Return to Glory for a Team, Redemption for a Coach

March 16, 2009

I’ll always have a special fondness for Morgan State University.   Morgan State was one of the few schools that considered giving me a football scholarship when I was in high school.   Later that same school year I watched Morgan State win the NCAA Division Two basketball championship on national TV.   Morgan State was then led by a skinny, 7-foot center named Marvin Webster.  That guy could really fill the middle and block some shots.  He was appropriately nick-named the Human Eraser.  It seemed inevitable that Morgan State would win.  The Eraser and his team were exciting to watch.

That was 1974.  And for all practical purposes the high point for Morgan State basketball.

These days Morgan State is a Division I school.   Part of the historically black MEAC.  Sadly there have been lots of losing seasons and no conference championships since then.  Until now.

Indeed this has been quite a season for the Morgan State Golden Bears.  The biggest highlight until winning the MEAC tournament was Morgan’s stunning upset of the University of Maryland on January 7.   Morgan State traveled 35 miles up the road to College Park and beat the Terrapins at home 66 – 65.   By traditional big versus little standards, it was an embarrassing loss for Maryland but an affirmation of progress for up and coming Morgan State. unknown1

But as big as that victory was, Morgan State had never gone to the NCAA’s Big Dance.  But that drought ended last week when Morgan State knocked off Norfolk State 83-69 in the finals of the MEAC tournament to gain an automatic berth into March Madness.   On Thursday Morgan State will take its 23 and 11 record to Kansas City where they will face one of the nation’s top teams in the University of Oklahoma.   Morgan State is a 15 seed.  Oklahoma in the top ten all year is a number 2 seed.  Morgan State will be huge underdogs.  But so what.   Morgan State is finally in and for now with so many losing campaigns this is a return to that glorious time 35 years ago when Morgan State basketball was on top.

This is also a redemption of sorts for Golden Bears coach Todd Bozeman.

Bozeman in his third season leading Morgan State has completely turned the program around.  When he arrived the team just finished a 4 and 26 season.    Bozeman came to Morgan State after serving what is often called the “death penalty” sentence for coaches in NCAA basketball for a recruiting violation while he was the head coach of the University of California.  Bozeman was charged with paying a recruit’s parents $30,000.  At the time of the violation Bozeman was considered a rising star in big time college basketball coaching ranks.   During his four seasons as coach at California, Bozeman even led them to the Sweet Sixteen.   But the recruiting disaster ended Bozeman’s time at Cal and very nearly his career.  But thanks to second chances and Morgan State, Bozeman’s coaching career has new life.  070205_bozeman_hmed_12phmedium

No one is giving Morgan State much of a chance against Oklahoma.  The Sooners have been in the top ten all year, and are led by the nation’s best player and probable national player of the year, Blake Griffin.  But not many gave Morgan State or its coach much of a chance to get this far.   So I say good luck to Morgan State and happy returns for Todd Bozeman.


Super Bowl 43: What Black Coach?

January 31, 2009

A day before the big game, the nation’s biggest annual event, and this year there are very few words about the prospect of an African-American coach winning. This time it seems Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin is just another coach on the verge of leading his team to victory on the world’s largest sports stage. I suppose that’s progress. Perhaps.

We are only two years removed from Tony Dungy’s historic victory as coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy won the only Super Bowl where there was a certainty the winning coach would be black. Dungy and Bears coach Lovie Smith were the lead story that Super Bowl. It seemed just about every interview and commentary leading up to that game contained some reference to the history that was about to be made. The first always gets the attention. It should. Dungy one of sport’s all-time gentlemen, and dignified leaders proved you don’t have to curse and glower to motivate and lead. He deserved every accolade that he got. And by god he is black!

But what about the next guy – Mike Tomlin – in fact an apple off of the Dungy coaching tree? How should we recognize him? And what should we say if he leads the Steelers to another championship? Is it better to ignore Tomlin’s color, when in fact African-American coaches still struggle to get respect, let alone jobs at all levels of football? Right now it seems those are questions many people don’t want to talk about. But I say let’s talk and keep talking, lest we forget how long it took men like Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy to get to the big game. The fact is it took way too long. And in just two years some of us are acting like it doesn’t mean anything that another African-American is so quickly knocking on the door of football history – again. On-going and provable accomplishment and progress is a story we shouldn’t be quiet about.

As evidenced by the swearing in of Barack Obama as the country’s 44th president, we are indeed living in an historic time. But it doesn’t mean that full racial parity has been achieved and racial injustice has been adjudicated. And it doesn’t mean we should silently watch just because one hurdle, even a huge one, has finally been cleared. That next hurdle is important too.

Super Bowl XLI: Validating the Rooney Rule

January 22, 2007

Following the AFC and NFC championship games yesterday there is one certainty: an African American head coach will win the upcoming Super Bowl. Let that sink in for a minute. For the first time in NFL history two black men will lead their teams in football’s biggest game. This is an extremely significant development for America’s biggest sports league and its fans and for sports in general. It also validates the importance of the Rooney Rule, which mandates that NFL teams seeking a new head coach must conduct serious interviews with minority candidates as part of the process.

Super Bowl XLI will see Tony Dungy, the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, taking on his close friend and former coaching colleague Lovie Smith, head coach of the Chicago Bears. I couldn’t be more pleased about this matchup. For some of us this is the best possible Super Bowl. A Super Bowl where even if you lose you still win. I grew up a huge Bears fan when Indianapolis did not have an NFL team and later became a fan of my hometown Colts after they “relocated” from Baltimore. I also feel good about the fact that the winning coach will be a black man – another no-lose proposition.

While the Rooney Rule was not in place when Tony Dungy was first hired head coach by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twelve years ago, it was the reason that Dungy protege Lovie Smith got a chance to interview for the Bears job three years ago. It is also the reason that former Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, just announced as the new head coach of the Steelers, was given a fair hearing by the Rooney family in Pittsburgh. Mike Tomlin also used to work for Tony Dungy.

One day I suppose there will be no need for the Rooney Rule. But history tells us that for awhile at least NFL team owners must be “motivated” (forced) to do the right thing. For years black coaches in the NFL labored under the ludicrous misperception that they didn’t have what it takes to lead teams as head coaches. In 1989 when the Raiders hired Art Shell as the NFL’s first modern day head coach the perception of black coaches started to change. The Minnesota Vikings later hired Dennis Green as head coach and the perception changed further. Today six black men are head coaches in the NFL and two of them will face off for the title. This is indeed progress.

But in a league where well over two thirds of the players are black and less than ten black men have EVER been head coaches in the NFL the Rooney Rule is still needed.

But when the first black head coach wins the Super Bowl two weeks from now I hope there will be a greater understanding of the intelligence and leadership skills that African Americans have always brought to the game. When there is a general acceptance of that fact it is then that the Rooney Rule can be retired.

NFL Moving Toward Coaching Equality

January 8, 2007

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.