Oregon law on hiring minority college coaches works, so why isn’t it used elsewhere?
It’s 10 years old but the NCAA and most states ignore its potential
Minutes before Oregon passed House Bill 3118 in June 2009, state Sen. Mark Hass explained the proposal. Hass outlined how the Rooney Rule, pioneered by the NFL to increase opportunities for minority coaches, could benefit Oregon’s state universities.
“It doesn’t require schools to hire minorities, it doesn’t impose quotas,” he told the Senate before the vote. “It just says, ‘Keep your eyes open. There may be others who deserve a look.’ ”
On Jan. 1, Oregon’s law turned 10 years old. For a decade, it has required state schools to interview at least one qualified minority candidate for all head coach and athletic director openings. The result has been historic gains in diversity hiring.
The University of Oregon’s last two football coaches are an African American, Willie Taggart, and a Cuban American, Mario Cristobal. Oregon hired its first African American track and field coach in Robert Johnson. Portland State and Western Oregon’s athletic departments are both led by African Americans, Val Cleary and Curtis Campbell. The city of Portland and Multnomah County, which both implemented versions of the hiring law, have seen their lineup of bureau directors include more women and minorities.
“What the Rooney Rule has proven in the state, in the city and the county, is it works,” said Sam Sachs, a Portland activist who spearheaded the law and founded the nonprofit The No Hate Zone, which combats hate and racism. “It’s such an easy fix.”
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But Oregon remains the only state to have such a law.
“I’m not sure of the awareness nationally of what’s going on here in Oregon,” Oregon State athletics director Scott Barnes said.
Diversity hiring in college sports, meanwhile, continues to grade poorly. This year’s college football coaching cycle included three black coaches being fired and only two, Taggart and Washington’s Jimmy Lake, landing head-coaching jobs. Barring late surprises, only 13 black coaches will lead FBS teams in 2020, in a sport dominated by black players.
“Listen, we all want to get to a point where a law isn’t required, but we’re a long ways from that, so I am surprised [the rule hasn’t spread],” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. “We have one of the most diverse student groups on any of our campuses, and so we should be working diligently to make sure our staff look similar to our student-athletes.”
Without the rule, coaches get ignored
At Jerry Glanville’s introductory news conference as Portland State’s coach in February 2007, he received a question from the back row. Sam Sachs, a black studies student, asked how Glanville felt about getting the job on the last day of Black History Month after the school had interviewed no minority candidates for the opening.
Sachs had lobbied Portland State to consider qualified minority coaches, mentioning the NFL’s Rooney Rule. But Portland State wanted Glanville, linked to the run-and-shoot offense and former PSU coach Mouse Davis, so it hired Glanville.
In late 2008, Sachs, who started college at Western Oregon and played football there, read about the struggles of black assistants such as Charlie Strong to land head-coaching jobs.
“I was fed up and pissed,” Sachs said, “Glanville was in his second season and the team was horrible. I just cold-called my representative, Mitch Greenlick.”
Sachs asked if it was too late to sponsor a bill for the next legislative cycle. Sachs, a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, explained the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which is named after longtime Steelers owner Dan Rooney, and how it could apply to Oregon universities. “I thought it was a great idea,” Greenlick told him. “We ought to be doing it.”
He asked Sachs to get state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici to be a co-sponsor. Sachs met with Bonamici in January 2009 and created House Bill 3118. Then, the real work began.
During the next six months, Sachs made about 50 trips from Portland to Salem, the state capital. He paid for gas and all other expenses, and traveled on his days off. He credits his boss at Nordstrom, where he worked security at the time, for redoing his schedule so he could maximize the trips. Sachs spoke with legislators on both sides of the aisle, and testified before the House education committee.
“I talked to everybody, met with everybody,” Sachs said. “I wanted to know their questions or their concerns or their side, why they wouldn’t support it.”
The bill initially covered only football coaches but was expanded to include all coaches and athletic directors for Oregon’s seven public universities. It passed the house 52-4, and went to the Senate. After several more weeks of wrangling, Sachs’ efforts paid off. On June 19, 2009, the Senate passed the bill 29-0. Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed it July 22 with an effective date of Jan. 1, 2010.
“That was a fairly novel idea for a state legislature,” said Bonamici, now a member of Congress. “To get that much bipartisan support, it really says something about not only Sam and his tenaciousness, but also, people were really open to the idea, saying, ‘Look, diversity matters. It makes a difference to the people who are applying, and it also makes a difference to the athletes.’ ”
‘It has been a disappointment’
At first, Oregon’s hiring law seemed likely to spread to other states. In December 2009, Sachs testified at the Black Caucus of State Legislators. Several states proposed forms of the law, but none wound up passing.
