If Mike Mularkey's version of events are correct, then the ongoing Brian Flores lawsuit has its smoking gun.
On Thursday, veteran coaches Ray Horton and Steve Wilks joined Brian Flores' ongoing lawsuit against the NFL and a handful of its teams for discriminatory hiring practices. Those coaches allege Black head coaches are not granted the same opportunities as their white counterparts and, when they do get head coaching opportunities, their leash is considerably shorter than their white counterparts.
For Horton's part, his camp alleges his interview for the Tennessee Titans head coaching position in 2016 was a sham. That claim is backed up by the man who ultimately got the job.
In a 2020 interview with a Steelers podcast, Mike Mularkey said this:
"I've always prided myself on doing the right thing in this business and I can't say that's true about everybody in this business," Mularkey said on the podcast. "It's a very cutthroat business and a lot of guys will tell you that. ... I allowed myself at one point when I was in Tennessee to get caught up in something I regret it and I still regret it. But the ownership there, Amy Adams Strunk and her family, came in and told me I was going be the head coach in 2016 before they went through the Rooney Rule. And so, I sat there knowing I was the head coach in '16 as they went through this fake hiring process. Knowing a lot of the coaches they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that everything they could do and they had no chance of getting that job. Actually, the GM, Jon Robinson, he was in on the interview with me. He had no idea why he was interviewing me -- that I had the job already. I regret. I'm sorry I did that. It was not the way to go about it."
Reached by ESPN in 2022, Mularkey said this: "I believe you have the truth and what you need. Prefer not to comment any further."
Mularkey joined the Titans in 2014 as the club's tight ends coach and was promoted to interim head coach in 2015 following Ken Whisenhunt's midseason firing. The team was 1-6 upon Whisenhunt's ouster, and a 2-7 showing under Mularkey was enough for the Adams family to hand Mularkey the job, regardless of the interview process, according to Mularkey.
Mularkey was named Tennessee's full-time head coach on Jan. 16, 2016, meaning the post-March 1 loop hole the Bucs used to skirt around the Rooney Rule in promoting Todd Bowles to head coach would not apply.
"The vision Mike presented for our football team during this search as well as the character, integrity, and leadership skills he displayed during the last two months of the season makes him the right coach for the Tennessee Titans," owner Amy Adams Strunk said at the time. "Mike is a quality coach and an outstanding person who will help us build this team the right way."
Tennessee promoted Mularkey to head coach over Ray Horton, technically his superior on the staff as the club's defensive coordinator. Mularkey had prior head coaching experience: a 14-18 run in two seasons in Buffalo, and a 2-14 season in Jacksonville. At the time Tennessee named Mularkey its full-time head coach in January of '16, Mularkey was 18-39 as a head coach, and 9-32 over his last two and a half seasons.
The team fired Mularkey after two 9-7 seasons.
Longtime NFL defensive coordinator Teryl Austin also interviewed for the job.
The problem, of course, is not with Mularkey accepting a job that was offered to him, but with a culture that led the Titans to promoting a career .316 head coach before interviewing anyone else, a system designed to prevent this very thing from happening that the Titans allegedly skirted.
"Our 2016 head coach search was an open and competitive process during which we conducted in-person interviews with four candidates and followed all NFL rules," the Titans said in a statement to ESPN. "The organization was undecided on its next head coach during the process and made its final decision after consideration of all four candidates following the completion of the interviews."
To date, neither Austin or Horton have been NFL head coaches. Horton last worked in 2019 as the Washington Commanders defensive backs coach. Austin is heading into his first season as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator. Mularkey last worked as the Atlanta Falcons tight ends coach in 2019.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest.