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The Tony Dungy-Lovie Smith Super Bowl didn’t erase Black NFL coaches’ perception problem

Black quarterbacks have taken root in a way that Black coaches have not

PHOENIX — Beginning Monday evening at the NFL’s annual Super Bowl carnival known as media day, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts will be peppered with questions about the significance of two African American quarterbacks making history when they face each other Sunday in Super Bowl LVII.

In 2007, Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith faced a similarly historic situation when they became the first African American head coaches to face each other in the Super Bowl. They were also peppered with similar questions about what it all meant.

“We knew that it was a big deal,” Dungy said during a recent phone interview. “What you tried to do was acknowledge it, but not let it take over the narrative. The big deal is still winning the game, and still winning for your organization and your city and your players. But we knew the significance of it, and that was kind of the thought, that, ‘Hey, we’ve got to acknowledge the significance, but not let it become the overriding thing.’ ”

Shortly before that Super Bowl game, which Indianapolis won, Mike Tomlin had been hired as coach of the iconic Pittsburgh Steelers. The presence of Smith and Dungy was heralded, especially by the NFL, as a sign that the league had turned a long-awaited corner. Dungy thought so, too.

“At the time, I thought it was going to be a breakthrough,” Dungy said. “They’re talking about us taking teams to the Super Bowl, getting to the mountaintops. Mike had just gotten hired two weeks before the game and he didn’t have to get the downtrodden job. He’s hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were coming off a Super Bowl the year before … and, you think, ‘Man, OK, we got two African American coaches in the Super Bowl, and this young guy gets hired by one of the most iconic franchises in the game, and we’re turning the corner.’

“It just felt like there’s some momentum building. But somewhere along the line, we lost that momentum.”

In retrospect, the moment meant nothing.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy (right) and Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith (left) meet at midfield after the Colts team won Super Bowl XLI 29-17 on Feb. 4, 2007, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty images

Sixteen years after that historic moment, the NFL continues to have a conflicted relationship with African Americans head coaches. While there are more Black team executives than ever, there are only two African American head coaches, Tomlin and the newly hired DeMeco Ryans of the Houston Texans.

There used to be the same deep-seated resistance to African American quarterbacks. The presence of Mahomes and Hurts is a sign that the resistance has waned, if not completely disappeared. Indeed, Black quarterbacks are being embraced and are likely to become as regular a presence in Super Bowls as wide receivers and running backs.

Black quarterbacks have taken root in a way that Black head NFL coaches have not. Why? Why does there continue to be an ongoing issue with Black head coaches and not with Black quarterbacks?

The answer is simple: Black quarterbacks and the style of play they represent are needed to win. Critics used to say that Black people were not capable of playing any of the so-called thinking positions: free safety, middle linebacker, center, guard and, of course, quarterback.

The notion is now laughable. Most NFL defenses are made up predominantly of Black players. While it’s taken decades for NFL offenses to buy into the more wide-open style of Lamar Jackson and Hurts, even dyed-in-the-wool advocates of the pocket passer agree that quarterbacks must possess a component of escapability if they aspire to play in the NFL.

“Coaches have been able to say, ‘I can look at different ways to use my quarterback now,’ ” Dungy said. “And it doesn’t have to just fit in this premade idea that we had before.

“People are now saying, ‘Well, this style of quarterback — Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson — we’ve seen it … They can take you to a Super Bowl. Colin Kaepernick can take you to a Super Bowl. That athletic, multifaceted throw/run/athletic guy, that can take me to a Super Bowl.’ ”

Unfortunately for aspiring Black head coaching candidates, there is not a similar sense that Black head coaches are an absolute necessity to compete for a championship.

“That’s because there are more options,” Dungy said. “There are more coaching candidates. If I’m an owner and I’m looking for a quarterback who can take me to a Super Bowl, there is a very, very limited amount of candidates. If I’m looking for a coach, there’s a ton of candidates. And there’s a ton of good candidates. If I look at the landscape and, say, there’s 200 coaches that could take me to a Super Bowl, and 30 of them are black and 170 are white, I may never have to get to that Black candidate because I can go through three or four other guys who are very good. When it comes down to quarterback, I can’t do that. I can only go to 10 or 15 and then I’m going to run out.”

From left to right: Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, coach Matt Rhule, president of business operations Tom Glick and general manager Marty Hurney attend an introductory news conference for Rhule at Atrium Health Dome in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Jan. 8, 2020.

David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

When Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper hired his first coach in 2020, he hired Baylor head coach Matt Rhule, whom he said reminded Tepper of himself. Few African American candidates could have fit that bill.

“That’s exactly what he said,” Dungy recalled. “ ‘And that’s what I’m looking for: short-order cook. He comes in scruffy, looks ragged, and I know he worked hard and he reminds me of me, so I’m going to hire him.’ And that’s OK if that’s what you want, if that’s what you’re looking for. I would approach it a different way. I would say, I don’t know if he could take us to a Super Bowl, I might need to look for somebody who’s not like me.”

