Super Bowl coaches make breakthrough

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 22, 2007

By Eddie Pells

Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — When Tony Dungy began his climb up the coaching ranks, one potential employer asked if he’d be willing to shave his beard “because people were looking for a certain kind of person.”

In most cases, that person wasn’t him. Or any other black coach, for that matter.

Indeed, Dungy has come a long way since those formative years. So has the NFL.

The leader of the Indianapolis Colts awoke Monday as a Super Bowl coach — one with a rapidly growing legacy. In two weeks, he’ll face one of his proteges, Chicago’s Lovie Smith, for the league championship. They’ll be the first black head coaches to pace the sidelines in the NFL’s biggest game.

“I’ve been thinking about my generation of kids who watched Super Bowls and never really saw African-American coaches and didn’t think about the fact that you could be a coach,” Dungy said of the black kids who grew up in the 1960s. “Hopefully, young kids now will say, `Hey, I might be the coach some day.’ That’s special.”

Also significant was that Monday, another of Dungy’s former assistants, Mike Tomlin, was hired as the first black head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling for me,” Dungy said.

The president and CEO of the NAACP, Bruce Gordon, conceded that he didn’t even realize Tomlin was black until he saw the coach’s picture in the newspaper.

“I said, `Wow, he’s black,”‘ Gordon said. “And the story wasn’t about another black coach being named, it was just about another coach being named. In some respects, I look at that as being a best-case scenario.”

It was also part of a plan Dungy envisioned when he entered the NFL coaching ranks as an assistant in 1981, one of maybe 15 black men in a white man’s profession.

He quickly proved he could coach. As the years went by, though, he realized what a strange equation the NFL had when it came to race.

The players, with the exception of quarterbacks, were largely black. They were coached almost exclusively by white men, and their teams were run almost exclusively by white men.

It didn’t so much frustrate Dungy as it motivated him.

He vowed that if he ever got his chance, he’d try to get young, black coaches into the pipeline, and when the chance finally came — when he became head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996 — Dungy quietly went to work.

Herm Edwards and Tomlin, who are black, and Rod Marinelli, who is white, are among the current head coaches who came out of the Dungy pipeline. Smith is currently his most successful protege.

The two spoke late Sunday night, well after the celebrations of their history-making wins in the conference title games had calmed down.

Smith sees the significance of their upcoming meeting, and dreams of a day when two black coaches in the Super Bowl won’t be seen as such a big deal.

“That day is coming some day,” Smith said. “Of course, we’re talking about it now. It’s not here now.”

The Smith-Dungy coaching angle figures to get lots of play between now and kickoff on Feb. 4.

Freed from the pressure of preparing for their respective title games, the coaches opened up on a subject that has long been close to their hearts.

Also important to these coaches is the fact that they’ve done it their way — shown they can succeed without yelling and swearing, and without sacrificing their families or their faith.

“I think as you look to young coaches coming up in the ranks, a lot of us have a picture of how a coach is supposed to be, how he is supposed to act,” Smith said. “And I think what Tony Dungy showed me is you don’t have to act that way.”

The task of balancing out the racial numbers, of course, is far from finished.

With Tomlin’s hire, there are now six black head coaches in the NFL — still one fewer than at the start of the 2006 season after the firings of Art Shell in Oakland and Dennis Green in Arizona. The college numbers are less impressive; of the 119 Division I-A jobs, only seven were held by black men as of late last month.

Dungy also hopes that someday, the things making news this week won’t really be news at all.