Tony Dungy was an up-and-coming NFL assistant in his early 30s when he met with the Green Bay Packers about their opening for a head coach in 1988.
"When I finished the interview," Dungy said, "I asked them, 'What are you looking for?' And they said, 'Well, we're really looking for a person that has head-coaching experience and an offensive-minded person.' I was a defensive coach who had never been head coach."
So he didn't get that job, and wound up waiting eight years for his first shot at being a head coach. Still, Dungy is convinced that the unsuccessful sit-down with the Packers ultimately helped send him on the path toward becoming the first black coach to win the Super Bowl — and so he thinks the Rooney Rule, which wasn't around in his day, serves an important purpose, even if he also thinks teams sometimes violate its "spirit."
"That (Packers) general manager said, 'Hey, he wasn't what we were looking for, but he was really a sharp guy ... and if you're looking for a defensive coach, you ought to talk to this guy.' Word spreads," Dungy explained. "When people hear that — 'Hey, Tony Dungy was interviewed by the Green Bay Packers, and did well' — that does something. Puts you in a different category."
For a dozen years, the Rooney Rule has required NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for any vacant coaching or GM post. The man for whom it was named, Steelers co-owner Dan Rooney, is open to seeing whether it could be improved.
"When it was first implemented in 2003, the Rooney Rule set parameters to provide opportunities for minority coaches and front office personnel a chance to interview for high-level positions throughout the league," Rooney said in a statement issued by the Steelers. "It has been successful, but also I believe we should look into the rule in order to continue to help advance the opportunities of minorities to succeed at the highest levels in the NFL."
An AP tally of this offseason's coaching searches — as of Sunday night, six of seven openings were filled, with the Atlanta Falcons still looking — shows that of 27 men known to have been interviewed for those jobs, seven were minorities.
"There should be more," Dungy said, "but that'll come."
Todd Bowles was hired this week by the New York Jets, becoming the fifth black head coach currently in the 32-club NFL. The others are Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Tampa Bay's Lovie Smith, and Detroit's Jim Caldwell.
John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which gives the league a list of suggested minority candidates, said: "Were there other guys I wish had gotten interviews? Yes. But overall, I'm very satisfied with the numbers that were there."
Dungy and Wooten are wary of those occasions when teams meet with a minority candidate simply to conform to the rule — but with no intention of seriously considering hiring him.
"We have to be alert to the 'courtesy' or the 'sham' interview. We have to be alert to it. We have to know it when we see it," Wooten said.
Dungy said it's clear that sometimes clubs know who they want to hire before they even begin the search process.
"I don't think (the Rooney Rule is) always being followed the right way and in the spirit of it," Dungy said. "When it's, 'OK, the first day I have an opening, I'm going to hurry up and interview a minority so I can go ahead and hire the person I really wanted to hire, and that I had my mind made up to hire maybe even before I had my opening,' that's when people look at it and say, 'Gee, what's going on here?'"
Still, he is not so sure there is any way around it.
"You can't really legislate that. You can't tell people how to do the search," said Dungy, who like Wooten does not believe the rule should be expanded to include coordinator jobs. "I think this rule was put in place to just get people to try to broaden their outlook a little bit. And if it does that, then it's successful. You can get around any kind of rule. You can circumvent it. And that has been done. But I think, overall, the rule has probably helped people."