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Saturday, July 26, 2003

Lions Fine Unjustified

The NFL yesterday fined the Detroit Liions for not interviewing any black candidates for their coaching vacancy prior to hiring Steve Mariucci. The policy in the league is that teams must interview at least one minority (read black) during their coaching search process, a rule put in place not long ago to appease critics who complain about the small number of coaches of color.

The NFL does have only three black coaches today, a very small number considering the quantity of black players and blacks otherwise closely involved with the game over the years. That fact, however, should not prevent the Detroit Lions from hiring the man they want to hire to be their next coach.

The 49ers were crazy to fire Steve Mariucci, a proven winner as a coach, and the Lions, knowing about Mariucci's strong track record and ties to Michigan, acted quickly to get their man. Initially this offseason, the Lions said they were keeping Marty Mornhinweg; they only fired him when Mariucci suddenly became available. The team acted fast to court Mariucci out of concern he might otherwise go to another team. The Lions knew about the rule to interview blacks, but none of the black candidates they contacted were willing to come in because they knew Mariucci had the job. Detroit acted quickly to do what was best for their team, they tried to comply with the NFL's silly rule, and now President Matt Millen is hit with a $200,000 fine.

Here's an excerpt from the SI.com news article linked above:

"After coach Marty Mornhinweg was fired by the Lions in January, Mariucci was the only person interviewed for the job. The team said five minority candidates turned down interviews because it appeared inevitable Mariucci would be hired.

"'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,' [Nfl Commissioner] Tagliabue wrote...

"'The Detroit Lions gave mere lip service to the agreed-upon minority hiring process, treating it almost as if a nuisance to their hiring of Steve Mariucci,' [Gene] Upshaw [exec dir of NFLPA] said at the time. 'The minority candidates were never given a fair chance to interview. In this case, the Lions' position is indefensible.'"

The NFL is wrong here. Mariucci was far and away the best candidate available in the Lions eyes, and a Dennis Green or Ted Cottrell would have had to be the greatest interview of all time to win the position. I think it is more insulting to coaches to bring them in to fulfill a quota in a hiring process than to admit up front they are not at the top of the list.

And so far I see nothing on ESPN.com or SI.com criticizing the ruling. I guess the race issue is too hot for these media organizations to touch, and they want to stay on the NFL's good side. Being denounced by Jesse Jackson or Johnnie Cochran is no fun either, even when you are right. I had to pull up the Detroit Free Press to find a columnist willing to take on this fine in Drew Sharp:

"The league admonished honesty when it ridiculously levied a $200,000 fine on Lions president Matt Millen for violating the league's minority hiring policy. He had the audacity to think he had to move swiftly to sweep up Steve Mariucci...

"The league needs to concentrate its efforts on teams that pursue first-time NFL head coaches, not penalize teams that target a proven winner.

"The San Francisco 49ers' search for Mariucci's successor was more insulting to the spirit of the policy than anything Millen did. The 49ers sent out early signals that they were looking for a fresh face, catering to some of the league's most impressive coordinators. They interviewed capable minority candidates such as New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and deserving white candidates like their own defensive coordinator, Jim Mora Jr.

"But those discussions were a smoke screen to conceal the 49ers' real objective, which was to convince Dennis Erickson to return to the NFL.

"The NFL apparently didn't think this deceit was worthy of sanction, though, particularly for a franchise considered one of the league's shining lights.

"Dennis Green's actions in all this aren't above reproach, either.

"The former Vikings coach bailed out Dallas and Jacksonville when the NFL inquired about the validity of his interviews with those teams. The Cowboys' search wasn't really open. It was a no-holds-barred push to lure Bill Parcells out of retirement, and Green knew that, but he declined to blow the whistle.

"The Jaguars' interest in Green was strictly window dressing because they wanted new coaching blood. Again, Green signed off on the Jaguars' claims that they interviewed properly for the opening. And then Jacksonville hired Jack Del Rio.

"So why didn't Green extend the Lions the same courtesy?

"Those close to Green say he approached the Lions last December about replacing Mornhinweg, but there was no interest. Green and Mariucci share the same agents, so Green knew that overtures from Millen last January were intended to cover Millen's own rear with the league, making Millen no different from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

"But it seems Green just wanted to stick it to Millen and the Lions, and he wouldn't interview with them."

I hope some in the national media can find the courage to join Sharp in criticizing the NFL's poor policy in this area.