Thursday, February 01, 2007

Countdown to Kickoff – a date with destiny

Today marks the beginning of Black History Month. Sunday, Super Bowl XLI two head coaches, the Indianapolis Colts Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, will become the first two African American men to lead their teams to a Super Bowl. Black History Month 2007 will in large part focus on Super Bowl Sunday.

Black History Month often sparks a debate about the continued usefulness of a designated month dedicated to the history of one skin color.

On a December 18, 2005 episode of 60 Minutes, actor Morgan Freeman criticized Black History Month as inadequate, noting that there is no White History Month. "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history." Freeman believes that racism will persist as long as individuals continue to identify themselves by their skin color.

Carter G. Woodson, creator of Negro History Week (in 1926), hoped that the week would eventually be eliminated, when African-American history would be fully integrated with American history. Later on in 1976, as the nation reached its bicentennial, the week was expanded into an entire month.

Freeman the acclaimed Academy Award winning actor is very correct in how he sees Black History Month and hopefully Back History Month will be a distant memory in the near future, but that shouldn’t stop America from recognizing what will take place Sunday at Dolphins Stadium.

The Rooney Rule, which the NFL enacted in 2002, requires National Football League teams to interview minority candidates for a head coaching opportunity. The rule is named for Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the chairman of the league's diversity committee, and is often cited as an example of affirmative action.

In 2003, the NFL fined the Detroit Lions $200,000 for failure to interview minority candidates for the team's vacant head coaching job. After Marty Mornhinweg was fired, the Lions immediately hired former San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci to replace him without interviewing any other candidates. The Lions claimed they attempted to interview other candidates but that the minority candidates withdrew from interviews, believing Mariucci's hiring was inevitable.

Since the Rooney Rule was established, several NFL franchises have hired minority head coaches, although the policy is still debated. No team has stated whether the Rooney Rule contributed to the hiring of a minority. The results speak for themselves. During the so called ‘modern NFL era’ (for argument sake we’ll use 1950 as the start of the NFL’s modern era) six NFL franchises hired an African-American as their head coach: Art Shell Raiders 1989, Dennis Green Vikings 1992, Ray Rhodes Eagles 1995, Tony Dungy Bucs 1996, Ray Rhodes Packers 1999 and Herman Edwards Jets 2001. In the five years the Rooney Rule has been in place eight men have been hired as NFL head coaches: Tony Dungy Colts 2002, Marvin Lewis Bengals 2003, Lovie Smith Bears 2004, Dennis Green Cardinals 2004, Romeo Crennel Browns 2005, Herman Edwards Chiefs 2006, Art Shell Raiders 2006 and Mike Tomlin Steelers 2007. Six in 52 years, eight in five years – the Rooney Rule has afforded African American football coaches the opportunity they had long ago earned.

Art Shell the first African-American coach hired by the Raiders in 1989 told The Boston Globe he believes Supper Bowl XLI will be an important day in National Football League history.

"I spoke with both of them and told them how very proud I am of them," Shell said. "I'm proud of how well they've done and of the way they handle themselves.

"Their being in the Super Bowl will open the door a little wider for minority coaches the same way Doug Williams opened the door for black quarterbacks. After he did what he did, guys after him were looked upon as quarterbacks, not just as great athletes.
"When I came into the league in 1968, they thought a black guy couldn't be the quarterback. You could play tackle but a black guy couldn't play center or guard. Those positions weren't for blacks. They were thinking man's positions. Same was true of coaches.

"I have no doubt that if I failed, it would have retarded the process for a lot of us. The night before my first game as Raiders coach, I remember sitting with Terry Robiskie [a former teammate who became an assistant under Shell] around 3 a.m.

"I couldn't sleep. I told him, 'I have to have success at this. I've got to win. If I don't, it will set us all back many years.' If we hadn't won in Oakland, a lot of people would have said, 'There. See that. They can't do it.'

"That's why having Tony and Lovie on the sidelines coaching in the Super Bowl is so important. Visual proof is very important. For black kids to see that there's a black face on the biggest stage and he's in charge of the team is important. It shows you that no matter where you were rated or where you were slated, if you fight, work hard, get organized, and believe in yourself, you have a chance to be successful."

