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It’s past time

League more open to giving black coaches another shot

By Glenn Dickey
As published in print Jan. 14, 2002

Dennis Green
Former Vikings
head coach
Dennis Green

Sometimes it seems that with black head coaches in the NFL, it’s one step forward and two back. Before the season even ended, Dennis Green was fired by the Vikings.

Green had gotten the Vikings to the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons but was undone this year by a combination of circumstances that were out of his control. RB Robert Smith, a key element in the Vikings’ offense, retired in the offseason, and the Vikings could not replace him. OT Korey Stringer died after a training-camp workout.

When Vikings owner Red McCombs extended Randy Moss’ contract and gave him a huge signing bonus, Moss no longer had any incentive to play hard all the time. By Moss’ own admission, he plays when he wants to, and that’s torn the Vikings apart. But no owner is going to admit he made a mistake, so Green has become the scapegoat.

For weeks, the feeling throughout the NFL had been that Tony Dungy was on thin ice at Tampa Bay, and only a long run through the playoffs would have saved his job.

It will be interesting to see if Green and Dungy get a second chance. So far, the only black coach who has gotten one has been Ray Rhodes, and his second chance didn’t last long. After just one season in Green Bay, Rhodes was fired.

Probably the best example of the different approach owners take to black coaches is Art Shell’s situation. The first black coach in the NFL, with the then-Los Angeles Raiders, Shell had four winning seasons in his five full seasons with the team. But since he was fired after the ’94 season, he hasn’t had another chance, working primarily as an OL coach. Another good OL coach, Joe Bugel (who is white), had a losing record with Arizona but still got another chance at a head-coaching job with the Raiders. After a 4-12 season, he was fired.

There are some encouraging signs, though, that we will soon see more of a breakthrough for black head coaches. Traditionally, one of the paths to a head-coaching job has been from the role of coordinator. For a long time, black coaches never even got that high, but it’s happening now.

A candidate to become a head coach now seems to be Marvin Lewis, defensive coordinator of the Ravens. Herman Edwards went from assistant head coach/DB coach in Tampa Bay to head coach of the Jets, and he got the Jets into the playoffs in his first season with them.

Two more assistants, both defensive coordinators, are strong candidates: Lovie Smith of the Rams and Ted Cottrell of the Jets.

But Bill Walsh, who has been aiding the cause of black coaches for more than two decades, thinks there still aren’t enough young black coaches in the pipeline.

"There are a bunch of young black assistants coming into the league who have head-coaching potential," Walsh said. "I talked to Mike Shanahan at Denver, and he has a couple on his staff. Karl Dorrell, who coaches wide receivers, and Bobby Turner, the running backs coach, are both real possibilities. George Stewart on our 49ers staff has the potential to be a head coach. You can see these young coaches on staffs throughout the league.

"It takes time, though, for an assistant to get the experience he needs to cope with all the aspects of a head-coaching job."

Right now, Walsh doesn’t see many serious candidates, but he thinks NFL teams are eager to hire black coaches, and that was not the case in the past. Tyrone Willingham, who decided to go to Notre Dame from Stanford instead of moving up to the NFL, would have had a great opportunity.

Said Walsh: "I talked to the league office, and they told me there were two clubs (that) wanted Willingham. There would have been a bidding contest for him."

Jim Skipper, who was the assistant head coach for the Giants before leaving to coach the XFL’s San Francisco Demons last year, is a long shot, Walsh thinks.

"I don’t think the NFL would hire a head coach directly from the XFL," Walsh said, "so he’d probably have to come back to the NFL as an assistant. He is an excellent coach, though. He did a fine job with the Demons."

Walsh has been pushing the cause for black coaches since he was a head coach at Stanford in 1977 and ’78; Green was on his staff then. With the 49ers, Walsh established a program that brought in black former players at a low-level coaching position, enabling them to sharpen their coaching skills.

One such player was Rhodes, who worked his way up to defensive coordinator for the ’94 championship team in San Francisco before getting two chances as a head coach.

In the ’90s, Walsh worked with the NFL office on a program to help black NFL assistants prepare for being head coaches, including a video that instructed them on how to present themselves in interviews. He also made a 90-minute talk to the collegiate Black Coaches Association on the subject.

At the time, there was considerable resistance in the NFL to the idea of black head coaches because owners and general managers, all of them white, worked off the "old boy" network.

"I think we’re past that now," Walsh said. "There’s always going to be some general managers who want to hire somebody they know because they played with him or coached with him, and that eventually may work to the benefit of some black candidates, as there are more and more black players. But mostly, teams just want to hire a good coach."

Walsh also thinks that it’s possible there may be some black candidates coming from the college ranks.

"A coach who does well with a non-football school has a good chance to jump to the NFL," he said. "Denny Green had only one winning season at Stanford before he was hired. Willingham is a good coach, but he wasn’t exactly Terry Donahue (a Hall of Fame coach at UCLA) at Stanford."

So maybe the NFL will soon be at a point where ability is judged ahead of skin color for head coaches. It’s past time.

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Glenn Dickey is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and has covered pro football since 1967. He can be reached via e-mail at dickey@sfgate.com

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