Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fennelly: Path for next Tony Dungy still a rocky one

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On Saturday, Tony Dungy will become the first African-American head coach in the modern era to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Raiders great Art Shell went in primarily as a player. Saturday will be history.

Just as it was history the night Dungy became the first African-American NFL coach to win Super Bowl XLI in 2007, when his Indianapolis Colts defeated his friend Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears.

"Just like I said at the Super Bowl, I'm happy, I'm proud," Dungy said. "But I also I know I shouldn't have been the first."

He thought of other men.

Men like Eddie Robinson and Florida A&M's Jake Gaither. Men like John Merritt and Willie Jeffries. Head coaches at historically black colleges who never got a shot at the NFL.

"This is basically a thank you," Dungy said. "These are the men who laid the foundation, who might already be here in Canton if they'd gotten the same opportunity to be a head coach in this league."

He thought of those who went before him. He thought of those who will follow him — and who will face numbers that still speak to a stark reality.

A recent article by ESPN's Mike Sando laid it out: Of the 22 first-time head coaches hired in the NFL over the past five years, only one has been a minority: Todd Bowles. Sando's story noted that the ratio was nearly identical two decades ago.

"The numbers didn't surprise me at all," Dungy said. "You kind of observe it. I'm going to talk a little bit about it in my speech."

Yes, there are six minority head coaches in the league.

"We've definitely come a long way from where we were," Dungy said. "But if you're an up-and-coming assistant coach, are you as likely to become a head coach for the first time if you're a minority? You look at the numbers and you'd have to say no, you're not."

When Dungy came into the league as a player in 1977 with the Steelers, "there were only 10 black assistant coaches in the whole league." And there was 1993. Dungy was working for the Vikings.

"We had the No. 1 defense in football," he said. "I was the (defensive) coordinator. That was the one year I was discouraged. There were seven head coach openings and I didn't get one call. I don't mean no interviews — not one phone call."

We've come a long way. But there is still more road to travel.

The Rooney Rule was created in 2002 to ensure that minority coaches would be interviewed. One reason the rule was created was because both Dungy and his friend and mentor, the late Dennis Green, had been fired despite all their winning.

"The Rooney Rule, the genius of it, is it made you slow down, think outside the box, take your time," Dungy said. "Lately, people haven't been doing that. It's, 'Let me interview a minority or two as fast as I can and get about the business of hiring people quick, the hot name.' I think we've missed the spirit of the rule. … The numbers pre-Rooney, post-Rooney, they're all the same."

Dungy blazed trails for others. It's a profound legacy. Herm Edwards, who coached under Dungy with the Bucs, became a head coach. Dungy brought Smith from college football to the Bucs in 1996. In 2001, Dungy added college coaches Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell to the Bucs staff. Smith, Tomlin and Caldwell are the only other black head coaches to have led teams to the Super Bowl. Dungy guys.

"What about Tony Dungy is not historic?" Tomlin said before Dungy was elected to the Hall. "For guys like me, he was a living, breathing role model. He really provided great clarity in terms of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it."

"I'm proud of the fact that I brought them into the league," Dungy said. "I'm way more proud of that than being first at anything."

Dungy thought of Chuck Noll. The Steelers' Hall of Fame coach hired Dungy as a defensive backs coach in 1981, when Dungy was 25. Three years later, Noll made Dungy the first black defensive coordinator in the NFL.

"I'll always be grateful to Coach Noll," Dungy said. "He thought I was a good, young guy who could help us. That was something that didn't happen for many African-American coaches at that time."

Saturday is a big night for Tony Dungy. It's history. That isn't lost on him.

Neither are those names.

Robinson, Gaither, Merritt, Jeffries …

"I know I shouldn't have been the first," Dungy said, "but I know I won't be the last."

 
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