Jimmy Raye coached 37 years in the NFL. He worked for 10 different teams and helped several players get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he had never been to Canton, Ohio, for an enshrinement ceremony until last weekend.
Sitting in the crowd, he listened as former Bucs coach Tony Dungy proudly thanked so many who had helped him break barriers as the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl, and now the first in the Super Bowl era enshrined in Canton.
"I was very pleased and proud in such a momentous occasion that I was still around to witness an African-American coach in the modern era be inducted into the Hall of Fame," the 70-year-old Raye said. "We go way back, a long time."
He has known Dungy since the early 1970s, unsuccessfully recruiting him as a young Michigan State assistant, and they remained friends as NFL coaching colleagues. Despite that, he was still surprised when he heard his own name among those Dungy thanked.
"Finally, I'd like to say a special thank you to 10 men — Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Earnel Durden, Bob Ledbetter, Elijah Pitts, Jimmy Raye, Johnny Roland, Al Tabor, Lionel Taylor, and Allan Webb," Dungy said during his induction speech.
"Now those names might not be familiar to you, but those were the African-American assistant coaches in the NFL in 1977, my first year in the league. It was a small group of men, just 10 of them, if you can believe that, 10 African-American assistant coaches in the entire NFL. Many of them never got the chance to move up the coaching ladder like I did, but they were so important to the progress of this league."
"Those men were like my dad. They didn't complain about the lack of opportunities. They found ways to make the situation better. They were role models and mentors for me and my generation of young African-American players like Ray Rhodes, Terry Robiskie and Herm Edwards. We were in the '80s trying to decide if we could make coaching a career or not. Without those 10 coaches laying the groundwork, the league would not have the 200-plus minority assistant coaches it has today, and we would not have had Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy coaching against each other in Super Bowl XLI.
"So tonight as I join Fritz Pollard as the second African-American coach in the Hall of Fame, I feel like I'm representing those 10 men and all the African-American coaches who came before me and paved the way, and I thank them very, very much."
Raye, who had two stints on Bucs coaching staffs, in 1985-86 and 2012-13, was able to thank Dungy in person hours later, grateful for such a kind gesture.
"It was very heartfelt and very humbling that at the biggest moment in his professional life, he took time to acknowledge guys who were in the league at a different point in time, the predecessors who hopefully laid the groundwork and improved the integration of the league and the coaching staffs," Raye said. "It was very humbling and very rewarding."
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Of those 10 assistants from 1977 mentioned by Dungy, five — Buchanan, Ledbetter, Pitts, Tabor and Webb — have died in the four decades since. But the Tampa Bay Times caught up with the other five last week, each surprised to get calls from old friends late on a Saturday night, congratulating them on being recognized for helping another coach reach the pinnacle of the profession.
"It's flattering. At that time, in '77, there were not that many of us," said Roland, now 73 and retired in St. Louis, where he played with the Cardinals from 1966-72. "We were in the mold of, 'Let's do all we can do to try to bring as many other guys along as we can, because we had caught a break.' "
Taylor, the first receiver ever to catch 100 passes in a season in 1961, was a Steelers assistant from 1970-76, coaching in college and the NFL through 1990.
"I think it's great — I was just happy to be there with a good job in a great organization," said Taylor, who missed Dungy's playing days in Pittsburgh by a single season but has followed his career since he was a young assistant.
Taylor, now 80 and retired in New Mexico, said he still watches the NFL as a casual fan — "I don't spend all day on Sundays looking at the TV" — and has seen progress in the number of minority coaches in the NFL, but he still would like to see more.
"You use the word 'progress' — let me say this: If you left New York and you were going to L.A. and you made it as far as Phoenix, how much progress is that?" Taylor said.
Durden, 79, was once on a guest panel with Dungy on Good Morning America, talking in the mid-1980s about the push for a greater minority presence in NFL coaching, before Art Shell became the first African-American head coach in the modern era with the Raiders in 1989.
"I made reference at that time that I thought Tony would be a head coach in the NFL, from what I knew of him and his ability to bring young men together," said Durden, who left coaching and found success with car dealerships in California.
After Dungy's speech in Canton, Durden got a call from an old college teammate — he lettered at Oregon State from 1956-58, and would go on to coach in the NFL from 1971-86.
Durden wrote a book this year, Paying the Price: A Life in Football and Beyond, and still watches the NFL closely, still wanting more diversity in its coaching ranks.
"There's no question, I'm still very much in tune with who's on the sideline," he said. "I follow football, but I also follow the progression of African-American coaches, especially head coaches."
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Raye can remember Dungy as a football recruit at Parkside High in Jackson, Mich., where he was "maybe even a better high school basketball player." He tried to get him to stay close to home at Michigan State, but Dungy chose Minnesota.
"I always knew he had high football intellect," Raye said. "I heard when he was at Minnesota that he was a gym rat, opened the gym and closed the gym and watched a lot of tape, really a cerebral player."
Dungy's mention meant arguably as much to Brown, who never met him, having left coaching after serving as a Bucs assistant from 1976-78.
Brown, 74, had heard his name spoken from the podium in Canton before — in 2002, when Steelers receiver Lynn Swann was inducted, he took time to thank his old position coach at USC 30 years earlier.
"My receiver coach, Willie Brown, gave me the confidence my senior year to go out and achieve," Swann said that day.
After three seasons with the Bucs, with two young children and uncertainty about his future in coaching, Brown left the game in 1978, later finding success in owning and operating seven Wendy's franchises in California.
"There's two kinds of coaches: those who have been fired and those who are going to get fired," he said. "So I made the decision. At that time, the opportunity to be a head coach in the NFL, even on the college level, there wasn't any at all. To listen to Tony's speech, he lived the life I got away from."
Brown went back to USC in retirement, working as an academic advisor to student-athletes until he retired in May. To hear his name one more time from Dungy was a thrill, nearly 40 years after he stopped coaching.
"I had no idea — I was just watching, and my name was first," said Brown, who visited Grambling in 1978 to evaluate Doug Williams before the Bucs drafted him No. 1 overall. "It caught me by surprise. I felt proud and very thankful. It's a moment I'll always cherish. I've always admired him, and he's a great role model, for black coaches and just for people, in the way he's conducted himself."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.