By Tony McClean
Updated: January 22, 2007
“It means a lot. I’m very proud to be representing African-Americans. I’m very proud of Lovie.”
– Tony Dungy.
“I’ll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy.”
– Lovie Smith.
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Many years ago when I first got into the sports journalism field, I was an avid fan of the old Art Rust Jr. radio show on WABC-AM in New York. At the time, he was one of the few black sportscasters/journalists that I could either see or hear on a consistent basis.
A long time sports historian, Mr. Rust once talked about being at Ebbets Field as a child on one historic day in April of 1947. The day I’m speaking of was, of course, the long awaited debut of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I remember Mr. Rust talking about how emotional that day was for him and his father. “I cried tears of joy because I never thought I’d see the day that a black man would play in the major leagues”, Rust recalled.
While looking back on Sunday’s conference championships results and at the other events surrounding them unfold, it made me realize just how we at times take for granted how things have progressed for us as black folks in the sports world.
As we sit a week removed from another celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and a little over a week away from a historic Super Bowl, I know that everything isn’t 100% the way we’d like to see it.
But things are a helluva lot better than even in recent times. Case in point, the Big Apple.
If you had told someone even 20 years ago that the New York Giants would have an African-American general manager, that the New York Knicks would have a African-American head coach and general manager, or that the New York Mets would have a Hispanic-American general manager along with an African-American manager, you would have been skeptical.
But on this date in 2007, Jerry Reese is indeed the Giants’ GM, Isiah Thomas (for better or worse) is the Knicks’ coach and GM, Omar Minaya is the Mets’ GM and ex-Yankee Willie Randolph is the skipper of the Mets.
I say all that to make one realize just how great of a moment Super Bowl XLI will be for African-American sports fans. When Lovie Lee Smith and Anthony Kevin Dungy take the field in Miami on February 4, they will be the first black head coaches to participate in a Super Bowl.
When Marlon Jackson’s last second interception made the Smith-Dungy match up official, many things went racing in my head. I thought of Fritz Pollard III, who humbly accepted his grandfather’s induction into the Hall of Fame just two years ago.
Pollard was the NFL’s first black head coach when he played and coached for the Akron Pros back in 1921. How proud would he be to see two African-American coaches from nearby Indianapolis and Chicago meeting in Miami to decide the pro football championship?
I thought of Art Shell, who was the NFL’s first modern era black head coach. I thought of how he won his first game on a cold October night in 1989 against the New York Jets. I thought of how he got the Raiders to within one game of a Super Bowl only to be beaten by the Buffalo Bills.
I thought of Denny Green, who I was luck enough to work with several times at ESPN. I thought of when he came to Minnesota in the early 90′s and turned them into a contender. He would also reach a conference final, but would lose to the Atlanta Falcons and deny his chance of going to a Super Bowl.
I also remembered along the way, his defensive coordinator for many years was a former University of Minnesota quarterback that played briefly for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That same defensive coordinator would eventually win a Super Bowl ring during his time in Steeltown.
That same guy would go on to become a head coach himself and help turn around the fortunes of a struggling franchise. While reversing this team’s fortunes, his tenure would include the development of another assistant who would also go on to become a head coach as well.
If you haven’t guessed already, Green’s assistant was Tony Dungy who would go on to turnaround the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The assistant under Dungy who would go on to greater heights was — Lovie Smith.
Even before they meet on the field this Sunday, the Dungy-Smith collaboration of several years ago has already been felt. On Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers hired former Viking defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.
Before becoming Minnesota’s defensive coordinator in 2006, from Tomlin served as a defensive backs coach for the Buccaneers from 2001 though 2005. He was originally hired as an assistant by Tony Dungy.
And thus, Tomlin’s hiring almost makes things come full circle. From Pollard, to Shell, to Green, to Dungy, to Smith, to Tomlin. A circle that many years ago couldn’t have and wouldn’t have been made possible.
I feel very blessed that I’ll be able to tell folks years from now that I lived to see Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coach in the Super Bowl. I’ll be proud to say that I saw Doug Williams win a Super Bowl with the Redskins and that I saw Warren Moon and Fritz Pollard be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I’m sure over the next few days and weeks there will be many statements (derogatory or otherwise) said about this upcoming Super Bowl. Some will ask is too much being made over the fact that two Black men will be coaching a Super Bowl for the first time.
I think of all the struggles that have and still will be fought by African-Americans over the years and I will tell them that yes, YES, this is an important moment. It will be a reminder for us of where we’ve come and just how far we still want to and must go.
All I ask of you is that you appreciate the moment and reflect on those who paved the way for us to enjoy this moment for what it is.