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Black coaches open up the field

Minorities struggling for gains in football applaud a Super Bowl milestone.

January 23, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

For all his years in the game of football, Al Lavan struggles to describe the emotions of the past couple of days.

Lavan spent almost two decades as an assistant coach in the National Football League, starting in the mid-1970s as one of the few African Americans in the professional ranks.

On Sunday afternoon, he watched the NFL playoffs at home in Delaware and rooted not for the teams but for their coaches -- Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts.

The 70-year-old Lavan found himself yelling at the television screen as Smith and then Dungy became the first African Americans to guide their squads into the Super Bowl.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro football: An article in Tuesday's Section A about black coaches gave Al Lavan's age as 70. The Delaware State coach is 60.

"It was like 30 years of emotion," Lavan said. "I looked over at my wife and she was crying."

From pro football down through college, all the way to high school fields, Sunday's watershed moment reverberated across a nation of black coaches who say they are still fighting for equal opportunity.

UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell, who has spoken about the pressures of being a minority in his job, kept an eye on the games while spending time with family. Elijah Asante, the coach at Los Angeles Jordan High, hoped for a trickle-down effect.

"This takes away the taboo," Asante said. "The argument that black coaches can't win is debunked."

The timing could not have been more meaningful for Mike Tomlin, who counts Smith and Dungy as mentors, helping him get hired as defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings.

As Tomlin, 34, watched the games Sunday, cheering like the others, his telephone rang; the Pittsburgh Steelers were calling to make him the first minority head coach in that franchise's history.

"It was awesome," Tomlin said at a Monday news conference.

Lavan was struck by the contrast. In his first years with the Atlanta Falcons, he used to commiserate with black colleagues from around the league.

"There may have been three of us, maybe four," Lavan said. "We were trying to figure out a way to make something happen."

Progress came slowly, even in a sport in which the majority of players were black. Each year, teams hired a few more assistants. Eventually, African Americans made it to the rank of coordinator.

It wasn't until 1989 that Art Shell became the first black head coach of the modern NFL era, hired by the Oakland Raiders.

By that time, Dungy had broken into the league as an assistant with the Steelers and was establishing a reputation.

Along the way, there were interviews for head coaching jobs that, in his opinion, were less than sincere. In one instance, team officials asked if he would be willing to shave his beard.

Although he never walked out of such interviews, Dungy said that "after a couple of them were over I felt like, you know, I should have."

Tampa Bay finally hired him in 1996 and he went to Indianapolis in 2002.

A few years ago, there were only two black coaches among 32 teams. With Tomlin's hiring, there are now six.

By comparison, the National Basketball Assn. has 12 black coaches this season and Major League Baseball has two black managers as of this winter.

Talking about the NFL, Smith of the Bears said: "Each year, you take a step. That's all you're looking for. You look for steps."

Change has been accelerated by the so-called Rooney Rule, instituted in 2002, which mandates that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for each coaching job that becomes available.

"It gives people an opportunity to present themselves, their ideas, their visions," Tomlin said. "Maybe the rule opened a door for me."

Black coaches say that with Smith and Dungy reaching Super Bowl XLI, which will be played Feb. 4 in South Florida, their cause has taken another step forward.

"There's a process going on here," said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group for black NFL coaches and executives.

The success of Dungy and Smith, he said, "shows that when people are given the opportunity, they can do the job."

UCLA's Dorrell, once an assistant for the Denver Broncos, says he believes that as the NFL brings in more minorities, the college game will follow.

Of 119 NCAA Division I-A teams, only six had black head coaches, according to a recent study.

"We look at the NFL as being the highest level," