CHICAGO -- It took 41 years for a black head coach to make
it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Lovie Smith did it Sunday on a snowy afternoon in Chicago. Four
hours later, his good pal and mentor Tony Dungy joined him. Not
one, but two black coaches meeting in the nation's biggest sporting
It's historic. And it's about time.
Change has come appallingly slow. But now two of the most
decent, deserving men have pushed the NFL forward.
And that is a very good thing.
"It means a lot," Dungy said after his Indianapolis Colts beat
New England 38-34 in the AFC title game. "I'm very proud of being
an African-American. I'm very proud of Lovie."
And Smith equally so of Dungy.
"Tony Dungy has done an awful lot for our game," Smith said.
"He hasn't had a chance to coach in the Super Bowl. I would love
to see it."
Now he will.
It wasn't all that long ago that the NFL's best jobs were
off-limits to blacks. Never mind that three-quarters of the
league's rosters were filled with black players. Or that there were
qualified black assistants. When the time came to hire a new coach,
they were passed over, time and again.
Meanwhile, white coaches who had done little to distinguish
themselves in their previous jobs got additional chances. It was
the old boys' network at its worst.
There's been some progress over the last two decades. It's been
far slower than it should have been, and it took an active hand by
former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to pull it along.
Art Shell and Dennis Green paved the way in the modern era, and
Dungy took it a step further. Low key and humble, he would never be
the type to grandstand and bluster about injustice. But he was
honest about the league's inequalities, and knew that his success
would go a long way in opening doors for others.
One of those would be Smith, Dungy's protege in Tampa Bay. He,
too, led by example.
When the Bears and Colts take the field in Miami on Feb. 4, men
of color who dream of being in the center on the grandest stages
will see that the door has been blown wide open. Men of color who
have been held back, told in words or deeds that they weren't good
enough, will have not one, but two role models as they fight for
"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."
If he doesn't, at least he'll have the consolation of knowing
Whether he wanted to be or not, Dungy has long been the standard
bearer for minority coaches. He was just 25 when he became the
NFL's youngest assistant, taking a job on Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh
staff. Three years later, he was the defensive coordinator and the
odds-on favorite to advance.
Oh, he got plenty of interviews. But somebody else -- somebody
white -- always got the job.
Smith's odyssey was equally bumpy: Tulsa, Wisconsin, Ohio State,
Tampa Bay, St. Louis. Those were only a few of the stops he made in
his 20-year journey to become a head coach.
Did both deserve shots before they were hired, Dungy by Tampa
Bay in 1996 and Smith by Chicago in January 2004? Certainly. But
instead of whining about life being unfair, they have done their
part to make sure those who come after them will have an easier
"When you have an opportunity like this, of course you want to
take advantage of it," Bears running back Thomas Jones said. "Any
time you're the first person to do anything, regardless of your
race or anything like that, it's special."
Smith and Dungy know the responsibility they carry. Unlike
baseball or basketball, it is still news when a team hires a black
coach in the NFL. Even bigger news when a black man is hired to run
the front office.
With every big victory, they remove another thorn of prejudice.
"I'm happy for both coaches," Colts defensive end
Dwight Freeney said. "I hope we get to the point we don't have to hear
The day when a coach's skin is no longer an issue isn't here
yet. But by making history together, Smith and Dungy have brought
it a little closer.