The Rev. Jesse Jackson called the recent triumphs by coaches Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith "one of the great moments in American history," a celebration of what can happen when blacks are given the opportunities to succeed at the highest levels of sports.
Dungy and Smith will become the first black coaches in the Super Bowl on Feb. 4. Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in the AFC Championship Game Sunday, hours after his protégé, Smith, did the same with the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
"This is one of the great moments in American history," Jackson said. "It really is. It comes 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke through. It's an American feel-good moment. Both are men of dignity and unblemished character."
Robinson joined the Dodgers organization in 1946 and became the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947.
On Monday, both coaches talked about how important it was to finally break through on such a big stage.
When Dungy entered the NFL as an assistant in 1981, there were only about 15 black assistants. "It was important to me to get some guys into the pipeline, and I'm very, very proud that I was able to," he said.
When Dungy became a head coach in Tampa in 1996, one of the men he got into the pipeline was Smith, a promising young football mind who needed a chance. Herm Edwards of Kansas City and Mike Tomlin, recently hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers, were also on Dungy's coaching tree.
The NFL long has struggled with minority hiring at the highest levels. In 2002, Steelers owner Dan Rooney successfully lobbied for a rule that requires all NFL teams to interview minority candidates for coaching jobs.
"The new rules and a more even playing field creates new possibilities," Jackson said.
But Jackson said there's still work to be done. Of the 119 Division I-A football schools, only seven had black coaches as of last month.
Jackson also would like to see blacks receive a bigger role on the business side of the football -- supplying more products and uniforms to teams at a grassroots level and finding more places to thrive in a sport that is widely played by blacks.
Overall, though, Jackson said the Super Bowl story is cause for happiness.
"The athletic field is one of the few places where athletes embrace each other and accept the outcome and fans can choose region over race, uniform color over skin color," Jackson said.
"In some ways, this is Dr. King's view of the promise on the mountaintop. And it's the rules that make the dream possible."