A historic Sunday on deck in NFL

The biggest story leading up to Super Bowl XLI is not that Peyton Manning will finally get a chance to silence his critics or that the game features two historic franchises that haven’t won in far too long. Rather, it is that this year marks the first time in NFL history that one of the Super Bowl teams will be led by a black head coach. And this Sunday, not only one, but both sidelines will be patrolled by African-American coaches.

I should first note that I find it unfortunate that this is news at all. But it is. The issue of considering minority candidates when looking for a new head coach has been a focus for NFL franchises over the past five years. But obviously, just interviewing a minority candidate doesn’t make your team an immediate Super Bowl contender. Instead, when hiring a head coach, a franchise or university should do its best to hire the most qualified candidate they can, regardless of race. The process by which a candidate is hired should reflect an organization’s desire to succeed.

In this light, the coaches who will take the field this weekend, Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy, seem far less historic. In fact, it would be more surprising to see first-year head coaches Eric Mangini, whose Jets lost to the Patriots in an AFC Wild Card matchup, and Sean Peyton, whose Saints lost in the NFC Championship Game, because they both lack the experience and history of success shared by Smith and Dungy.

Despite what Bears’ General Manager Jerry Angelo might have said, Lovie Smith had already proven himself as a coach worthy of a long-term contract by the end of the 2005 season. The ’05 Bears went 11-5 and won a division title in Smith’s second year at the helm. The team’s 11 wins were the most for any second year coach in team history. Furthermore, the Bears’ six-win improvement from the ’04 season, in which Smith led the NFL’s youngest team to a 5-11 record, was tied for tops in the league. And in 2006, Smith only solidified the case for why he should be considered one of the NFL’s elite coaches: Chicago went 13-3, won the division, and is now en route to Miami.

Dungy’s tenure in Indianapolis has been longer and perhaps even more successful. The Colts’ records since Dungy took over in January 2002 speak for themselves: 10-6, 12-4, 12-4, 14-2 and 12-4. Sure, Dungy has had the aid of one of the most prolific quarterback-receiver tandems in history. But he has done plenty himself, most recently replacing Edgerrin James with the powerful duo of Dominic Rhodes and rookie Joseph Addai.

And so what is notable is not that these two men are coaching in the Super Bowl on Sunday, but that one of them hasn’t been there before.

I can’t pretend to understand what it means to these men to be pioneers in a sport that has visibly struggled with maintaining racially equitable practices in terms of hiring executives and coaches. But I can say that Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith seem as qualified and deserving as any coach in football to be where they are. That’s why they were hired in the first place.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the trend elsewhere, most notably among NCAA football programs. Of the more than 125 head coaching positions in Division I-A, only six (including the top job at the University of Miami, which went to Randy Shannon in December) are held by African-Americans. It does not make sense that in the NFL there were seven African-American coaches this season, or more than 20 percent of the coaching staff, two of whom are now off to Miami, but that there were only six African-Americans thought of as qualified to hold jobs in Division I-A. This becomes even more disconcerting when one considers that 45 percent of players in 2006 were African-American.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong, but I think Columbia would agree with me. Columbia hired Norries Wilson to come to the Ivy League and rejuvenate its beleaguered program. The university thereby made him the only African-American head coach in the Ancient Eight, and he was a completely worthy candidate. In 2004 he was one of five finalists for the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, after he coordinated a UConn offense that led the Big East in both total and scoring offense. In his first season of work in New York, he achieved just what Columbia had hoped he would, taking the Lions from 2-8 (0-7 Ivy) in 2005 to 5-5 (2-5) this past fall.

And so I say again: hiring practices should be based on finding candidates who are likely to succeed. It is my contention that if this were done in earnest, the issue of race would become null and void. Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are, at the very least, examples of how a powerful personality at the top can change an entire organization.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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