Sachs teamed with leading advocates for diversity in college coaching: Richard Lapchick, a University of Central Florida professor and the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport; Floyd Keith, then the director of the Black Coaches Association; and Merritt Norvell, who launched the National Association for Coaching Equity and Development. They spoke at legislative conventions and pushed the NCAA to adopt a ruling to encourage the interviewing and hiring of minority coaches.
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The state government path seemed promising, but without persistent advocates like Sachs to lobby legislators, there hasn’t been traction. Sachs says he doesn’t have the resources to push the law in other states.
“I don’t know there’s been anybody in the other states that has been as avid and tenacious as Sam was,” said Jeremi Duru, a law professor at American University who counsels the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization that oversees implementation of the Rooney Rule in the NFL. “There was a sense Oregon would be the first of several, and none of the others came to pass.
“It has been a disappointment.”
Duru, who wrote a book on the Rooney Rule, describes it as “a pretty mild rule” that is fully constitutional but often misunderstood. Many see it as affirmative action and believe that the rule requires that minorities be hired, rather than just be considered for jobs.
Sachs and Lapchick say some people in the NCAA privately support initiatives like Oregon’s law, but the association hasn’t pushed for widespread implementation, deferring to its membership. In 2017, Bonamici and Rep. Cedric Richmond, then chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, wrote to the NCAA asking about efforts to diversify hiring among coaches. The response was “pretty vague,” Bonamici said, as the NCAA reiterated it had no authority over schools’ hiring practices.
When The Undefeated requested an interview with Katrice Albert, the NCAA’s executive vice president of inclusion and human resources, an NCAA spokeswoman declined the request and said the NCAA is not considering Oregon’s hiring law for head coaches and administrators.
“I don’t see it happening from an NCAA level,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “They don’t control hiring practices. A member school would create legislation and then it would have to be passed by all 372 Division I members. That’s not going to happen. In a conference, an institution would have to bring it up in a meeting and all 14 schools would have to pass it. That’s not going to happen. The reality is, it has to be something like a state initiative, like they have in Oregon.
“[The rule] would be advantageous, but it’s very hard to get passed.”
Sachs isn’t going to stop pushing the NCAA, but he and Lapchick now are focused on getting power conferences to implement a version of Oregon’s law. Half of the Pac 12 football coaches are minorities, and the league also has a diverse group of athletics directors.
Earlier this month, Kevin Warren officially became the first black commissioner of a power conference, the Big Ten. He’s familiar with the Rooney Rule from his time as an NFL executive.
“His leadership would be instrumental,” Lapchick said of Warren. “If we don’t get the commissioner support, it’s not going to go. But if the commissioner has four or five ADs who are influential, it’s going to have a better shot.”
Lapchick also thinks a version of Oregon’s law could still catch on in other states. He noted the reaction to California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, and how many states quickly followed with their own versions.
Bonamici said U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer both have brought up the Rooney Rule in discussing efforts to diversity staff. “I don’t know why it hasn’t spread,” she said. “Other states should look at it.”
“I will consider myself a failure if it’s not in some conferences and other states,” Lapchick said. “A number of us end up on discussions on television shows or conferences or university symposiums. We often say at the end of it, ‘We’ve been saying these things all of our lives, without much happening.’ ”
Law makes the hiring commitment real
Cleary is mindful of Oregon’s hiring law every time she comes to work at Portland State.
“As a woman of color, here in the state, also in the AD spot, I assume that played into the hiring process,” she said. “Just creating that visible outright commitment to diversity is a big thing for our state. Every institution always says that they value diversity and want to have a diverse search.
“This adds that extra layer.”
Before becoming AD at Oregon State, Barnes held the same job at Pitt, which shares a football training facility with the Steelers. He met occasionally with Steelers owner Art Rooney II, and one time asked Rooney about the rule that bears the family’s name.
Barnes even took Pitt’s staff to a discussion on the Rooney Rule, and had been considering implementing it throughout the athletic department.
“Shortly after, I left for Oregon State, and it was sitting here waiting for us,” Barnes said. “We’re better for it. I don’t think there’s any question. It’s given us a chance for sure to go broader and deeper in terms of finding quality minority candidates in our searches.”
When Oregon State has a job opening, Barnes spends time consulting the diversity arms of coaching associations. He talks to colleagues both within the school and outside who might know qualified minority candidates.
Even if Oregon State ultimately hires a white coach, Barnes follows Art Rooney’s advice: Don’t be afraid to fail the process. You’re not going to be successful every time, but putting it into action is a good step forward.
The rule isn’t always easy to fulfill. Cleary had an easier time finding minority candidates for a men’s tennis job than a women’s tennis job.
“It certainly keeps it top of mind, that’s a positive effect from this law,” Barnes said. “We’re absolutely not where we want to be in terms of improving our head coaches as it relates to minority hires. But it has absolutely caused us, in a very good and positive way, to be more thoughtful.”
Mullens, hired at Oregon just six months after the 2010 law went into effect, says the law aligns with the university’s focus on diversity and inclusion.
