Forty one years ago the NBA became the first major sports league with an African American head coach when the Boston Celtics named Bill Russell to lead the team. At that time the question many people had was when would the next minority coach be named. NBA teams responded with honor. In four decades black coaches have won multiple championships and have been hired and fired and hired again. That’s the way it should be. No one raises an eyebrow anymore when a black man gets an NBA head coaching job or when a black man is fired. Which means the system is working.
Conversly, the NFL moved much slower. It didn’t name a black head coach until 1989. That man, Hall of Fame lineman Art Shell was fired five years later with a winning record by the Raiders. More than a decade later Shell was hired by the Raiders again but last week was fired again just one season into his return. Art Shell was the fourth black re-tread coach – in other words a coach given a second chance to lead a team. Ironically that’s a good sign, even as Shell licks his wounds from termination.
Another good sign was seen in Indianapolis over the weekend when Colts head coach Tony Dungy faced off against one of his African American coaching protege’s, Kansas City’s Herman Edwards, while another of his minority proteges – Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith sat in the RCA Dome stands cheering on his buddies. This is how the coaching fraternity grows, when one guy, like Dungy, spreads the wealth and the knowledge and witnesses the benefits of his teaching. In turn Herman Edwards and Lovie Smith are growing their own coaching trees. Which in a few years should result in more minority head coaches.
No, all is not perfect in the NFL. At the end of the regular season, two black head coaches were fired. Another, Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, perhaps needs no less than a winning season in order to survive past next year. Still, the fact remains that two African American coaches could face each other this year in the Super Bowl from the same coaching tree a potentially great thing for NFL coaching equality.
But let me close by offering this sense of perspective despite the NFL’s obvious progress. Two black head coaches – KC Jones and Al Attles – X’d and O’d against each other for the championship in the NBA – in 1975, that was 32 years ago.