King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Johnnie Cochran was right: Steve Mariucci's hiring and firing prove the NFL's old-boy network survives -- and fails.

By Salon Staff
Published December 1, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)
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After the Detroit Lions hired Steve Mariucci as head coach in 2003, they were fined $200,000 by the NFL for violating a rule that requires teams to interview minority candidates for coaching positions.

I was among many who defended team president Matt Millen at the time, arguing that Mariucci, who was fired Monday after going 15-28 in a little over two and a half years, was such an obvious choice that putting minority "candidates" through an interview process would have been a charade.

In fact, the Lions said they contacted five black coaches, all of whom declined to be interviewed, feeling the process would be a waste of their time.

Mariucci had been successful with the San Francisco 49ers, who fired him after the 2002 season even though the 49ers made the playoffs and won a game that year. His firing had more to do with the 49ers' organizational chaos than with the job he'd done -- a 57-39 regular-season record, four playoff appearances in six years and a 3-4 postseason record.

Plus, he was a Michigan native and an old friend of Millen's. It was a natural hire, not just for Millen and the Lions but for any NFL team in their situation. Millen, I and many others said, was being punished for being honest, for not stringing anyone along before making the hire everybody knew he was going to make.

I was wrong. And I'm surprised that in the aftermath of Mariucci's firing nobody else is talking about this. We were all wrong when we defended Millen.

The problem wasn't that Millen had been too honest. The problem was that he'd already made up his mind that Mariucci was the right guy. As we've learned, Mariucci wasn't the right guy. He failed.

Maybe anybody would have failed under Millen's incompetent administration, which has been highlighted by a puzzling, to put it kindly, draft strategy that favors wide receivers over much more valuable defenders or offensive linemen year after year.

Maybe anybody would have failed, but I sure have been hearing and reading a lot over the last few days about how Mooch was the wrong guy for the Lions' situation.

All of a sudden it's crystal clear that his laid-back, player-friendly style was fine for San Francisco, where he inherited a team that had made the playoffs five years in a row and 14 out of the last 15 non-strike years, but not for Detroit, where the team needed to start over after going 5-27 the previous two seasons.

Why couldn't anybody see that in 2003? It's not like Mariucci had been coaching in some outpost. At the time he was fired the 49ers had been one of the highest profile teams in the league for two decades. We all knew Mariucci wasn't a kick-'em-into-shape kind of fellow. Why is it only obvious now that that's what the Lions needed?

It was Millen's managerial incompetence, not racism, that led to qualified black candidates refusing to interview for the Lions job.

One former Lions executive told Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post that a more experienced manager would have kept his desire to hire Mariucci quiet, and sure enough, Millen isn't saying anything about his plan this time. Defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is the interim coach.

But being naively candid really wasn't the problem either. It's true that a good manager doesn't show more cards than necessary, but it's even more true that a good manager doesn't just hire the "obvious" candidate without exploring his options. And there were some good options.

One of the five black candidates who declined to be interviewed in 2003 had actually agreed to an interview. That was Tim Lewis, then the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers and now doing the same job for the New York Giants. After Millen interviewed Mariucci, he called Lewis and told him he'd made up his mind, but Lewis could still come in if he wanted. Lewis said no thanks.

"What Matt Millen has done harkens back to the good-old-boy days," attorney Cyrus Mehri said when Mariucci was hired. Mehri, along with the late Johnnie Cochran, wrote a report in 2002 called "Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities" that led to the league taking steps to improve its minority hiring record, including the "Rooney Rule" requiring interviews of minority candidates for all head coaching jobs.

I thought at the time that Mehri was wrong, that this was different than a good-old-boy hire. Now I think he was right.

You know who else was being talked about as a head coaching candidate in the 2002-03 offseason? Lovie Smith, then the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams. Smith was hired by the Chicago Bears last year, and, working in the same division as the Lions, he's turned that team into a serious Super Bowl contender in his second season. The Bears swept two games from the Lions this season.

Smith didn't have Mariucci's track record as a head coach. He was 46 when the Bears hired him. By the time Mooch was 46, he was in his sixth and final year coaching in San Francisco. If Smith had gotten a college head coaching job at 40, as Mariucci did at California, or an NFL head coaching job at 41, like Mariucci, it looks like he'd have had a pretty good shot at having an impressive record by 2003, when he was 45. We'll never know.

Why did Mariucci get his chance so much earlier? The two men have very similar backgrounds. Both played college ball away from the big time, and then were up-and-coming assistants through their 20s and early 30s. Mariucci went from his alma mater, Northern Michigan, to Cal State Fullerton, Louisville, the Orlando Renegades of the USFL, Southern Cal, Cal and, at 36, the Green Bay Packers.

Smith started as a high school coach, then was an assistant at his alma mater, Tulsa, then at Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio State and, at 38, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Mariucci got his first head coaching job after spending 18 years as an assistant, four of them in the NFL. Smith got his after spending 24 years as a high school or assistant coach, eight of them in the NFL. Was Mariucci just in the right place at the right time to get the job at Cal and the one in San Francisco? Or was there something else at work?

In their 2002 report, Cochran and Mehri wrote that of the more than 400 head coaches hired in the history of the NFL, seven of them had been black. It's not like NFL owners and general managers were running around with white hoods on in 2002, or in 1997, when the 49ers hired Mariucci.

But the old-boy network was and still is a powerful thing, and that's how it works. You hire the guy with the résumé, the one you've been friends with for a long time.

The five minority coaches who turned the Lions down in 2003 -- it's inconceivable that Lovie Smith wasn't one of them -- have been criticized for saying no. That's fair. They should have gone.

Maybe it would have been a charade. But it seems to me that everybody who's ever gone into a room with Smith has come out impressed. Maybe one or more of those five would have turned some heads. They certainly would have raised their profiles, and they also would have been lending their support to a rule that's already produced positive results -- there are an all-time-high six African-American coaches in the NFL at the moment.

Realistically, Millen wasn't going to be persuaded not to hire Mariucci, and most NFL executives would have made the same hire because it's tough to sell the fans on the idea that some assistant they've never heard of is a better candidate than a head coach who's been a playoff regular. I'd have hired Mariucci too.

And we all would have been just as wrong as Millen was.

Millen's failure was that he didn't keep an open mind. That's not racism, but it's a kissing cousin.

Previous column: Colts pound Steelers

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