“It matches who we are,” Mullens said. “We have had no problem building those types of deep, talented, diverse pools [of candidates].”
The law doesn’t include punishment for schools that don’t comply, but Sachs provides a layer of accountability. When Oregon State baseball coach Pat Casey retired in September 2018, the school named longtime assistant Pat Bailey, who is white, as interim coach for the 2019 season.
Sachs disagreed with the decision but credits Barnes and university vice president Steve Clark for meeting him and saying they would eventually conduct a search and follow the rule. Oregon State did a true search in June, in which it considered minority candidates. It eventually hired Mitch Canham, who is white.
“Some people took it seriously from the beginning and some people didn’t,” Greenlick said. “We kept saying, ‘It’s the law of the land. You don’t have an option. Make it work.’ ”
Osia Lewis didn’t know about the law in 2014 when Oregon State called to interview him for its football coaching vacancy. Lewis, who is black, played at Oregon State and coached San Diego State’s defensive line at the time. He spoke with school officials over the phone. The next day, Oregon State hired Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen, a white coach who had worked with Barnes at Utah State.
“They asked the questions honestly [during the interview],” Lewis said. “If you ask them, they’ll tell you I was qualified to be the head coach there. You always want to give them the benefit of the doubt. I would have liked to have a face-to-face on campus. It would have been more impactful to me.
“I think they followed the rule, but I don’t think I had the same interview that Gary Andersen had.”
Lewis credits Oregon for being the first state to adopt the hiring rule, although he and other minority coaches remain conflicted about it.
“As an African American, I think it’s a shame someone makes you interview me,” said Lewis, now a Vanderbilt assistant. “At the same time, if you don’t have the law, then you won’t look at someone like me.”
Lewis ultimately thinks real progress must come from the national level.
“There’s not enough Sam Sachses in the world, there’s not enough guys pushing,” he said. “Everybody takes their cue from the NCAA, not Oregon. When there’s a job, they should consider all candidates, not just alumni, not just someone who has ties. If you truly want to have a job search, you want to hire the best coach.
“Somewhere, someone has to stand up in the NCAA and say, ‘We can do a better job.’ ”
Why is Oregon the only state?
The conversation about diversity hiring in major college athletics is complicated, and Oregon’s hiring law adds another layer.
Cleary explains the dilemma: “I don’t know if anyone wants their hiring to have any more constraints on it than it does sometimes, but people definitely value diversity.”
Longtime athletic administrators such as Smith and Northern Illinois athletics director Sean Frazier, both of whom are black, see value in Oregon’s hiring law. Smith said the opportunities for actual interviews, rather than the mock interviews done in leadership seminars like the NCAA’s Champion Forum, are invaluable for minority coaches.
The challenge is generating support among member schools used to conducting searches their way.
“No one wants a mandate,” Frazier said. “Nobody wants it rammed down their throat. It’s the whole bureaucratic system: ‘Let’s find a way around it.’ When you see things that are mandated around race or gender, you generally get a certain apathy rather than to increase the numbers.”
Frazier, a former president of the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association, says there should be more of a focus on cultivating a strong candidate pool. He said those making hires are likelier to consider minority coaches if their schools can gain a competitive advantage, rather than just boosting the low numbers nationally.
“Let’s recruit people,” said Frazier, who hired Thomas Hammock, an African American, as Northern Illinois’ football coach last January. “That takes a lot of work, that takes a lot of energy. The Rooney Rule says you have to get it done, that’s the hammer, but the effort needs to be behind the Rooney Rule, and that’s what the NFL did a great job with: Here’s these coordinators who are getting it done.”
Smith was one of only three black athletic directors in the FBS when he went to Eastern Michigan at age 29. When he now speaks to large groups of athletic administrators, “it’s a rainbow,” he said. “The diversity is phenomenal.
“In the administrative space, we’ve made progress,” Smith said. “In the coaching space, no. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Smith, Frazier and Cleary all say diversity in coaching is a front-burner item for college administrators. But with the numbers stagnating, the path to improvement seems unclear.
Would a nationwide Oregon rule really be so difficult to adopt and enforce?
“You would think when someone says, ‘Here are your actual numbers. We know they’re not where they could or should be, based upon the diversity of the student-athlete body that we serve,’ I don’t know what the hesitancy is,” Cleary said. “It’s definitely a priority in the NCAA, but there hasn’t been enough push to make it a requirement or a law.”
Added Duru: “If you’re opposed to using this tool, explain what’s better and use that. But don’t sit back and do nothing as equal opportunity dissolves.”
Sachs thought that by now, the law would be in place in four to five states. He jokes that either he’ll die or the NCAA will incorporate the rule – he just doesn’t know which will happen first.
“I definitely think there’s movement around it,” Cleary said. “I’m hoping that we won’t be here in 10 years saying the same thing: Why is Oregon the only state?”