The Houston Texans filled the first of six openings on the NFL coaching carousel late Tuesday when they hired Penn State's Bill O'Brien.
O'Brien is 44 and a respected offensive mind. He worked under Bill Belichick for five seasons with the New England Patriots and was thought to be in demand by a handful of NFL teams. He also happens to be white.
Last year, 15 high-level jobs opened during the January hiring cycle, eight head coach and seven general manager positions, and all were filled by white males.
That led the NFL to bring back a career development symposium for minorities this spring and form a committee to help identify worthy candidates of all races this fall. And though the trend appears to have continued with O'Brien's hiring, one of the men at the forefront of the diversity issue, Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman John Wooten, said he's confident the process has changed for the better this year.
"Whether any minorities are hired or not, it's going the right way," Wooten said hours before O'Brien's hiring was announced. "It's going the right way, and I feel that because it's going the right way our guys will have a chance to show that they're capable of coming in and running these teams. I think there's (five head coaching spots) and one GM job right now. I think there'll be a couple more GM jobs open, but I think that they'll be ready to go from there."
Wooten and his group, which has worked in concert with the league to establish hiring guidelines and talent development programs over the last 10 years, met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league executives Dec. 13 to share its list of top minority coaching candidates.
That list included former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Cincinnati Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson and Green Bay Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, and is currently in the hands of all 32 NFL teams.
Along with the Lions, Washington, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Minnesota have coaching vacancies, and the Buccaneers also are looking for a new general manager.
"One of the things we've stressed and I've repeated very openly (is) do not bring in anybody that you really have no interest in hiring," Wooten said. "Now, that's a very overall statement, but I think you understand exactly what it means. Because we tell our guys don't turn down the interview, so therefore if you want to play a game you can play the game because we've told our guys don't turn down the interview because we believe in the interview process."
NFL rules require teams to interview at least one minority candidate every time they have a head coach or general manager opening, and Wooten said that policy is flaunted "more times than it should be."
"(Last year) was very disappointing. Very disappointing," he said. "And the reason why it was disappointing, we felt that (teams) played a game on the board. They were interviewing quote, guys that they knew they weren't going hire. And that was very disappointing."
The Lions were fined $200,000 for violating the Rooney Rule requiring minority interviews when they hired Steve Mariucci in 2003, but Wooten said he trusts the team will run an inclusive coaching search this winter.
Wooten, who speaks regularly with Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, said Smith and Caldwell are expected to interview with Detroit, and their candidacy is not just race based.
Caldwell worked closely with Peyton Manning as an assistant coach with the Indianapolis Colts for seven seasons, led the Colts to the Super Bowl in his first season as head coach and won a ring with the Ravens last year.
Smith has coached in two Super Bowls, one as head coach with the Bears and another as an assistant with the St. Louis Rams, and is beloved by players across the league. Wooten said the fact that Smith did not coach this season was one of the biggest tragedies of the 2013 hiring cycle and he's confident Smith will get a job somewhere this year.
"I think he will," Wooten said. "He's regrouped, sharpened up his grip and I think he's ready to go. He had, in his own expression, a great interview down in Houston, felt good about it. Felt as he called it, a real interview. I'm not sure that he won't be interviewing at your place in Detroit, but I think that he'll get a shot in Tampa. He'll get quite a few shots. We expect him to get back in there."
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