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Where Are Black NFL Head Coaches? : Several Very Able Candidates Wait . . . and Wait

April 28, 1987|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

There is no denying that Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, wants to become a head coach in the National Football League.

His feelings are no different from those of any other man climbing the ladder to success.

What he doesn't want to become is a savior, or the leader of some social cause. Like it or not, though, Dungy has reluctantly become the people's choice as the NFL's first modern-day black head coach.

He is so uncomfortable in the role that he has put a one-year moratorium on discussing the subject. Dungy, only 31, has vowed to remain silent in the wake of the Al Campanis controversy, which has refocused attention on the minority hiring practices of professional sports franchises.

These days, there is particular light being shone on the NFL, which has not hired a black head coach since the league's formative years in the middle '20s, when Fritz Pollard coached the Hammond Pros of Hammond, Ind., for three seasons. There are black coaches in pro basketball and there have been black managers in major league baseball in recent years.

But there are no black NFL head coaches. And many people want to know why. Or, rather, why not.

Dungy says he doesn't have the answers.

"People have tried to make me the spokesman," he said. "I don't want to be a spokesman. Everyone wants to make me the No. 1 candidate. I don't know if that's good in a lot of ways."

Dungy said that too much attention on him only deflects attention from some other worthy candidates. Among them are Johnny Roland of the Chicago Bears, Billie Matthews of the Kansas City Chiefs, Dennis Green of the San Francisco 49ers, Jimmy Raye of the Atlanta Falcons, Willie Brown of the Raiders and Al Lavan of the Dallas Cowboys.

"It's the easy way out, just to pick one guy and wait for him," Dungy said. "But maybe 15 other guys get passed up for that guy."

Dungy's uneasiness is shared in front offices around the league and in the NFL office, where the question of when a black head coach will be hired is now being asked routinely.

"Unfortunately, we were not the first league to hire a black (head coach)," said Joe Browne, a spokesman for Commissioner Pete Rozelle's office. "And that's the focus of the media and I don't know if it's entirely fair."

The NFL maintains that great strides are being made to hire and promote black employees and coaches across the board. Browne and others say it's only a matter of time before a black head coach is hired; that Rozelle himself addressed the issue in a December meeting with seven black employees in the league.

"The focus of the media has been the lack of a head coach, and there's no way of explaining that," Browne said. "On the other hand, Pete is interested in hiring positions throughout the league and not just with coaches."

The numbers show that progress is being made. In 1979, there were only nine black assistant coaches in the league. Today, there are 39. Six new black assistants were hired since the end of last season.

The big hire, of course, rests with the league's owners and general managers.

And Matthews, who moved from the Indianapolis Colts to the Chiefs this season, doesn't expect things to change soon.

"The power structure is such that those jobs have gone to Caucasians," Matthews said. "That's the way things have been and people are reluctant to change, especially when dealing with minorities like blacks. It's hard to turn over power to someone that has long been looked down upon."

Art Modell, president of the Cleveland Browns, said that some NFL teams may be waiting around for someone to make the first move.

"It's coming," Modell said. "I can't predict when. All I can tell you is that I'm optimistic that the barriers are down."

Modell said that the growing number of qualified black assistants makes a move to a black head coach inevitable. He said it'll probably happen within five years.

However, some NFL black assistant coaches interviewed had statistics of their own.

Last year, for instance, there were six openings for head coaches. But none of the black coaches contacted for this story were interviewed for the positions.

In fact, it is believed that only two black coaches, Dungy and Jimmy Raye, have been interviewed for head coaching positions in the last 50 years.

Dungy was interviewed in 1986 by the Philadelphia Eagles for the job that eventually went to Buddy Ryan. And Raye, the former Ram assistant now with Atlanta, was up for the job in New Orleans that eventually went to Jim Mora.

"As far as my career aspirations, I'm optimistic," Raye said of his chances of someday becoming a head coach. "But how realistic that is I'm not sure. There's no evidence pointing that progress has been made. I mean, there hasn't been (a black head coach) in 60-something years."

Some black coaches were frustrated by the way some of last year's openings were handled. Openings in Buffalo and Tampa were filled by two former NFL coaches, Marv Levy and Ray Perkins, who were out of the league at the time.

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