Before finding his dream job at MSU, Mel Tucker turned down a shot at an NFL job because of the controversial Rooney Rule

Before finding his dream job at MSU, Mel Tucker turned down a shot at an NFL job because of the controversial Rooney Rule
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
  • Mel Tucker was given two shots to interview for the Jaguars' head coaching job.
  • He initially turned the second request down because he suspected he was filling the quota for the NFL's controversial Rooney Rule.

Before Mel Tucker found his dream job as the head coach at Michigan State University and signed a nearly $100 million contract extension, he was an up-and-coming NFL coaching prospect until the controversial Rooney Rule left him doubting his future.

By the time Tucker was 40, he already had a coaching resume that most would envy. He had been mentored by Nick Saban, Jim Tressel, and Romeo Crennel (from the Bill Belichick coaching tree). He also had experience as a defensive coach and a defensive coordinator at both the college and NFL levels and even served a brief stint as an NFL interim head coach.

But when the Jacksonville Jaguars invited him to interview for their head coaching vacancy in 2012, he said "no way" because he suspected he was just a token interview to fulfill the Jaguars' Rooney Rule requirement to interview minority coaching candidates.

Tucker told Insider the Rooney Rule first hung over his head when he interviewed for the Cleveland Browns head coaching job in 2008.

"I interviewed for the Browns job in 2008 after they let Romeo [Crennel] go, and I'm like, 'Is this a Rooney interview, or are they really considering me?'" Tucker told Insider. "Do I have a shot? And they're telling you, 'Yeah, really, we're not gonna waste your time. Like the players love you, man. You're a great coach. Our defense got better.'"


After failing to land the job, he was again left wondering if he was just a "Rooney interview."

"[I thought] I was in," Tucker said. "I was already there. I was in-house. I was right there. I knew [Browns owner] Randy Lerner. He's a Shaker Heights [Ohio] guy. I'm a Cleveland Heights guy. What, what was that? Was that a Rooney or what?"

He later became disillusioned with the process in 2011 when he first interviewed with the Jaguars, after serving as their defensive coordinator and filling in as their interim head coach for five games following the firing of Jack Del Rio.

Before finding his dream job at MSU, Mel Tucker turned down a shot at an NFL job because of the controversial Rooney Rule
Mel Tucker served as Jaguars interim head coach for five games in 2011.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The team hired Mike Mularkey instead. But just a year later the Jags approached Tucker again to interview for the head job. Finally, he turned them down.

"So, I interview in Jacksonville after being an interim head coach," Tucker said. "Was that a Rooney, or did I really have a shot at that job? Then the next year, they want to interview me again after they fired Malarkey after one season ... And I said, 'Hey, man, I'm not interviewing for this job. Like, I don't have to. I'm not getting this job. We were terrible. I didn't get it after last year. You want me to interview again?' I'm like, I'm not interviewing."


Tucker was eventually convinced to take the interview by John Wooten, the head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, and a friend of Tucker's family. His group works with the NFL to promote minority hiring in the league.

Tucker was not surprised when he did not get the job — again.

After a brief stint with the Chicago Bears, he eventually returned to college football and served as an assistant coach for Nick Saban at Alabama and later Kirby Smart at Georgia.

Before finding his dream job at MSU, Mel Tucker turned down a shot at an NFL job because of the controversial Rooney Rule
Mel Tucker celebrates with Kirby Smart during the 2018 College Football Playoff.Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rooney Rule is no longer working

The Rooney Rule, named for former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, was first introduced in 2003 and seemed to have some initial success.

In the 10 seasons before the Rooney Rule, the NFL never had more than three head coaches of color. By 2006, the number was up to seven and reached eight in 2011. However, a decade later, that number was down to five, with just three Black head coaches in the league.


In April, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit accusing the NFL and several teams of racial discrimination.

As part of the lawsuit, Flores accused multiple teams of conducting sham interviews to satisfy their Rooney Rule quotas.

