Why Las Vegas Raiders can’t just name Antonio Pierce permanent head coach: Understanding the Rooney Rule

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
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In the high-stakes world of the NFL, the unexpected mid-season shift from Josh McDaniels to Antonio Pierce as the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders was less than ideal. But Pierce, known for his leadership and ability to unify the Las Vegas locker room, has impressively brought stability and energy to the Raiders putting him squarely in a good spot to become the team’s permanent coach.

After the Raiders won their season finale Sunday, 24-17, over the Denver Broncos, pushing Pierce’s record to 5-4 as the head coach, many continued to call for owner Mark Davis to remove the interim label from Pierce’s title.

However, becoming a head coach in the NFL involves more than just on-field performance. It also involves navigating a complex set of league rules to promote diversity and fairness. Central to this is the Rooney Rule, a regulation that has transformed hiring practices in the league.

Related: Recent team meeting may have revealed fate of Antonio Pierce

Antonio Pierce, Las Vegas Raiders and the Rooney Rule

Antonio Pierce Las Vegas Raiders Rooney Rule
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Pierce’s situation highlights how intricate the Rooney Rule is and how it influences decision-making processes for NFL teams. While he has performed admirably, and perhaps deserving of the promotion to full-time head coach, the NFL’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as embodied in the Rooney Rule requires conducting a broader search before making any permanent hiring decisions.

That means even if Davis wanted to hire Pierce tomorrow, he can’t until the entire process is open to others and then completed.

This policy, which was implemented in 2003 and named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, requires NFL teams to interview at least one candidate from a minority group for head coaching and senior football operation positions.

The goal of the Rooney Rule is to ensure that minority candidates have opportunities for these roles within the NFL. And even though, in the Raiders situation, Pierce qualifies as a minority candidate, he must interview for the job and the team must interview others. The same is true for interim general manager Champ Kelly who is also Black.

Related: 6 Las Vegas Raiders coaching candidates to replace Josh McDaniels

How the Rooney Rule works

Dan Rooney II The Rooney Rule NFL Las Vegas Raiders
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Let’s look into the specifics of this rule and understand its impact on the NFL’s hiring process, including for the Raiders and Pierce and Kelly — both worthy candidates to win their jobs full time.

When an NFL team is in search of a head coach or general manager there are important steps that must be followed:

  1. Vacancy announcement: The team needs to announce the job opening and provide all the qualifications for the position. This must be public and adhere to all other NFL hiring rules.
  2. Candidate selection: Teams typically start by shortlisting candidates ensuring that minority candidates are considered in accordance with the Rooney Rule. While, in the Raiders case they already have one minority candidate, they will be required to interview others from outside the organization.
  3. Interviews: Teams must interview one minority candidate for the position. This aspect of the rule is closely monitored by the league, and clearly, in the case of Las Vegas, their interim coach is a minority, so they can count Pierce toward this rule but still must interview him and one other minority candidate.
  4. Transparency and reporting: Teams are obligated to provide an account of their hiring process including details on who was interviewed, when, how and why certain candidates were chosen or not in order to maintain transparency.

The Rooney Rule continues to be refined by the NFL

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While results have been mixed with the increase of minority coach hires in the NFL, the league has continued to work to refine and amend the rule to strengthen it. For example, as of 2020 teams are required to interview two external minority candidates for head coaching positions and at least one minority candidate for any coordinator role.

While it has increased visibility for minority candidates, critics, including the influential Fritz Pollard Alliance, argue that it hasn’t made much difference in NFL head coaching hiring patterns. For instance, at the end of the 2020 season there were just three black head coaches in a league where 70% of players are black.

In 2001, the NFL introduced more incentives for teams to be more inclusive in their hiring process at all levels of the organization. That year, they introduced the opportunity for  teams to receive draft picks if their minority employees are hired as head coaches or general managers by other teams. This rewards organizations who develop minority candidates even if they leave for another team.

Still, there have been great examples of the rule being partially successful at the head coaching level, even if it is still a work in process. A prime example is Mike Tomlin, who took over as the head coach for the Steelers in 2007 and successfully led them to a Super Bowl victory in 2009. Tomlin’s appointment exemplifies the rules aimed at promoting minority coaches.

Related: Evaluating, ranking the best NFL head-coaching vacancies in 2024, including the Las Vegas Raiders

What the rule and its process mean for the Raiders and Antonio Pierce

Antonio Pierce Rooney Rule Las Veags Raiders
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As the Raiders navigate the Rooney Rule process, they find themselves at a crossroads between performance, policy and public expectations. 

While Pierce’s accomplishments as interim head coach cannot be denied, the team must also align with the NFLs vision of diversity. This means conducting a full coaching search and executing a hiring process that not respects but fully embraces the principles set forth by the rule.

For a team that has embraced diversity from the very beginning under Al Davis, they serve as a shining example for the intent of the Rooney Rule. After all, the Raiders hiring record includes hired the league’s first black head coach in Art Shell, first hispanic head coach in Tom Flores, first top woman executive in Amy Trask, and now the first woman president in Sandra Douglas-Morgan just last season.

Pierce appears to be in the driver’s seat to win the job full-time. But he will have to go through the process just like everyone else.

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