Long before hatchets start dropping in NFL cities and the annual spate of coach firings begins, a group of men gather at the league's Manhattan offices to compile candidates who could join the next generation of coaches.
Among those in the room is commissioner Roger Goodell and Steelers owner Dan Rooney. They are not there to influence hires, but for a much grander purpose: promote racial diversity in NFL hiring.
To that end, the league's diversity committee familiarizes teams with qualified minority candidates who it and the Fritz Pollard Alliance deem worthy of consideration. Near the top of this year's list is Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, an African-American who is among those interviewed so far during the Bucs' search to replace Raheem Morris.
After protests from advocacy groups led by famed attorney Johnnie Cochran, the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule in 2003 in a step toward leveling the playing field for minorities in a league that had consistently trailed other pro sports in diversity. The rule mandates teams interview at least one minority for head coach and general manager openings.
The result has been significant. There were only three minority coaches or GMs in 2002, the year before the Rooney Rule was implemented. At the start of this season, there were eight coaches and five GMs.
"It's been enormously successful," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
"The success of those coaches … has been the proof. There has been an African-American coach or general manager in four of the past five Super Bowls."
So nearly a decade into its existence, the Rooney Rule works. But is it still necessary?
Definitely, says one authority on the subject — John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (named for the NFL's first black coach).
"There may come a time when we won't need the Rooney Rule," he said. "But just watch the number of minority coaches who are interviewed for (specific) openings, and that tells you that it's still necessary."
Because many teams interview a single minority for a given opening, Wooten is left to wonder if they would do so if no rule existed. Often, it's the same minority candidate who gets interviewed by multiple teams. Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who is black and thought to be a candidate for the Bucs' opening, interviewed with three teams last year before each hired someone else.
This raises another issue: Are the interviews always legitimate?
Preventing "token" interviews is a key to ensuring the Rooney Rule is effective. The league has taken steps, Wooten said, to make sure minority candidates are treated equally.
"Fortunately, our relationship with the NFL is very good, so they do a good job of talking to owners about interviews," Wooten said. "And because teams have to request permission (to interview candidates from other teams), it puts the commissioner in position to monitor these things."
Said Lapchick: "(Goodell) has been very clear that bogus interviews are not to be a part of this process. The overwhelming majority have been legitimate, and teams have complied."
By examining the substance of the interviews, Wooten said, it can be determined if the interview was serious.
Progress has been a bit slower for GMs. But that, too, is changing. The Rooney Rule was made applicable to front-office hires in 2008, and this month, Oakland's Reggie McKenzie, who is black, became the sixth minority GM. In 2002, there was just one.
GMs are more closely linked to ownership, meaning it takes a greater commitment on owners' parts to make such hires, said former Bucs executive Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
"There are probably some owners who aren't that comfortable having someone a little different making decisions for the organization and sitting next to them in the box during games," said Williams, now the coach at Grambling State. "But it's getting better."
And as with the coaches, the success of minority GMs bodes well for future opportunities.
Of the five minority GMs in place during the regular season, four are from playoff teams: Martin Mayhew (Lions), Rick Smith (Texans), Jerry Reese (Giants) and Ozzie Newsome (Ravens).
Which brings up a larger point: The intent was never to simply have more minorities in key positions, but, more important, qualified and capable ones. The evidence suggests that has happened.
"And all this came about," Wooten said, "because of the consciousness of this. That's why we need the Rooney Rule."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.