In one case, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick congratulated Flores on getting the New York Giants job, thinking he had texted Brian Daboll. Flores had not yet interviewed for the job, and Daboll was eventually hired.

Before finding his dream job at MSU, Mel Tucker turned down a shot at an NFL job because of the controversial Rooney Rule
Brian Flores.Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

In another incident, Flores accused the Denver Broncos of not really wanting to hire him when General Manager John Elway showed up late to the interview and "completely disheveled."

"The Broncos' then-General Manager, John Elway, President, and Chief Executive Officer Joe Ellis and others, showed up an hour late to the interview," the lawsuit alleges. "They looked completely disheveled, and it was obvious that they had [been] drinking heavily the night before."


Flores said that it was "clear from the substance of the interview" that the Broncos "never had any intention to consider him as a legitimate candidate for the job," according to the lawsuit.

Insider's Tyler Lauletta spoke with one of Flores' attorneys about the state of the Rooney Rule.

"The Rooney Rule has not worked, and I think that the NFL has recognized that by trying to strengthen it through amendments over the years," Gottlieb told Insider. "The amendments, which have been kind of nip-and-tucks to try to fix it, have not done the trick. Not even close. There's one head coach in the league right now [two were hired after the interview] that is Black, and there were three when the Rooney Rule went into effect."

Before finding his dream job at MSU, Mel Tucker turned down a shot at an NFL job because of the controversial Rooney Rule
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Tucker overcame the Rooney Rule to find his dream job

Eventually, Tucker started to wonder if it was worth interviewing for NFL head coaching jobs, noting that failing to get jobs can be more of a negative than the positive in being considered in the first place.

"You've got this pressure, you got this thing, like you never know [if it is just a Rooney Rule interview]," Tucker told Insider. "How many of those interviews do you want to take? Because you have to prepare for the interview, obviously. But plus, like, you don't want to get turned down for the job either, right?"


After the NFL and returning to college football to coach under Saban and Smart, Tucker landed his first official head coaching gig at the University of Colorado.

After one season with the Buffaloes, he left for Michigan State to take a job he now calls his "dream job." After a 2-5 stint, during which he was tasked with building a program during the pandemic, the Spartans rebounded to 11-2 in 2021 with wins over Michigan and Penn State in the regular season and Pitt in the Peach Bowl.

The school rewarded Tucker with an unprecedented commitment for a Black head coach with a 10-year, $95 million contract.

Heading into the 2022 season, six of Tucker's top 10 assistants are Black, and he recognizes the importance of creating opportunities for others while still trying to win ball games.

"How many [people believe you] gotta be a coordinator before you can become a head coach?" Tucker said. "How many Black coordinators are there? And they usually hire the coordinators from offensive line and quarterback coaches. There's not a lot of Black offensive line coaches."


Tucker acknowledges that the entire system is complicated but says it comes down to getting the owners, GMs, and university presidents to become comfortable with more minority candidates and not just hiring the people in their network.

"I wanna help guys develop," Tucker said. "I try to help guys that are in this program, but also those that are not here because I've been doing [this] — this is my 26th year. So, I know a lot of guys, college and pro, and I try to help these guys out, you know? And I try to hire guys that can be coordinators that want to be head coaches.... And I try to do everything I can, and I give them advice. They can look at me and see what I do. You know, all they gotta do is just pay attention, and they'll see exactly how I do everything."

Of course, none of this is possible if he doesn't continue to win at Michigan State.

"I gotta win because I won't even be in this position to help these people if I get fired because I haven't won enough football games," Tucker said. "I can't tell you how many times I get told, 'Hey Mel, you know, you're not gonna get another shot. You know, this is it. You know, don't just hire your friends. You're not like these other guys. You're not gonna get two, three chances. You got one shot. Get it done right the first time.'"

Now, that is just another issue entirely for Black coaches.