Neither the word "uppity," nor its disgusting partner, were said, but John Wooten heard them both. At 75 years old, Wooten has come to recognize that the terms can change even if the underlying meaning is still there.
"I was talking with one executive about why a certain minority coach didn't get a job and he said, 'He was too self-confident, too self-important,' " Wooten said. "I thought to myself, when I talk to this coach and try to help him through the process, what should I tell him? 'You should know how to shuffle your feet, how to hold your head and bow just right.'
"Everything else about the coach was 'very this' and 'very that,' like 'very organized,' 'very knowledgeable,' 'very disciplined.' So I asked the [executive] again, 'Why is it you didn't hire him?' "
If being overconfident or self-important were disqualifiers for the job of NFL head coach, then any number of top coaches should never have been hired. Bill Parcells? Not a chance. Mike Shanahan? Nope. Jon Gruden? Are you serious?
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After more than half a century in the NFL, Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, is still fighting for progress among minority coaches. Yes, he dreams of the day when things like the Rooney Rule don't have to exist. At the same time, he hears odd explanations such as the one above from earlier this week and realizes that progress still has to monitored.
He sees teams follow the Rooney Rule without much prodding. The rule requires that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for a head coaching or front-office executive job when it opens. At the same time, he rarely sees teams interviewing multiple minority candidates on their own while six or seven white men get chances.
"If you don't keep your foot on the pedal, progress will slip under the floor mats," he said.
These days, Wooten and his organization are pushing for expansion of the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship program. Just as Walsh did years ago when he became one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Wooten wants teams to not only bring in minority coaches for training camp, but he also wants to have four of them stay with a team during the offseason and into training camp. At least two of the four would be placed as interns in one of three offensive spots – offensive line, quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator – and would stay with the team throughout the season.
The goal is to help minority coaches get more premium experience. Currently in the NFL, there is only one black offensive coordinator (Curtis Modkins in Buffalo) and only two black offensive line coaches (George Warhop in Cleveland and Harold Goodwin in Indianapolis) in the NFL. That's particularly galling to Wooten, who spent 10 years in the NFL as a guard. He made the Pro Bowl twice with Cleveland and then spent years as a coach and executive, at one time becoming the highest-ranking black man to serve in a personnel department.
"Our goal is to make sure that qualification isn't the problem," Wooten said. "You have to give people the tools to develop."
He has taken plenty of criticism from both whites and blacks. Some blacks have said he is too close to people in the NFL and that change will come faster by calling out names rather than working the phones. Wooten just chuckles and recites a quote from civil rights leader Whitney Young: "If we're going to achieve what we want to achieve, have to sit down with the landlords and the masters and talk to them as equals."
"That was back at the time the Black Panthers and so many others wanted to take to the streets and fight. How are you going to win anything with a .22 rifles and pistols when a tank is coming down the street at you?" he said.
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Instead, Wooten has patiently and quietly spent his career working the system. He doesn't worry about critics on either side. He focuses on the process, on making sure that candidates are trained properly.
"It's as simple as getting up and brushing your teeth. … This is the right thing to do and because you know it's the right thing to do, you're able to strap it on every day and fight. Yeah, you get knocked back and kicked in the teeth sometimes, but you keep working hard to make sure things are right," Wooten said.
To that end, he understood perfectly when another executive whose team hired a coach this year gave him a critique of a minority coach who wasn't hired.
"[The executive] said our guy was too satisfied with the idea of just being a coach and not really concerned with being the face of a franchise," Wooten said.
That was the opposite of the situation with the overconfident, self-important coach. At the same time, it made perfect sense to Wooten and he had no complaint. It was a chance to learn and progress.
"I'm very pleased with what's happening in the NFL, but we know the battle needs to keep pushed forward until a man or woman can walk into the league office and know that their qualifications, education and assets is what they're going to be judged on. Just like players are judged on how they run, how they make a hit, how they make this cut and how they catch this ball. … When that day comes, as Dr. King said, we're going to shout all over God's heaven."
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- John Wooten