Tepper fired Rhule two years later.

Twenty years ago, the NFL introduced the Rooney Rule as a way to improve hiring practices and increase the number of minorities hired in head coach, general manager, and executive positions. That same year the rule was created in 2003, the Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 for not interviewing any minority candidates before hiring Steve Mariucci as their new head coach.

The rule has been marked as much by its effectiveness as by efforts by team owners to circumvent the spirit of the rule. Team owners and executives have used the Rooney Rule to such an advantage that they don’t want to get rid of it because it gives them cover. They can conduct sham interviews in order to check boxes before hiring the candidate of their choice. In February 2022, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a federal civil lawsuit against the NFL, the New York Giants, the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins organizations, alleging racial discrimination.

Aspiring Black quarterbacks won’t have to file any such lawsuits. The historic presence of Hurts and Mahomes on Sunday has assured a consistent Black presence at football’s most important position.

The larger problem Black coaches battle is one of perception, and that cannot be erased by a rule. 

When Dungy was head coach of the Colts, whenever they faced the New England Patriots, sportswriters and broadcasters routinely cast the game as a matchup between Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick — never Patriots quarterback Tom Brady against Dungy or Dungy against Belichick.

Similarly, white offensive coordinators are routinely singled out for innovative playcalling in support of their head coach. Black offensive coordinators rarely are.

This has nothing to do with Rooney Rule and everything to with media creations that help maintain the status quo.

Washington Redskins offensive consultant Sherman Lewis watches his team warm up before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 18, 2009, in Landover, Maryland.

Nick Wass/AP Photo

Former head coach Mike Holmgren had a succession of white offensive coordinators — Andy Reid and Mariucci among them. Each was credited with being a great offensive mind and used that luster to catapult themselves into head coaching positions.

“Mike Holmgren called all the plays, it was Mike Holmgren’s system,” Dungy said. “But all the guys who came up under Mike got the benefit of being the star — Steve Mariucci, Andy [Reid] … They go on and get jobs.”

Sherman Lewis became the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator in 1992 under Holmgren, and held the position until 1999. Lewis never became a head coach.

“When Sherman Lewis gets elevated to that position, then it’s Mike Holmgren’s system. And Sherman Lewis doesn’t call the plays,” Dungy said. “Well, Andy Reid didn’t call the plays, Steve Mariucci didn’t call the plays. But somehow, then it became Mike’s system when Sherman was running it.”

A similar situation unfolded when Doug Pederson was Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City.

“When Doug Peterson is Andy’s offensive coordinator, then Doug Peterson’s great, and [former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator] Matt Nagy’s great, and he gets a job at Chicago,” Dungy said. “Now Eric [Bieniemy] gets to that position, and well, it’s Andy Reid’s system, and we don’t know who to give credit to.”

Eric Bieniemy has been the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator since 2018.

The examples go on and on.

Jim Caldwell was a brilliant offensive coach who helped launch Peyton Manning’s NFL career as the Colts quarterback coach. Look at Manning’s numbers before Caldwell and after Caldwell.

“Jim got there in 2002, Peyton was a .500 [quarterback], touchdowns to interceptions about 2-to-1. Good stats, not great stats. After Jim Caldwell, that’s when he started putting up these 49-touchdown, 10-interception years, winning 80% of his games … But people would say Peyton Manning is talented and self-made,” Dungy said.

Caldwell became the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator in 2012 and helped quarterback Joe Flacco enjoy his best season as a pro. Flacco led the Ravens to a championship in Super Bowl XLVII with Caldwell as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Caldwell goes to Detroit as head coach and Matthew Stafford gets to the playoffs for the only time in his career up to that point.

“Nobody will ever look at that and say, ‘Man, Jim Caldwell really had a major impact on three really good quarterbacks and helped two of them get to Super Bowls,’ because that doesn’t fit the narrative,” Dungy said.

Pep Hamilton, the Texans offensive coordinator, is yet another example of how African American coaches so often live in the shadows. As offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts in 2013, Hamilton coached quarterback Andrew Luck to a second consecutive Pro Bowl season. Hamilton was quarterbacks coach with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020 and played a key role in Justin Herbert becoming offensive rookie of the year. Hamilton was Smith’s passing game coordinator for the Texans and helped make Davis Mills into a passable NFL quarterback. Yet we don’t hear Hamilton’s name.

“For some reason, with those guys, that doesn’t get momentum,” Dungy said.

What appeared to be a watershed moment in 2007 with Dungy and Smith was compromised by a stark reality: NFL teams must hire Black quarterbacks if they hope to remain competitive. There is not the same urgency to hire Black head coaches.

How far has the NFL come since 2007 when Dungy and Smith made history as Super Bowl head coaches to 2023 when Hurts and Mahomes are Super Bowl quarterbacks? Black quarterbacks have become needed and necessary commodities, but for too many team owners, Black head coaches remain a luxury item.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.