Doug Williams played an essential role in African American men recognition and acceptance in leadership roles on a NFL field. Williams led the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 win over the Denver Broncos at Super Bowl XXII on January 31, 1988. In one of the Super Bowl's superlative displays of passing, Washington's Doug Williams led a second-quarter offensive explosion that clinched a 42-10 victory over Denver. Williams completed 18-of-29 passes for a Super Bowl record 340 yards. He tied a Super Bowl record with four touchdown passes, all of which came in the second quarter.

"Doug Williams said to me at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, 'Rooney not only talks the talk, he wants the walk,' " said NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw in a Boston Globe report. "What he did with Tomlin spoke volumes (Mike Tomlin hired to replace Bill Cowher). He could have said he had two loyal guys who have been with him a long time and with whom he won a Super Bowl, but he looked beyond that and hired the best guy. If we didn't have that Rooney Rule, guys like Tomlin don't even get interviewed."

"I would like to think owners would hire the best coach," Ray Sherman, 55, the Titans' wide receivers coach who has 19 years of NFL offensive coaching experience with seven teams, including the 49ers told The San Francisco Chronicle, "but I am here because of the Rooney Rule. I definitely think we need to keep it in place."

"All I've ever asked for is the opportunity to interview," Sherman said. "Right now, the trend is for the younger guys, I guess. Maybe the Rooney Rule came too late for me."

What most football fans don’t remember is that the NFL was pushed into the Rooney Rule. Famed attorney the late Johnnie Cochran and Washington lawyer Cyrus Mehri threatened to sue the NFL unless the league changed its hiring practices.

On September 30, 2002, Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. and Cyrus Mehri issued a ground-breaking report - Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities - revealing that black NFL head coaches are held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, and are consequently denied a fair chance to compete for head coaching jobs.

The report opened the NFL's eyes to its teams' unfair hiring processes. One month later, on October 31, 2002, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced the formation of a diversity committee, headed by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, to address the NFL's minority-hiring practices. Within two months, the League announced a diversity plan, which included the requirement that each team interview at least one minority candidate prior to selecting a head coach. The Rooney Rule has already positively impacted the League. On March 10, 2003, the Fritz Pollard Alliance was formed as an affinity group of NFL minority coaches, scouts and front office personnel. During the last couple of years the FPA has worked with the NFL to develop hiring guidelines for front office and scouting positions as well as talent development programs. The FPA advocates for policy changes in the NFL hiring practices and working in partnership with the NFL to create opportunities for minority candidates.

"I think you have to look at it as a great success," said Mehri, general counsel of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group formed to promote minority hiring at all levels of the NFL in a Boston Globe report. "You know it's a great success when it matters to the owners. From a process point of view, they're doing everything we've asked them to do. Now, does that mean we've eradicated bias in the NFL? No. It's part of America. But we've made great strides. We couldn't have written a better script."

"It couldn't have happened to two finer people and two finer coaches," Mehri said. "We're on cloud nine. We couldn't be happier. We came into this to change America's game. . . . Sunday gives us a chance to have America's game change America's consciousness."

"If there was no Rooney Rule, Lovie Smith would not be the head coach of the Chicago Bears," said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance in a Washington Post report. "Believe me. . . . This fills me with a great sense of pride.""Everything we're doing has exceeded our best expectations," Mehri said. "We really have had a cultural change. We don't win every time. We shouldn't win every time. But everyone is following the process."

Gale Sayers, the youngest player to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame (as a member of the Chicago Bears) remembers all too well the days before the Rooney Rule. After retiring with the Bears in 1972 Sayers tried to stay in football looking for a front office opportunity. Instead, he earned a master's degree in education administration and was one of the first African-Americans to be a college athletic director.

Yet in 1983 when he wrote to all 28 NFL teams looking for a job, he said he got only one response: a rejection letter from the Los Angeles Raiders.

''We should be talking to our children -- going to high schools, going to colleges and talking to them about this day,'' Sayers, 63, said in the suburban Chicago headquarters of his computer systems company, Sayers Group LLC in a Bloomberg News report. ''It knocks down all these rednecks out there who say that blacks cannot win, or cannot play quarterback or cannot be a head coach.''

