On Tuesday, the NFL made sweeping changes to its hiring policies, expanding the Rooney Rule to include coordinators, assistant general managers and front-office executives, requiring teams interview multiple minority or female candidates for head coach and general manager openings and preventing teams from blocking coaches and staffers from interviewing for any of those positions.
The idea is to get the Rooney Rule protections to trickle down a level. After all, the prime candidates for coaching jobs are coordinators, and if the coordinators are overwhelmingly white, the hiring pool for head coaches will be, too.
But with teams having the ability to block assistants from interviewing for coordinator positions, quality assistant coaches have stacked up at some places in the league.
Teams with long runs under the same head coach have seen a familiar dynamic play out. Coordinators either leave for head coaching positions or get fired for poor performance and are then replaced internally from the pool of positional assistants.
Four of the Steelers’ last five offensive coordinators have been internal hires, with Randy Fichtner, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey all being promoted. Todd Haley coming from Kansas City in 2012 was the lone exception.
The same goes for three of the last four defensive coordinators, with Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Tim Lewis all promoted from assistant coaching positions (LeBeau left and later returned) and Jim Haslett coming in from elsewhere.
Have the Steelers been blocking their assistant coaches from interviewing for coordinator positions? It doesn’t seem like it. Butler interviewed for at least one other defensive coordinator job before ascending to follow in LeBeau’s footsteps in Pittsburgh. So there probably won’t be a big change on that front.
But perhaps unlike some other teams, the Steelers do have a diverse coaching staff. Half of the Steelers’ 10 position coaches are black, as is assistant head coach John Mitchell. Mitchell is 68 and isn’t likely to be a prime candidate elsewhere at this stage in his career.
That isn’t the case for running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard and most especially, senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin.
Austin is a Sharon, Pa. native and Pitt alum that came to the Steelers ahead of the 2019 season after spending five seasons as defensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers went from the No. 10 pass defense in 2018 to the No. 3 unit in the league under Austin in 2019. More impactfully, they went from No. 28 in turnover percentage to No. 1, with most of that improvement coming from 12 additional interceptions.
Some of that undoubtedly came from having Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson added to the secondary, but Austin will and should get some of the credit, as well.
With the changes to the Rooney Rule making it harder for teams to hold on to assistants, and forcing teams to interview minority candidates for their coordinator openings, Austin could very well be a hot commodity next offseason with another strong performance from the Steelers secondary.