Thanks to Rooney Rule, doors opened

MIAMI -- As the NFL celebrates its ascendant African-American head coaches, somewhere Johnnie Cochran Jr. is smiling.

With the passing of the millennium, O.J. Simpson's defense attorney wondered why there weren't more minority coaches in the league. He and labor law attorney Cyrus Mehri commissioned a comprehensive report that was published in 2002 and detailed a "dismal record of minority hiring."

Although 70 percent of the NFL's players were black, only 28 percent of the assistant coaches and 6 percent of the head coaches were African-Americans.

In 2003, Steelers owner Dan Rooney chaired a committee to study the issue. The result was "The Rooney Rule." Teams were required to interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head coaching position -- or be fined.

"There were some people who said, 'I want to hire whoever I want to hire. You can't be telling us who to hire.' That is your decision," Rooney said. "But we say you must give an opportunity to an African-American or a minority.

"That sort of took hold. And when we went through that, it worked."

Last fall, there were a record seven black head coaches in the league. With the offseason firing of Art Shell by the Raiders and Dennis Green by the Cardinals, that number dropped to five. Now, there are six.

Rooney recently announced the hiring of Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, 34.

"Mike Tomlin wouldn't have gotten this opportunity without this rule," said Shell, the first modern black NFL head coach. "He never would have sat down with Dan Rooney."

Said Rooney: "To be honest with you, before the interview he was just another guy who was an assistant coach. Once we interviewed him the first time, he just came through and we thought it was great. And we brought him back and talked to him on the phone and went through the process that we do, and he ended up winning the job.

"[The rule] wasn't the most important thing because he was the most important thing. Mike got the job because he showed us his ability and showed us what he could do, and we believed in him."

Said Tomlin: "I think it's given me an opportunity to present myself maybe in some situations that I wouldn't have had."

Rooney said he is pleased and somewhat embarrassed to be associated with the rule.

"I really feel and hope," Rooney said, "that we will not need a Rooney Rule very long."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.