Super Bowl XLI To Be A Watershed Moment In The History Of NFL’s African-American Head Coaches

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: January 23, 2007

This weekend's AFC and NFC Championship Games will take on even greater significance for Colts coach Tony Dungy, left, and Bears coach Lovie Smith.PHILADELPHIA– The NFL will celebrate a historic first in Super Bowl XLI as two African American head coaches Lovie Smith (Chicago Bears) and Tony Dungy (Indianapolis Colts) will lead their teams into the biggest game of the year.

It took 41 years for an African American head coach to make it all the way, but Conference Championship Sunday proved to be the golden day for the not just the pair, but for all minority coaches.

Smith led the Bears to a convincing 39-14 win over the New Orleans and in the night cap Dungy’s Colts came from behind to beat the mighty New England Patriots 38-34 in an instant classic thrilling game.

Forget being a journalist, it is impossible to not be happy for them especially Dungy, who endured family tragedy in 2005 and was wrongly labeled as a “soft” coach who couldn’t get it done.

Both coaches have worked extremely hard and deserve the merits that are now coming their way from their victories. They are exceptional respected coaches who make people in the NFL forget that they are black, white, green, or any other color, by their motivation of players and their “preparation = performance” attitude.

The ironic thing about their scheduled meeting at the Super Bowl is that the pair have a friendship grown from their mentor-student relationship when Smith served on Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff in the early 2000′s.

During their time together Smith learned Dungy’s vaunted “Cover 2″ defense and how a true professional coach goes about his day to day business.

The conference championship wins made the coaches/friends feel pride for each other and their race. They spoke of the thankfulness of the accomplishment and what it meant to them.

“It means a lot,” Dungy said after his win. “I’m very proud of being an African-American. I’m very proud of Lovie”.

“Being the first black coach to lead this team, of course our players knew about it and they wanted to help us make history,” Smith said.

“So I feel blessed to be in that position. I’ll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy.”

The historical significance of the two African American coaches competing against each other in the Super Bowl and one becoming the first African American champion coach is a subject some don’t want to discuss, because it is not politically correct.

But it is about time the NFL took notice to all coaches when it is hiring time. The NFL until recent years has had a “spotty” hiring record when it came to minority head coaches.

Many African American assistant coaches, who were more than qualified were told to work hard and wait their turn, which many times never came (i.e., Sherman Lewis and Ted Cottrell) while other white coaches benefited from the old boy mentality of some NFL owners getting two and three chances to lead a team.

The situation got so bad between minority coaches and the league that in 2002 after another off-season where African American coaches did not receive “fair” looks, civil-rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and the late Johnny Cochran took the issue to the forefront of the league by threatening an Equal Opportunity lawsuit and having a fairness in hiring study done.

The study by Dr. Janice Madden of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the data on league hiring and gave some startling numbers. Dr. Madden found that while 70 percent of all NFL players were black, only 28 percent of the assistants and coordinators and six percent of all head coaches were African-American.

Whereas whites accounted for 30 percent of all NFL players, comprised 72 percent of the assistant coaches and coordinators, and 94 percent of the head coaching positions.

She also found that the win-loss records of the five African-American coaches from 1986-2001 (Dennis Green, Art Shell, Tony Dungy, Ray Rhodes, and Herman Edwards) averaged more wins per season better than their 86 white counterparts.

The light shown on the problem caused past Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to actively seek a way of changing the NFL’s mindset toward hiring qualified minority candidates as head coaches.

The NFL formed a committee headed by Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney to create a hiring process to include minority candidates.

The committee came up with the “Rooney Rule” adopted in late 2002, saying that for every head coaching vacancy a list of viable minority candidates would be provided and that at least one should get the opportunity to be interviewed for the open position.

The rule is not perfect, but Dan Rooney understood that “opportunity” was the key to a successful minority candidate getting a foot in doors that were usually closed.

The rule in my opinion works though it has its critics who say owners should be able to interview and hire whomever they want. I like the rule because it gives minority candidates a chance to be in front of decision makers, who may not have much interaction with minorities other than players on the field and give the candidates the chance sell themselves/credentials.

We are seeing the fruits of the rule with Smith and other coaches (i.e., Romeo Crennel, Denny Green, Marvin Lewis) getting jobs since its inception.

We are even seeing African American “retread” coaches like Herman Edwards, Art Shell, and Dennis Green getting a second chance. The NFL also instituted the Minority Coaching Fellowship Program to help get minority candidates qualified and tutored.

The program is helping the problem and in 2006, a record 86 minorities took part in the summer program.

Maybe in the future I will not have to hear a fan-coach exchange like I did listening to the Ray Rhodes radio show in 1998. A caller expressed the sentiments of some fans and evaluators at the time when he asked the embattled coach “When are you going to leave and let a White Guy coach the Eagles?”

Rhodes responded at the time that he and other African American coaches were going to stick around, so the caller better get used to a black man being the coach.

Rhodes was right, but the change has been sometimes painfully slow. The league has grown in regards to hiring African American coaches (Mike Tomlin signed by Steelers as head coach Monday) and front office executives like the Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and the league even received a grade of a B+ on the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports report card (Highest Rating to date).

However when you look at the history of the league (Almost 100 years of play and only 10 African American Head Coaches) there is still much work to be done to level the coaching ranks.

Hopefully with the success of Smith and Dungy a new generation of coaches will be on more equal footing, thus causing a non-story of two African American coaches meeting in the Super Bowl.


Fritz Pollard – Akron Pros (1921)

Art Shell – Raiders (1989-94, 2006)

Ray Rhodes – Eagles (1995-98) and Packers (1999)

Dennis Green – Vikings (1992-2001) and Cardinals (2004-06)

NOTE: Terry Robiskie served as a interim head coach for the Redskins in 2000 and the Browns in 2004.


Herman Edwards – Chiefs (formerly with Jets)

Romeo Crennel – Browns

Marvin Lewis – Bengals

Tony Dungy – Colts (formerly with Bucs)

Lovie Smith – Bears

Mike Tomlin – Steelers