Race an issue, but networking is still the key

At least it won't be a shutout.

But it is a blowout.

Herman Edwards' being "traded" from New York to Kansas City was the lone score for the cause. There were nine other NFL head coaching vacancies this offseason. Eight have been filled (the Oakland job is still open) with seven first-time coaches and one so-called "retread." Of the eight hires, none was a minority.

And so the NFL's diversity record remains six African-American coaches out of 32. A disappointing loss and an opportunity lost, for sure. But as can be the case with blowouts, minority coaches' going one-for-nine (and counting) isn't as bad as it looks.

Step back and you can see significant progress, like a dozen minorities receiving some 25 interviews among them. Edwards' going to the Chiefs represented at once both a significant step for minority head coaches and, ironically, the very reason the overall number did not, as expected, increase this offseason.

To begin with, we've been looking at this year's hiring cycle from the wrong perspective. Minority coaches haven't gone oh-for-eight on the open job market but rather oh-for-one eight times. The NFL's not adding to its embarrassingly small roster of minority head coaches was not so much one company hiring eight white men for the same level job. It was more like eight individual corporations each selecting one white man over several worthy candidates, both white and black, for one position. The same gig just happened to vacate in 10 spots. There's a difference.

As a group, looking at the big picture, yes, minority coaches pretty much got the cold shoulder this winter. But they certainly weren't alone. Guys like Ted Cottrell, Donnie Henderson, Tim Lewis and Ron Rivera have their majority counterparts in the likes of Jim Bates, Mike Heimerdinger, Mike Martz, Al Saunders and Mike Sherman, all of whom deserved an opportunity (in the case of Martz, Saunders and Sherman, a second one) but were passed over in favor of unproven and, in some cases, arguably less-qualified candidates.

The NFL's hiring process may seem like a black-and-white issue when in reality there's a lot more gray to it.

None of us should be so naïve as to think race doesn't factor into some owners' and executives' choices as to whom they will entrust their franchises. But it's hardly ever (I wish never) as simple as white guys picking another white guy over a brotha. It goes deeper than that. Race has everything and at the same time very little to do with who is promoted to the level of NFL head coach and who isn't.

This is a game, but it's still the real world, corporate America. And there, it's more about who you know than what you know. And perhaps just as important, who knows you.

Eric Mangini got the Jets' job a day before turning 35 not because he was so much more qualified than Henderson, Lewis or even Heimerdinger. He got it because he's good and he's presumably going to get better and because he goes back with the assistant GM.

Mike McCarthy went from coordinating the worst offense in football to replacing Sherman as coach of the Green Bay Packers in part because of his relationship with iconic quarterback Brett Favre and GM Ted Thompson.

Teams don't go into this thing open-minded. Rather, they begin with a list, and if they can get the guy at the top they do so. New York was Mangini's job from Jump Street. The Vikings had Brad Childress targeted; why do you think they hired him so quickly? It's doubtful that Houston (Gary Kubiak), New Orleans (Sean Payton) and St. Louis (Scott Linehan) simply conducted rounds of interviews and picked the guy who impressed them the most. Detroit targeted Steelers assistant Russ Grimm but he isn't available, so the Lions settled on Rod Marinelli.

Look, if you dropped the names of the 10 most qualified assistant coaches in a hat and each team drew, at the very least a few of them would come up with a minority. But it isn't that simple. We don't live in a meritocracy.

There's a network in place that, unfortunately, most minorities aren't plugged into.

The irony of it all is that Edwards landed the Chiefs job for the very reason, generally speaking, white coaches have an edge on minorities: because of who he knew. In this case his guy was Chiefs president Carl Peterson, Edwards' close friend of 30 years.

We've been focusing on all the wrong details of the Edwards-to-Kansas City story. Kansas City's interview process was pretty much the reverse of what transpires all the time in other cities. The Chiefs had their guy in mind and any interviews they conducted were just for show, only this time the minority coach was the guy.

Imagine. A retread African-American coach commanding a draft pick -- albeit a second-day selection -- as compensation and using his connections to get a better, higher-paying job. Progress? I'd say.

