Published January 24, 2007
I have been trying to figure out why the Lovie Smith-Tony Dungy story hasn't captured my imagination the way it has other people's imaginations.
Whatever the outcome Feb. 4, an African-American head coach will win the Super Bowl for the first time in history, no small thing.
I'm sure some of you will be quick to point out I'm white, which, by the way, I've noticed too. And there might be something to that, something deep down inside my Caucasian-ness that makes me shrug at the Smith-Dungy angle.
But I think it's something simpler and nicer: We've had so many minority coaches and managers in Chicago of late that the Super Bowl story line doesn't seem like such a big deal. We're used to it around here.
The Cubs hired and fired managers Don Baylor and Dusty Baker, both of whom are black. The White Sox hired and fired Jerry Manuel, who is black, and now employ Ozzie Guillen, who is from Venezuela, as their manager. Ken Williams, the Sox's World Series-winning general manager, is black. So is former Bulls coach Bill Cartwright. At one point, Baker, Cartwright and Manuel were leading teams in this town at the same time.
And now Smith and the Bears are headed to Miami to face Dungy's Colts in the Super Bowl.
(For good measure, one of Illinois' U.S. senators, Barack Obama, is black and considering a run for president.)
I'm not naïve enough to think there aren't a lot of white people out there who hate the idea of a black coach, let alone two black coaches, in the biggest game there is. Baker has the nasty letters from haters to prove it. There are too many people around with ugly hearts.
But when I look at Smith, I see a coach. And I get the distinct feeling from listening to him that he would like to be viewed that way too. Not as a black coach. As a coach.
"That day is coming someday," he said. "Of course, we are talking about it now; it is not here now. We have taken a step in that direction by Tony and I having our teams in the Super Bowl. In years to come, it won't be talked about. I'm looking forward to that day."
This obviously is a huge national story—Smith, the guy from tiny Big Sandy, Texas, who worked his way up the ladder and through discrimination to get to this moment, facing Dungy, his mentor, who had his own challenges as a black man. But in a way, it does a disservice to both gentlemen. There's something about the topic that tends to take away from the coaches' abilities and implies that their blackness is their entire identity.
Smith has endured shots from people like me who have questioned his see-no-evil approach to Bears players. But he has proven he has what it takes to nurture a team all the way to the Super Bowl. Dungy is one of the architects of the Cover-2 defense. But in the days ahead, you're going to hear less about that and more about the skin color of the two men.
A greater good obviously is being served here. Two black coaches in the Super Bowl might wake up some of the people doing the hiring. Of the 32 NFL teams, six have black head coaches. Of 119 Division I-A football programs, only five had black head coaches in 2006. That's pitiful, especially when half the players in college football are black.
But Smith and Dungy are more than their pigmentation. Let's remember that in the next week or two while they're being reduced to cutout characters.
There's something good going on in Chicago, and for all the unpleasant things that have been written and said about team owners here, they have been progressive in their recent hires. Sox and Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in particular believes he has a responsibility to hire minorities in key positions.
The day Smith hopes to see someday is coming. Perhaps not as fast as it should, but it's coming.
There was a time when Doug Williams had to answer question after question about being the first black starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. But black quarterbacks are common, so common that it's hardly an issue anymore. So common, it's almost a boring issue now.
Many African-Americans are proud of what is going to happen at the Super Bowl, and rightly so. History will be made in Black History month. Some who otherwise might not have considered a career in coaching will be pulled along by the momentum.
And maybe someday soon they will be known simply by what they are: coaches.