A Super Bowl first: two black head coaches
Well before the opening kickoff, it is already clear that Super Bowl XLI will be one for the history books.
That's because both competing coaches – Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith – are of African-American heritage. On Sunday night, one of them will become the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.
That's not just a piece of sports trivia. It is part of the civil rights movement, an important chapter of American history that for many will outshine even the most amazing gridiron heroics.
By leading their teams to the biggest game in football, Coach Smith and Coach Dungy may open doors for a new generation of African-American leaders just as pioneering blacks opened doors for them.
"It is important for me to let people know how proud I am to be here," Dungy said. "It's important for me to let people know [about] the guys who have gone before me, who spurred me on and were my role models."
Smith used similar language to describe his thoughts about the looming accomplishment: "I know about John Thompson being the first black coach to win the NCAA basketball tournament. I had a chance to communicate with Bill Russell a little bit this week. He is the first Afro-American basketball coach to win an NBA title."
It isn't that a black man couldn't excel as an NFL head coach. The barrier had nothing to do with ability and everything to do with opportunity. If the pool of potential candidates for an NFL head coaching job was comprised exclusively of white men, it didn't matter how smart or talented a prospective minority coach was; he couldn't get an interview for the job.
Dungy recalled his early interviews in remarks to reporters this week. Team owners and executives had an ingrained mental image of what a head coach should look like, he said. "The head coach of a successful team, to many people, looked like Vince Lombardi. It was a white, middle-aged coach who screamed fire and brimstone."
Dungy, who is soft spoken, said he just wanted an opportunity to show what he could do. "Did I think the opportunity would never come? There was a time that I wondered," he said.
In 1993, Dungy was the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings and was coaching the No. 1 defense in the NFL. There were seven openings for head coaches around the league that year, yet Dungy did not receive a single call to come in for an interview.
He had doubts, but he continued to work hard. "The Lord was testing my patience and perseverance," he said.
Two years later, he was offered, and accepted, the head coaching job at Tampa. While putting together his staff, Dungy became aware of a defensive backs coach at Ohio State who held a similar outlook about football, coaching, and life. His name was Lovie Smith.
"Tony hired me on his first staff," said Smith, who coached Tampa Bay's linebackers. "I'll always be grateful and thankful for that opportunity."
A decade later, both men are facing each other from opposing sidelines in the biggest game of their coaching careers.
Dungy said he's given the black coach issue significant thought. He said he first started pondering it in 1999 when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers came within one game of the Super Bowl. He said for him the issue is about more than race.
"It's not just African-American, it's how you do it," he said. "Doing it with excellence, whether you are a minority, majority, whatever, anybody who gets the opportunity can do it well and do it with excellence."
The NFL has taken steps to help make sure opportunities exist for talented coaches. In 2002, at the same time Dungy joined the Colts as head coach, the league adopted a proposal from Pittsburgh Steeler's owner Dan Rooney.
Under the so-called "Rooney rule," any search for a new head coach must include at least one minority candidate. Smith was the defensive coordinator in St. Louis when the rule was adopted and he acknowledges that it played a role in his being hired in 2004 as head coach in Chicago.
Smith isn't the only success story. The ranks of black head coaches in the 32-team NFL had grown from two in 2002 to seven by the beginning of the 2006 season. Two teams, the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders, fired their black coaches at the end of the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers hired another one, Mike Tomlin, last month. Also, six African-Americans are working as team general managers.
Dungy said it boils down to two things – opportunity and excellence. "Lovie and I are just the result of people getting an opportunity. It's been so difficult for African-Americans, in a lot of venues, to get opportunities. Football is one."
Now that's changing. The opportunities are increasing.
As for the excellence – that will be on full display on Sunday, much to the delight of football fans in Chicago and Indianapolis, and around the world.