King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NFL sends a clear message by fining Lions president Matt Millen for not interviewing a minority coaching candidate: Token gestures are better than honesty.

By Salon Staff
Published July 29, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

The Detroit Lions finally, finally, finally did something right and they got fined $200,000 for it.

Actually, team president Matt Millen was personally fined for not interviewing any minority candidates before making the excellent decision to hire former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci in February. Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. said the team might appeal and that "Matt is the CEO of the Lions -- he is acting on behalf of the organization," so it's a fair bet that if the fine is paid, the Lions will pony up.

This almost never happens, but the Lions -- losers in 27 of their last 32 games and without a playoff win since 1991 -- are right. The fine is bunk.

Millen invited five blacks to interview for the job. It's been reported that they were Lions assistant Sherman Lewis, former Vikings coach Dennis Green, and defensive coordinators Ted Cottrell of the Jets, Tim Lewis of the Steelers and Lovie Smith of the Rams. They all declined to be interviewed, quite reasonably, because Millen had made it clear that Mariucci was his first choice.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue levied the fine, and he told Millen in a letter, "As club President, it was your responsibility to ensure that you and the Lions' organization met the commitment [to interview minorities for each coaching vacancy] or demonstrated to this office that it was impossible to meet for some justifiable reason. While certain of the difficulties that you encountered in seeking to schedule interviews with minority candidates were beyond your control, you did not take sufficient steps to satisfy the commitment that you had made."

The only step Millen could have taken would have been to hide the fact that he coveted Mariucci from the moment the 49ers fired him. That would have been something like a real lion keeping quiet about finding zebra meat tasty. What's the point? Everybody knows.

"What bothers me the most is that I tried to be honest about the whole thing," Millen said. "I could have been less honest and I wouldn't be in this situation. And that's not right."

It's not. I can't think of a more obvious hire for an NFL head-coach vacancy in the last 20 years. Mariucci is a Michigan native, from Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula, and he was a superstar quarterback at Division II Northern Michigan University. The 49ers fired him because of office politics despite his 57-39 regular-season record and four playoff appearances in six years. He succeeded for two years with the team he inherited from George Seifert, then after two down years caused by salary-cap problems and the loss of Steve Young, he built the Niners back into a playoff team, winning 12 and 10 games the last two seasons.

Not only is Mariucci known for turning losing teams around, which he did as a college player and in his one year as a college coach, at California, as well as in San Francisco, but he's also known as a mentor of quarterbacks. He was the quarterbacks coach in Green Bay when Brett Favre was starting out, and Favre credits his considerable NFL success to their time together. The Lions' future resides in the hands of second-year quarterback Joey Harrington.

Millen would have had to be brain dead not to be very, very interested in hiring Mariucci once he became available. It would have been an insult to Green, Cottrell and the others for Millen to issue transparent denials to the inevitable media inquiries about Mariucci just so those "candidates" would agree to waste their time by interviewing for an unavailable job.

One could argue that those five men should have been interviewed anyway. Just getting into the room with an NFL team's brass could pay dividends for an individual minority candidate and, by extension, all other minority candidates. If I were a pal of any of those guys, my advice would have been to go anyway. Maybe you'll knock 'em dead, I'd say, or maybe the Lions won't be able to strike a deal with Mariucci, or they'll like you enough to recommend you to another team that has a vacancy. But whatever I think would have been best, it was their decision, and Millen and the Lions shouldn't be punished for giving them the straight dope.

Washington attorney Cyrus Mehri, who with Johnnie Cochran wrote a paper called "Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities," which helped lead to the minority-interview policy adopted by the league in December, praised the Millen fine.

"Now this has real teeth because it is finally enforceable," he told the Detroit Free Press. "It appears to be sending a strong message, but the key is what the owners do in the future."

Mehri's right that a strong message needs to be sent. Only three of the 32 NFL coaches are black, which is an all-time high. Two-thirds of NFL players are black, and the percentage is higher among skill positions. But the message being sent here is that teams who make a token gesture to a minority are fine, those who shoot straight are fined.

Does anyone really believe that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had any intention of hiring anyone other than Bill Parcells this offseason? But the Cowboys escaped Tagliabue's gavel because of a courtesy interview with Green, who also spoke to the Jaguars before they hired Jack Del Rio, a white defensive coordinator with no head-coaching experience.

Meanwhile the 49ers strung along Cottrell and Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who is also black, before turning on a dime and hiring retread Dennis Erickson at the 11th hour. Cottrell's agent said he went to bed the night before the announcement thinking his man had the job, but it seems the 49ers felt more "comfortable" with Erickson, whose four years as head coach of the Seahawks in the '90s produced a record of fierce mediocrity. No punishment there either.

The anti-affirmative-action crowd will have a field day with Millen's fine, as well it should. It punishes a team with a good record of minority hiring in its front office and coaching staff while encouraging behavior that makes a mockery of any real diversity initiative. Mehri is correct that "the key is what the owners do in the future." Tagliabue's decision shows them that it's OK to make token gestures to minorities while continuing with business as usual.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

  • Bookmark to get the new Kaufman column every day.
  • Send an e-mail to King Kaufman.
  • To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to

  • Salon Staff

    MORE FROM Salon Staff

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------