Another thing: Fact is, Edwards landed the best job available, a borderline playoff team whose head coach retired. A lot of folks may not have liked it, but he left the Jets in search of security, knowing full well that another year or two like 2005 (4-12) might have meant the end of his career as an NFL head coach.

Which is why other minority candidates' getting shut out this year might, in a way, be a good thing.

The speculation was that Bill Belichick was going to dissuade Mangini from taking on a mess in New York. Would it have been any better for Henderson or Lewis? The unfortunate truth is that when African-American coaches fail, for whatever reason, they don't often get second chances. Art Shell took the Raiders to the playoffs three times and won almost 60 percent of his games and yet he can't get so much as a serious sniff of a second chance.

One coordinator, who is white and definite head coach material, said he didn't know if he would have accepted a lot of the jobs we're talking about (if he'd been offered them). The Bills, Lions, Packers, Raiders and Saints might not have been the best thing for a black coach who's probably looking at one shot, although Tony Dungy (in Tampa Bay) and Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati) have worked miracles. Even so, this year's vacancies aren't the same as Dungy's taking over the Colts with an offense in place, Lovie Smith's inheriting defensive talent in Chicago or Lewis' getting the Bengals, even. Mike Mularkey had his reasons for shuffling out of Buffalo. Matt Millen is on his fourth coach in Detroit.

While minority coaches haven't gotten to the point where they can turn down one of 32 jobs, Jim Caldwell, Maurice Carthon and Jerry Gray might someday look back and be glad they didn't land in an unstable situation. There is no black Jim Haslett.

Certain things won't change anytime soon. Minority coaches will continue to be unfairly evaluated collectively rather than individually. One minority coordinator expressed disgust at being asked during his interviews how he compared to Dungy, Lewis and Smith, as opposed to his white mentors.

Romeo Crennel had to earn five Super Bowl rings before he got his opportunity to be a head coach while Mangini served only one year as a coordinator before getting the call. Childress and Kubiak have head coaching jobs despite never calling an offensive play while Sherm Lewis never could escape the shadow of Mike Holmgren for the same reason.

Bottom line: Minorities have been issued a different dues-paying schedule. The double standard -- be twice as good, and often that isn't good enough -- is something minorities, African-Americans especially, are just burdened with.

But there is hope that someday "all things being equal" will be a true statement. Teams are scheduling interviews. And while too many have the appearance of tokenism, don't involve the owner, and are done merely to comply with the Rooney Rule -- which mandates that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for a head coaching vacancy -- really, that's all you can ask, a chance to state your case.

The question then becomes, what's the answer?

Mine: The NFL can do a better job of helping minority candidates develop as head coaching prospects. If, for example, a coach as experienced and polished as Lewis isn't ready to be some team's head coach, the league needs to help him gain whatever's missing from his package, assuming something is. Too often the Lewises, Caldwells and Cottrells hear from teams how impressive they are in their interviews, and yet the clubs go in a different direction. It's the NFL's duty to provide these prospects with better direction so they are by far the best men for the job. Twice as good.

Maybe, at the end of the day, it simply comes down to white owners and executives selecting a coach with whom they have more in common, with whom they feel more "comfortable." Hopefully it has less to do with that and more to do with a lack of exposure to minority candidates.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue spoke before Sunday's AFC Championship Game about reevaluating the annual coaching symposiums and tailoring the programs to address the specific needs of minority coaches. That's a good start. That way a candidate won't waste his time studying rosters and cap situations, designing and rehearsing presentations and selling himself, only to be told he was too aggressive. As one African-American coach put it, "You try to be who you think they want you to be, then they up and change the criteria. It's like studying for the SAT and being given the LSAT."

The Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization that promotes management diversity in the NFL, updates and distributes a "Ready List" of assistant coaches and personnel executives. That's how unknown most minority coaches are to the owners and presidents doing the hiring. We're still stuck on six, but the bright side is there were a record number of interviews, and Edwards made black history, of sorts.

Real progress, though, would come the day that a list no longer is necessary.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.