensive coach, shouldn't the top choice be the guy who opposed them Monday night, Crennel? By all accounts, Saban is an excellent coach, a Belichick clone, but think about it: Miami is the latest franchise to be smitten with Saban, who worked under Belichick during his not-so-successful stint in Cleveland and has since made his name as a college coach. Crennel, on the other hand, has been by the side of Belichick during the Patriots' recent run and worked previously with Bill Parcells, collecting four Super Bowl rings along with way. He's interviewed for several openings the past few years. If he doesn't land a job this time around, now that would be the injustice.

Saban holds an edge over a guy like Crennel because he has held a head job on the collegiate level, but more than that, he's what's known as the pretty girl at the party. Time will tell if he's really, as they say, "wifey" material. The NFL's a different game.

So is the head coach hiring process, thanks to a rule aimed at evening the playing field. Though he'll likely lose out to Saban, Shell earned a victory simply by playing along.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.