Super Bowl Breaks Ground with First Black Coaches

By Eric Green
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - While the winner of Super Bowl 41 will not be decided until February 4 in Miami, one result is already in: the victorious head coach of American professional football’s championship game will be African American.

As probably every pro football fan now knows, 2007 marks the first time that a Super Bowl will have a black head coach.  What makes it even more of a front-page story is that this year’s Super Bowl will have two black head coaches: Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears.

Best friends off the playing field, they will square off in the crowning game of the National Football League (NFL) season.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told reporters that football is America’s “pastime that brings people together across social lines, across racial lines.” “It's an important American institution,” said Rice, whose favorite NFL team is the Cleveland Browns because its games were broadcast in her home town of Birmingham, Alabama.

Cyrus Mehri, a Washington lawyer who helped bring about diversity in NFL hiring practices, believes the significance of black head coaches in the Super Bowl transcends sports. “There’s no question that having Super Bowl teams with black head coaches for the first time will have a huge impact” on all of American society, Mehri told USINFO January 29.


Mehri is co-author, with the late attorney Johnnie Cochran, of a 2002 report called “Black Coaches in the National Football League” that served as a catalyst for a new rule requiring NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching positions.

The rule led to the hiring of seven minority head coaches in the NFL by 2006, out of 32 teams in the league.  The modern-day NFL did not have a black head coach until Art Shell was hired by the Oakland Raiders in 1989, yet in the 2006 season about 70 percent of the players were black.

Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard was the NFL’s first African-American head coach, when he played and coached for the Akron (Ohio) Pros in the American Professional Football League, which in 1922 was renamed the National Football League.

In honor of Pollard, a group called the Fritz Pollard Alliance was created in 2003 to represent minority coaches and to promote diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, administrative and scouting staffs of NFL teams.


Mehri, the alliance’s counsel, said having both Dungy and Smith as head coaches in the Super Bowl will alter the American “consciousness” regarding the ability of African Americans to “lead very complex [team] organizations in the biggest game in the American culture.”

Among their many duties, NFL head coaches supervise a 53-man playing roster and numerous assistant coaches, organize practices and are the ultimate decision-makers for their team’s performance during the 16-game regular season.  (See related article.)

Mehri sees a “ripple effect” spreading well beyond sports from having black head coaches in the Super Bowl.  Mehri says that what he experiences in his law firm, Mehri & Skalet, representing female and minority employees in discrimination cases, is indicative of the business world, where some companies have a “bias in hiring minorities for true leadership positions.”

“These guys [Smith and Dungy] are not players; they are the ones running the operations, and I think it will open the door to promoting minority candidates in the NFL, and also outside of sports,” said Mehri.

Harry Carson, a Hall of Fame NFL player for the New York Giants, echoed Mehri’s comments.  Carson, now executive director of the Washington-based Fritz Pollard Alliance, told USINFO January 29 that “one by one” barriers are being broken in the NFL.

Carson, who played “linebacker” from 1976 to 1988, cited Mike Tomlin, hired January 22 as the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as an example of how the NFL rule on minority hiring has enabled blacks to move up the career ladder.  Tomlin, a black assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings, was not considered head coaching material until his interview with the Steelers hierarchy convinced the Pittsburgh team to hire him for its top coaching job, said Carson.

Perhaps the Bears’ Lovie Smith best expressed the meaning of Black History Month, commemorated each February in the United States, when he said he looked forward to the day when it is no longer news that a Super Bowl team is coached by an African American.

Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney echoed that sentiment.  Freeney, an African American, told reporters that, while thrilled by the success of black coaches reaching the Super Bowl, “I hope we get to the point [when] we don’t have to hear about it.”

See articles on Black History Month on the USINFO Web site.

See more on the Fritz Pollard Alliance on the group’s Web site.

The report on “Black Coaches in the National Football League” is available on the Mehri & Skalet Web site.

For more information about athletics in the United States, see the electronic journal Sports in America.