Skip to main content

History break

Marvin Lewis

If, in the old days, newspapers were the rough draft of history, then what does that make the blogs, tweets and podcasts of now?

The graffiti of history? The grease board, the power point, the talking points of history? Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the 24-7 news nutcracker spits out context sparingly. That's why you need a guy like N. Jeremi Duru to write a book like Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.

Sometimes you just have to get your head out of the headlines and breathe in the fresh air of hindsight. Duru reminds us that all the way back in January 2003 (eight years is a glacial epoch in the Information Age), the Bengals and head coach Marvin Lewis were at the forefront during one of the most critical moments in NFL history.

Duru, a Temple University law professor who came to Cincinnati this week to sign his book when it went on sale at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood, offers some surprises. At 37, he looks young enough to be one of his students and at 204 pages his book is an easy read that doesn't bog down like a legal brief. Growing up in suburban Washington D.C., he was an equal opportunity admirer of Boston Red Sox like Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, as well as the NHL's Mike Gartner of the Capitals, before studying how sports and society are almost one in the same.  

"I've got a lot of admiration for Marvin. He stood up generally when some people weren't standing up," says Duru, who proved it by giving 20 percent of book-signing profits to the Marvin Lewis Community Fund.

As the league and a gaggle of activists ranging from celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran to an old Cleveland Brown named John Wooten were in the throes of groping for guidelines to help diversify the head coaching ranks, the Bengals' hiring of Lewis and his ensuing revival of the franchise showed how it could be done.

Wooten knows both sides intimately. His coach in Cleveland was Paul Brown, the father of Bengals president Mike Brown, and as a scout in Baltimore, Wooten was one of Lewis' mentors.

"We've known Mike since 1959 and we know that he's a straight-shooting kind of guy," Wooten says. "But so is Marvin."

The book is an inside job and a good one. Duru is a pro bono counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group that promotes minority hiring throughout the NFL. The foreword is written by the conscience of the movement, Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, recalling that his father, like many "African American dads," was a fan of the Cleveland Browns because Paul Brown never hesitated to sign black players. 

The subject isn't as easy as the read as Duru traces the roots and the rising of the Rooney Rule, named for former Steelers president Dan Rooney, chairman of the committee that came up with the requirements for teams to interview at least one minority candidate for vacant head coaching positions.  

As Duru points out, the state of the Rooney Rule when Mike Brown began his search for Dick LeBeau's successor on Dec. 30, 2002 was a loose confederation of hopes. Only 10 days before the owners had unanimously "agreed to utilize diverse candidate slates," but there was nothing written down as far as process for what was basically a handshake agreement.

Lewis, so achingly close to several head jobs as the most respected defensive coordinator in the game, and Brown, desperately looking for fresh and vibrant leadership after the worst season in club history, had no idea they were figures in a documentary. Lewis points out the Rooney Rule wasn't officially in place when the Bengals hired him on Jan. 14, 2003, and when Rooney called to check in on how Brown's search was going, Brown already had two minority candidates on his list in Lewis and running backs coach Jim Anderson.

So Lewis and Brown weren't looking to make history, just a deal between two guys that were looking for what the other had.

The rule didn't get its pop and clarification until six months later when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue fined the Lions $200,000 for circumventing in the hire of Steve Mariucci. On top of Dallas owner Jerry Jones' whirlwind courtship of Bill Parcells that yielded only time for a 30-minute phone interview with Dennis Green days after the handshake agreement, the Lewis hiring stood out.

So history found them, Duru writes.

"Fairly or not, as the NFL's 2003 season began, Rooney Rule supporters and detractors alike associated Lewis with the league's new equal opportunity efforts. A successful season would validate the rule. Failure would undermine it. All eyes were on the Bengals."

In the wake of all this franchise has been through just this past year, it's easy to forget about 2003. The only guys still under contract from those days are Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco and that is using the term loosely. But it will be recalled that the Bengals had won just eight games in the previous two seasons and hadn't been in first place in November in 13 years and they did both in '03. Just as importantly, Lewis infused the culture with ideas and practices from outside a team that had hired a head coach from within for 20 years.

"I'd been coming to Cincinnati for years as a scout and there just wasn't much going on in the parking lots at 11:30 when you got here," Wooten says. "Marvin got it going again, and the great thing was that it got the community so involved. I see that every year when I go up there for his golf tournament."

