This Super Bowl will be uniquely special for NFL


Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
Two-thirds of NFL players are African-American. Black head coaches were for too long a rare commodity. In the late 1990s, I was captivated - in my former life as a St. Petersburg Times columnist - watching and listening as three extraordinary coaches of color were infusing strength, structure and substance into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tony Dungy was an African-American boss with imposing white comrades - Monte Kiffin, equal to the best pro football defensive coordinators, along with Rod Marinelli (D-line), who is now Lions head coach. Also on an imposing staff were Lovie Smith (linebackers) and Herman Edwards (assistant head coach), who are black.
Together, the Dungy bunch built a contender but their Bucs never did make the Super Bowl. Herm left to be Jets head coach in 2000, and since jumped to the Chiefs. Smith moved the same year to become Rams defensive coordinator, on his way to a No. 1 job with the Bears.
Tony, after two playoff failures against the Eagles and one against the Rams, was stamped "Can't Make the Big One!" Bucs owners purged him after 2001. Jon Gruden was hired and, a few months later, Tampa Bay blazed to the Super Bowl XXXVII championship. Since then, the Bucs have been on a ghastly slide.
Dungy, Smith and Edwards had no bellowing agendas. No chips on shoulders. But what skill, style, patience and devotion. Edwards got his Jets to the playoffs; also this season's Chiefs. Both times he faced Tony's Colts, winning 41-0 in January 2003 but being eliminated 23-8 two weeks ago.
Sunday, there was dual historic NFC/AFC Championship happenings, Herm's old Tampa Bay pals Tony and Lovie became the first African-Americans to be head coaches in a Super Bowl.
A golfing chum of mine, reacting to my Sun column last week on Dungy and his remarkable but then-shortfalling Colts quarterback, Peyton Manning, said, "I don't give a darn about the color of Super Bowl coaches." That's good. Like it oughta be. Pro football is getting there, one achiever at a time ... nah, make that two.
"When it's NOT a big story, we will have made great progress," said the 48-year-old Smith. "I'm proud of what is happening and to be walking alongside Tony." After Edwards departed Dungy's crew in Tampa, 28-year-old Mike Tomlin was hired in 2001 to help Kiffin's defense. On Monday, the man from William and Mary succeeded Bill Cowher as Steelers head coach.
That makes six African-American in NFL coaching control, including Romeo Crennel (Browns) and Marvin Lewis (Bengals). Two others were recently fired, Art Shell (Raiders) and Denny Green (Cardinals).
Cheers for evolving maturity and ever-opening eyes of NFL decisionmakers. Eleven days from now, the Super Bowl -- in its 41st chapter -- is assured of having its first winning head coach who is black.
Oh, though Kiffin never became an NFL head coach, and as his 67th birthday nears that possibility is slight. But the bloodlines are rich; Monte's son was just named to lead the Oakland Raiders. Lane Kiffin, 31, had been offensive coordinator at USC and becomes the league's youngest head coach.
What a coaching cradle were the Dungy years in Tampa. Beyond the five on Tony's staff who are currently head coaches elsewhere in the NFL, three front-office guys from the period are general managers in other cities: Rich McKay (Falcons), Tim Ruskell (Seahawks) and Jerry Angelo (Bears). Ruskell and Angelo have led their teams to the last two Super Bowls.
You know a lot about Dungy but his story will get mass expansion during the 275 remaining hours of overhyped, overexposed, overbearing Super Bowl buildup. Lovie will be fresher meat for hundreds of voracious Super Bowl XLI media.
So tight is the Dungy-Smith-Edwards triumvirate that, 17 days ago, when Tony's Colts whipped Herm's Chiefs to open AFC playoffs, Lovie (whose Bears had an NFC bye) drove three hours from Chicago to observe his buddies. The night before, with their wives, the onetime Bucs coaches shared dinner, stories and laughs at P.F. Chang's.
Smith is a non-curser, like his "rival" Dungy. They are fellows with strong Christian faith. Players on the Colts and Bears, many prone to typical NFL locker-room language, are apt to cool tongues when Tony or Lovie is around. That is not fear, it is respect.
Lovie is repeatedly asked about his name. It's not a nickname. Smith's parents, an alcoholic dad and an indefatigable mom, were expecting a girl. When a husky male appeared, they went with the planned "Lovie," which honors Smith's great-aunt Lavana.
He became part of a classic Texas scene, the "Friday Night Lights" phenomenon of high school football that fuels proud little towns like Big Sandy. Located 100 miles east of Dallas, 80 miles from the Louisiana line, Big Sandy has 1,300 residents and is home base for Ambassador College, sponsored by the Radio Church of God.
Smith was in a senior class of 34. His heroics as a linebacker helped that season's Big Sandy team go 14-0, setting a national scoring record with 824 points (averaging 60), perpetuating a three-year winning streak of 42.
Big Sandy later produced another substantial football player, Oklahoma Sooners running back David Overstreet. He was drafted in 1981's first round by the Miami Dolphins but never excelled in the NFL. Overstreet died in 1984, swerving his car off a road and crashing into a gas-station's pumps that exploded.
Smith became a standout linebacker at the University of Tulsa before returning to coach at Big Sandy High in 1980. A year later he was at a Tulsa high school and then spent two seasons on the football staff at his alma mater. Lovie's coaching journey, from 1983, involved collegiate stops at Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State prior to Dungy calling him to the Bucs in 1996.
XLI, it is uniquely special.
Contact columnist Hubert Mizell at mizell3@cox.net.

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