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Opinion: Jon Gruden email saga provides important lesson on NFL hiring process

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Mark Davis wanted so bad to lure Jon Gruden out of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” booth for a second stint as Raiders coach that he pursued him for six years. Davis later gave Gruden a whopping 10-year, $100 million contract – in a deal struck a week before he dumped Jack Del Rio.

And in his rush, Davis essentially wiped his feet on the Rooney Rule designed to facilitate a fair and open process, in theory, for minority candidates to compete for head coach vacancies.

Now, with Gruden a walking pariah after a stream of racist, misogynistic, homophobic and vulgar emails exposed a dark side of “Coach Chucky” and led to the resignation on Monday that shook the NFL universe, Davis can take all of the karma and irony from the move that brought Gruden back in 2018 as a foundation for his next search for a coach.

Makes you want to say, “Told ya so.”

“I don’t want to do that,” John Wooten, the now-retired chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (FPA) told USA TODAY Sports. “Then that makes me them. But Gruden let his prejudice destroy his life. I know he’s got a lot of money. But who’s going to hire him now?”

I wanted to hear Wooten’s take because in all of the years that he led the FPA, which promotes equal opportunity for minority coaches and executives in the NFL, I never saw him as passionate about a perceived violation of the Rooney Rule as I did with the Gruden hiring when he publicly demanded that Commissioner Roger Goodell drop the hammer on the Raiders with stiff discipline.

OPINION: Being bold has always been the Raider way. Silent owner Mark Davis has forgotten that.

MORE: DeMaurice Smith opens up on Jon Gruden, racism in the NFL and more

Jon Gruden (L) poses with Raiders owner Mark Davis (R) after being introduced as head coach at a press conference at the Raiders headquarters.
Jon Gruden (L) poses with Raiders owner Mark Davis (R) after being introduced as head coach at a press conference at the Raiders headquarters.

Wooten reiterated Wednesday he didn’t seek to prevent Gruden’s hiring. And he asserted that he never had any inkling of the bigotry that Gruden expressed in email exchanges with former Washington president Bruce Allen that were exposed in reports by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. What ticked Wooten off was that it was only after Davis agreed in principle to a deal with Gruden on Christmas Eve 2017 that the Raiders interviewed two minority candidates.

It was the process, not the person, that stirred Wooten and other proponents of equal opportunity. And that process included the Raiders dispatching then-Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie to interview the minority candidates (then-Southern California offensive coordinator Tee Martin and then-Raiders tight ends coach Bobby Johnson) when a deal was already agreed to with Gruden. Talk about sham interviews.

How is it equitable when the owner who interviewed Gruden didn’t interview Martin and Johnson?

Wooten recalled an exchange at the time as such:

Davis: “You’re calling me a racist!”

Wooten: “No, I’m not, but because of your enthusiasm to hire Gruden, you overstepped the Rooney Rule and you should be fined.”

Goodell should have issued punishment of Deflategate proportions – like $1 million and loss of a first-round pick – for the first serious Rooney Rule breach on his watch as Commissioner. (The only discipline ever imposed for violating the Rule was levied by former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who fined then-Lions GM Matt Millen $200,000 for bungling the “search” in 2003 that resulted in the hiring of Steve Mariucci as coach.)

Goodell, though, didn’t agree with Wooten (or me) and gave Davis a pass while stripping away layers of credibility with the so-called teeth for enforcing the Rooney Rule.

How ironic. It’s the same Goodell whom Gruden was so vile in trashing in emails to Allen.

Davis did not respond to voice and text messages from USA TODAY Sports seeking comment on the Gruden saga and also refused to discuss the matter to media in Las Vegas during a news conference Wednesday that featured interim coach Rich Bisaccia and GM Mike Mayock.

Yet the challenge facing Davis in his next coaching search is clear.

“I can’t put myself in a position of speculating what they will do, but I think this certainly gives them an opportunity to address this position and others in the right way, meaning to have fair, open and competitive processes,” Rod Graves, the FPA’s executive director, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s an opportunity for them to restore public confidence in their process and build on their brand.

“They have a history of supporting minorities, particularly at that head coach position. So, it’s not like they are ignorant of the process. I think they will be very careful about how they proceed.”

It’s ironic that this is in the mix with the Raiders, of all franchises. Tom Flores was the first Hispanic coach to win a Super Bowl. Art Shell was the first African-American coach in the modern era. Amy Trask, aka “The Princess of Darkness,” rose to become one of the league’s highest-ranking female executives with the Raiders. And Davis hired McKenzie, an African-American, as his GM before kicking him to the curb after Gruden’s arrival and bringing on Mayock, a man (like Millen, by the way) who came from a TV job with no personnel experience with an NFL team.

The vast majority of the social milestones with the Raiders over the decades were engineered by Al Davis, Mark’s father, who passed away in 2011. It’s ironic that Al Davis ended Gruden’s first stint as Raiders coach by trading the coach to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002 for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million cash, but his son was hell-bent on bringing him back.

Although Gruden’s intensity was well-established during his first stint, it’s unclear whether Mark Davis had any inkling of the bigotry that sealed his demise.

It’s ironic, too, that Gruden has now provided a fresh example of the merits of having the type of open process that the FPA promotes – which NFL teams need to roll with in searching to fill powerful positions.

“I think this will certainly put teams on alert…that due diligence has to be emphasized in your search process, with respect to any leadership role,” said Graves, whose career track includes serving as Cardinals GM from 2002-12. “It’s not just head coaching positions; it’s across the board where there’s a potential for damage if certain types of attitudes are harbored by people in leadership positions.”

Graves wasn’t a part of the FPA when Gruden was hired. He came over from the league office, serving as senior vice president for football operations before succeeding Wooten in 2019. He agrees with the contention by Wooten and Cyrus Mehri, FPA’s legal counsel, that the Raiders skirted the Rooney Rule.

Would deeper due diligence during a search process by the Raiders (and other teams over several years who were interested in Gruden) have uncovered the bigotry issues with Gruden that have come back to haunt Davis and the Raiders?

“Apart from the Raiders and just on the basic question, I think there are people who work in (team) offices day-to-day, who have a sense where those attitudes exist,” Graves said. “And I think as a club, if I’m in charge of hiring, I have to go beyond the candidate to inquire with those who have had extensive relationships or working relationships with them to give a sense about who the individual is, the level of respect that he has for others, the chemistry that he brings to the environment. All of that has to be investigated. I think teams should take their time to ask those questions, particularly of those people who had the working relationships and face-to-face interactions. I think if you have enough of those conversations you reduce the chances of making a mistake.”

Maybe it’s karma that the prize that Davis landed blew up in his face, shaking up his franchise and sending him back to the drawing board.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Gruden email saga provides important lesson on NFL hiring process