''I think you're starting to see the fruits of many years of labor,'' said Javier Loya, a part owner of the Houston Texans and member of the NFL's diversity committee. ''There's some assistant GMs, heads of personnel, different guys starting to move up the pipeline.''

And how do Sunday’s Super Bowl head coaches feel about their moment when they’ll be center-stage?

"There were black coaches who were exceptional back then but they never got to do what we've done," Colts head coach Tony Dungy told The Boston Globe. "They could have taken a team to the Super Bowl but they never got the chance.

"My generation of kids who watched the Super Bowl never saw African-American coaches. You could be a player. You couldn't necessarily be the quarterback. Then you saw Doug Williams play and win a Super Bowl at quarterback [in January 1988] and they thought they could be a quarterback.

"Now maybe a young kid will watch this game and think, 'Maybe I can be the coach one day.' That's special. We're all a product of our environment and our past."

"That day is coming," Smith said, "but we're talking about it now, so it's not here now. Each year we've taken a step. That's all we're looking for. You look for steps that you take in your progress. We've taken another step by Tony and I having our teams in the Super Bowl. In years to come, it won't be talked about. I'll look forward to that day."

"For a long time, you hadn't seen a lot of African-American coaches, so owners had to go with what they knew," said Dungy, who first became a head coach in Tampa in 1996 in a Boston Globe report. "I think everybody wants to win. They just don't always know everyone who's available. What the Rooney Rule did was say, 'There may be another category of people to look at.'

"I remember when I first started interviewing for head coaching jobs, a guy asked me, 'How many black coaches are you going to have on your staff?' It startled you a little bit. When I was 28 or 29, I had a general manager tell me I had to shave my beard because people were looking for a certain style. I asked Coach Noll about it and he said for me not to worry about that.

"The only token interview I think I ever had was the second one. It was with the Green Bay Packers. I asked them what they were looking for in a head coach, and they said, 'An offensive guy with head coaching experience.' I just scratched my head. I didn't know where I fit there. I never did walk out of an interview, but after a couple of them were over, I felt I should have."

And the 84 men suiting up to play on the ultimate Sunday know all to well history will be made Sunday at Dolphins Stadium

"It just shows how far we've come as a society to have black coaches even be in a position to coach in the Super Bowl," said Bears fullback Jason McKie. "As a black man, it makes you feel proud."

CBS, the NFL and Big Brothers Big Sisters have joined forces to create a 15-second public service announcement highlighting the importance of mentoring to debut during Super Bowl XLI airing on CBS Network Sunday, Feb. 4th. In a Super Bowl first, the in-game PSA will feature the two coaches whose teams are competing in the game. The roughly 90 million viewers who tune in to watch the game will see Indianapolis Colts' Coach Tony Dungy and Coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears underscore the importance of mentoring by referencing their real-life mentoring relationship.

These extraordinary role models, the first African-American head coaches to bring their teams to the NFL's biggest game of the year, exemplify the power of mentoring. Dungy, who waited more than 10 years for an opportunity to be a head coach, was the person who gave Smith his first NFL job. Smith considers Dungy his mentor and they speak to each other every Monday morning.

"We are thrilled to be partnering through CBS Cares with the NFL and Big Brothers Big Sisters to bring the year's largest television audience a positive message about mentoring" said Martin Franks, Executive Vice President, Planning, Policy & Government Affairs, CBS Corporation. "We had long ago decided we wanted to showcase mentoring, and ideally do so with the team coaches during the Super Bowl, so we felt like we won the lottery – or in this case, the Super Bowl, given the actual mentoring connection these coaches share."

"It is truly exciting to work with the NFL and CBS to highlight the tremendous need for African-American and Hispanic mentors for the many boys who are waiting and to provide information to viewers on how to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters," said Judy Vredenburgh, President and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters. "The Super Bowl coaches are a terrific example of how mentoring can change a person's life," she continued, "and we appreciate their endorsement."

The time will come in the not too distant future that a man’s worth as a football coach will not be judged by the color of his skin but rather his ability to lead other men into battle on a football field. However for that important day to take place, special days and men like Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy have to show the National Football League how to get there.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and Bloomberg News

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