That's easy to forget coming off the most disappointing season in club history at 4-12 and the calls for Brown to let Lewis go.

But Duru makes you remember.

Devoting a chapter to Lewis' first season when the Bengals went from 2-14 to 8-8 entitled "Season of Dreams," he concludes, "Lewis's Bengals were a playoff contender and Lewis had earned his place among the league's best head coaches. He had arrived, as had the Rooney Rule. Even among many skeptics, Lewis' success validated the rule, and when seven of the League's 32 teams launched head coaching searches after the 2003 season's completion, each of them fully complied, and two of the seven hired African-American head coaches."

History found them all right. As he continued his book-signing tour Thursday, Duru e-mailed a response to the thought that maybe the Rooney Rule might have been dead on arrival if not for Lewis surfacing between the Dallas and Detroit stumbles.

"Marvin's hire breathed life into the Rule," Duru says. "If not for that hire, the Rule may have faded away as yet another ill-fated attempt to increase equal opportunity in the NFL."

It's also easy to forget that in January 2003, there had been just one African-American head coach hired since Dungy was hired by Tampa Bay in 1996. That was Herman Edwards in 2001; one year after Lewis' defense in Baltimore set every modern record in giving the Ravens a Super Bowl title. It got to the point when Lewis got just one interview after that 2000 season, Duru quoted Dungy at the time saying, "You would have thought more than one team out of the (six) would say that there's a guy that should be at least talked to. ... If he were white, would it have been one out of (six)? I don't think so."

Since Lewis became the sixth African-American head coach in the modern NFL, eight others have joined the fold, the last two being men that worked under Lewis in Cincinnati, Leslie Frazier and Hue Jackson. With Dungy's Colts beating Lovie Smith's Bears in the Super Bowl four years ago, an African-American is right there with another Charlie Sheen rant.

It's no longer news.

"It's all about opportunity," says Anderson, the Bengals running backs coach who has been with the Bengals for 28 seasons, the longest tenure of any assistant coach in the NFL. "A lot of times it's not what you know, but also who you know. It's like here. Mike had probably never met Marvin, but he got to meet him and to be comfortable with him. And it's all about preparation. You get the opportunity to interview, but the rest has to be up to you. When the call comes, you have to be prepared to let them know your plan."

There looks to be a trickledown effect. Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes, in charge of collecting the résumés for the NFL's Bill Walsh Minority Intern Coaching Program, has noticed the past few years that applications are streaming in from all coaching ranges, starting with the Pee Wees.

"We're only looking for college guys and former (NFL) players, but we hear from everyone now," Hayes says. "I just got one from a guy coaching in a league in Germany."

It's also hard to remember or even understand the fear and frustration of those days in early '03 when Wooten and attorney Cyrus Mehri were teaming with some coaches and former players to form the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Duru crafts a jarring scene at the February 2003 scouting combine in Indianapolis when Mehri had no idea how many coaches he would get for the first meeting. Just how many men would put their names out there publicly in front of the owners and risk reprisals?

It turned out he didn't have enough chairs as he sketched out his goals for the group of advocacy and mentoring in a packed room.

"There was fear in the room," Duru says. "Real fear. People were crying. Like I said in the book, one guy said, 'Heads are going to roll. The owners won't like it. Heads will roll and I don't want my head to roll.' "

It took some brave words by Dungy and long-time assistant Terry Robiske to turn the tide. It may not have been Selma or Birmingham, but men like Wooten who have given their life to football count it as a significant moment. As does Duru.

"It was that high-charged," he says. "It could have been a scene in a warehouse in some factory in the heartland of the country with low-wage workers."

As Duru signed books the other night, there's no doubt in his mind that the league is in a better place. Wooten says he's happy that Lewis and Brown have signed on again despite the terrible season.

"That was good to see. It's an encouraging sign, along with Leslie and Hue getting hired," Wooten says. "I think Mike realizes it was just two years ago they went 6-0 in the division. They've been through a lot. They know each other."

Maybe they weren't looking to make a book, but they've got a significant part in this one. Sometimes, it's just nice to take a breather and remember. Duru, the guy who gives the history in the middle of the score scroll, is taking no breathers.

"I'll go back to writing law reviews for awhile," he says.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.