A Polarizing Decision?

I have some other posts that I worked on this weekend, but with the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday today and the firing and replacement of Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden this weekend, I wanted to touch on a difficult subject: race in professional football hiring.

Last Friday, the Bucs ownership fired longtime head coach Job Gruden. The decision was not unexpected as Gruden had missed the playoffs in 4 of the past 6 years, and the team collapsed at the end of this season; barely finishing with a winning record.

What was surprising about the move was that almost immediately, the team announced 32 year old Raheem Morris as Gruden’s replacement. Morris had just been named as the Bucs’s defensive coordinator after serving previously as a positional coach. Not only is Morris young and only ten years removed from being a graduate assistant, he has never been a head coach at any level of football. He has also never served as a number two coach (offensive or defensive coordinator) in professional football.

His supporters state that Morris has an excellent relationship with the players, is considered an upcoming star coach in the league, and excelled at his previous lesser assignments in the organization as well as in college. His detractors point to his lack of experience and describe him as unqualified to be the lead administrator of the team; while even some have asked if the hire of Morris, an African-American, was influenced by race.

Whatever the owner’s reasoning for hiring Morris, I would argue that they have made a polarizing decision due to:

Reason #1: No Interview Process
Management decided not to go through an interview process for the head coaching position. Allowing candidates to interview for a position is the best method to properly evaluate applicants. Judging persons based on paper qualifications or because of opinions about them are not as accurate as the results produced by a formalized process. Despite Morris’ lack of experience, he may have interviewed very well and proven his merit--at least the owners would have been able to argue that a process was followed and that he was the best applicant. Instead, Morris is seen by some as being promoted without the proper qualifications, polarizing fans to one side of the debate or the other.

Reason #2: He was Part of the Team’s 2009 Demise
Morris and his fellow defensive coaches are coming off of a lackluster season in which the team lost four straight games to miss the playoffs. The defense was dreadful in the final few games, and was the primary reason that the team could not win. Morris’s secondary and the overall defense fell out of the NFL’s top 10 defenses, and are a question mark headed into the coming season. Oddly, Morris was still named defensive coordinator with very little time for thought or evaluation.

Reason #3: Will Face Unwarranted Criticism
Some commentators have made the comparison of the Morris hiring to that of the second year head coach of the Steelers Mike Tomlin. Tomlin, an African-American who was also with the Bucs as an assistant, has gained a national spotlight with his team making to the Super Bowl this year. I don’t see much of a comparison-—since Tomlin was qualified (had previous coordinator experience) and won the opportunity after going through an extensive application and interview process for that head coaching job. In addition, Tomlin benefited from the Rooney Rule that was not a factor in Morris' hiring.

With questions about why Morris was hired lingering, advocates and opponents of promoting opportunities in the NFL for minority candidates will now be watching Morris’ results more closely—-waiting to cheer or jeer and make a definitive pronouncement on minority hiring plans in the league.

From management’s perspective Morris represents an energetic guy that is well liked by the players. He is a hire that will, in general, be seen as promoting diversity in the NFL and supported by people nationwide (though I may have to rethink this as the morning radio guys on a Fox station were perplexed and questioning the hiring). Also, he will save money short-term for the organization in that, with little experience, he will be one of the lowest paid head coaches in the league.

Though I am hopeful that Morris wins many games as the new coach, I believe the Bucs made a polarizing decision that may haunt them in a few years. The team should have posted a job opening for the coaching job, evaluated and interviewed applicants, and let the process support their selection. Instead, Morris will be watched more closely. Supporters of the team and fans in the NFL are forced to defend or support the hiring in a polarizing fashion--based primarily upon conjecture.

Being seen as a current experiment in the influences of race in hiring (whether it is fair or not), creates attention for the wrong reasons. Future hiring of similar candidates (qualified and unqualified) may be based on Morris' performance. The microscope-like attention will mostly likely be a distraction for the coaches and the team--one that Morris could do without in a job that offers a full plate of on and off-field distractions already.