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.

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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.