Dolphins search needs minority presence

Updated: December 18, 2004, 1:45 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Despite reports that the Miami Dolphins were preparing on Friday to formally offer their head coach job to Nick Saban of LSU, sources close to the situation told ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli a deal is not imminent and that the process actually will slow down a bit to allow the club to comply with league hiring guidelines.

Nick Saban
Saban

One source termed it "tapping on the brakes," while another described it as "hitting the pause button."

Contract negotiations, tentatively slated to begin Friday, are on hold. It might not be until the beginning of next week that things move forward with Saban, who obviously tops the Miami wish list and is the only one the team has confirmed is a candidate.

"There's a lot of mutual interest," a team source told The Associated Press on Friday.

LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette said Saban will not comment on the reports.

Team officials, including owner Wayne Huizenga, met with Saban for several hours late Tuesday night. They did not offer him the job, nor discuss financial parameters, but did apprise Saban that he is the man they want to succeed Dave Wannstedt, who left the club under mutual agreement last month after nearly five full seasons as head coach.

The reason for the delay: Miami must adhere to the so-called "Rooney Rule," which essentially stipulates that the hiring of a new coach must be a process of sorts, and one that includes minority candidates. (Dan Rooney, who owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, is chairman of the NFL's diversity committee.) Ignoring the guideline could result in league sanctions -- as Detroit Lions team president Matt Millen found out last year, when he was personally fined $200,000 for hiring Steve Mariucci without an open process.

Miami officials, and specifically lame-duck club president Eddie Jones, have stated publicly that they will comply with the NFL's hiring policies. The timing, however, will make it difficult for the Dolphins to identify and interview viable minority candidates. League anti-tampering rules preclude the Dolphins from interviewing assistant coaches who are currently under contract until the end of the regular season at the earliest. Nor is there a wealth of unemployed coaches who would be regarded as candidates.

In addition to "Rooney Rule" considerations, the Dolphins -- who did not interview minority candidates when they hired Jimmy Johnson in 1996 or Wannstedt in 2000 -- could face a public relations setback if they just hire Saban without considering some alternatives. John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group of league executives and coaches formed to promote minority candidates for NFL head coaching and front office jobs, has suggested that Miami must interview legitimate candidates and not turn its search into a sham process.

NFL Hall of Famer Harry Carson, representing a group that advocates more minority hirings in the league, said he complained Friday about the Dolphins' search process in a meeting with Rooney. Carson said any interview with a minority candidate would now likely be viewed as a "courtesy interview ... because the Dolphins have already made up their mind."

Carson brought out the 1996 and 2000 searches.

"There should be a level playing field for all involved," Carson said. "With the Dolphins, it doesn't appear that field is level at all."

When Miami conducted a search for a general manager earlier this year, two of the six candidates interviewed were black, but neither was hired.

"We're engaged in a process that has just begun," Dolphins senior vice president Harvey Greene said. "Until that process has been fully completed, it's premature to comment on our practices."

It is believed that Saban, who has flirted with NFL jobs in the past and who worked in the league as a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, is very interested in the Miami opening. He feels that Huizenga is an owner who steps back and allows his football people to do their jobs. The Dolphins situation also would provide an opportunity to re-shape an entire football program.

In fact, reports indicate that the contract Saban was expected to be offered, in addition to being worth $4 million to $5 million a year, would include authority to shape football operations -- possibly including the departure of general manager Rick Spielman.

Money is unlikely to be a major factor in the decision, according to LSU athletic director Skip Bertman.

"It's just a question of can he get the control he wants. It's not a matter of $5 million a year or whatever," Bertman said. "It's all about control."

Saban, 53, has enjoyed great success at LSU, and leaving the school would be a difficult decision for him. His team won the national championship in 2003 and, in five seasons in Baton Rouge, he has compiled a 48-15 mark. The Tigers, who won their final six games this season to finish at 9-2, will face Iowa in the Capital One Bowl at Orlando on New Year's Day.

Bertman said he believes Saban is committed to coaching the Tigers in the bowl game.

In stints at LSU (2000-present), Michigan State (1995-99) and Toledo (1990), Saban has a record of 91-41-1.

The latest events come amid admissions from LSU officials that, while they will do what they can to retain Saban, they are about at the end of their financial rope. Saban is in the first year of a seven-year extension, signed after the 2003 season -- and just after he turned down the chance to coach the Chicago Bears -- and the deal made him the highest-paid coach in college football.

School officials, wary of the effects Saban's candidacy in Miami could have on their recruiting efforts, will press for a decision, probably by next week.

"We're not talking about months now," LSU president William Jenkins said. "We need a decision fairly expeditiously. But, on the other hand, it's only fair to grant coach Saban time to fully evaluate the situation."


Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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