I’m having trouble figuring out what to make of the biggest story of Super Bowl Hype Week I, the skin color of the two head coaches.
As you may have heard upon sticking your head out of your bunker, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears are the first black head coaches in the XLI-annorum history of the Super Bowl.
On the one hand, this is a nice thing. It’s always good to see a barrier broken down, a first achieved, a shameful “never” erased. On the other hand, too much hurraying over this feels condescending to me. It feels like we’re all saying, “Hey, look! Black guys can coach their team to the Super Bowl too!”
There are going to be more than two hands here.
It’s undeniably noteworthy that both head coaching slots in the big game are filled by black men this year, after exactly zero of the previous 80 had been. Smith was quoted last week, when a matchup with his friend and mentor was only a possibility, saying, “I hope for a day when it is unnoticed. But that day isn’t here.”
Well, of course not. The first time always gets noticed. But that day may never come. There will always be someone around to say, “Hey, look, we’re not talking about race!” And then we’ll be talking about race. And someone else — maybe me — will say, “Well, we should be talking about race.”
We should be. There has been significant progress in the NFL in coaching diversity. There were no black head coaches in the modern NFL until the Los Angeles Raiders hired Art Shell in the ridiculously late and recent year 1989, but six teams have black head coaches at the moment.
Still, we’re not living in a colorless world. There are only three black general managers, and the New York Giants’ new G.M., Jerry Reese, is only the second black nonplayer to ever hold that title. (Two other African-Americans, including nonplayer Rod Graves in Arizona, have similar jobs but are called vice presidents.) Lovie Smith, only in his third year at the helm, had to wait an uncomfortably long time as a highly respected assistant before getting his first crack at age 46.
In just the past few years, we’ve had cases of teams making hires that looked like “Let’s hire the white guy.” Mike Tomlin, hired Sunday by the Pittsburgh Steelers, is only the 11th black head coach in NFL history, counting Terry Robiskie, who was only an interim coach.
But were there really any non-wingnuts around who needed the Bears and Colts to win Sunday to prove that black guys really can coach teams to the Super Bowl? Come on.
One of the ways people are approaching this story is to say we should be focusing on Smith and Dungy as good coaches and fine men, not as blacks who crossed some barrier.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but I’m not comfortable with that either. Because that sounds like the first step on the road to saying, “Why does everything always have to be about race”? And have you ever noticed that if someone says that, there’s an almost 100 percent chance the speaker is white?
I don’t like the idea of walking down a road that leads to this piece in the right-wing magazine Human Events, in which author Vincent Fiore writes that the focus should be on Smith and Dungy as coaches, not black men, but the media focuses on their color because it has its own political agenda.
“A good plurality of people don’t get it,” Fiore writes, “and the plurality I speak of is practically everyone outside the demographic of white males, ages one to 100.”
Right. Only white guys get it. Thanks for proving that racism is dead there, Mr. Fiore.
The best sign of racial progress on the NFL coaching front Sunday may not have been Smith and Dungy winning their conference titles, but the Steelers’ hiring of Tomlin, who, like, Smith, is a Dungy protégé. Tomlin is only 34. He didn’t have to toil as an assistant for decades before he got his shot the way Smith did, the way Marvin Lewis and Romeo Crennel did.
It used to be all the boy-wonder coaches, the guys younger than a few of their players, were white. Except for player-coach Fritz Pollard in the prehistoric 1920s, Tomlin’s the first black head coach in NFL history who’s on the sunny side of 40.
Two black coaches have been fired this off-season, Shell of the Oakland Raiders and Denny Green of the Arizona Cardinals. But they had both represented progress too. They were both head coaches for the second time.
Green, who’ll be 58 next month, had some success with the Minnesota Vikings, but is not obviously a great coach. He certainly worked no wonders in Phoenix, and his tenure will be best remembered for his postgame meltdown after a loss to the Bears this season, when he coined the catchphrase “Go ahead and crown their asses!”
But it’s not inconceivable that Green could coach again. That’s progress, black coaches getting second and third chances, getting to ride that coaching carousel. Used to be only mediocre white coaches got recycled again and again.
Just as I find it hard to believe there are reasonable people who remained unconvinced a black coach could make it big in the NFL, I find it hard to swallow that there are black kids who will watch Smith and Dungy on the sideline a week from Sunday and have it dawn on them for the first time that they too can achieve something fantastic.
Then again, I felt the same way about similar sentiments regarding Doug Williams when he became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl in January 1988. Are there really still black kids out there who didn’t think they could play quarterback? I remember thinking. But a generation later, I’ve heard black quarterbacks talking about seeing Williams and being inspired in just that way.
So what do I know? I’m just a white guy trying to figure out what to make of the biggest story of Super Bowl Hype Week I. Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are good coaches, good men and black. We knew that Saturday. We know it now.
Leave it at that? Sure. But what is “that”?
This story has been corrected since it was first published.
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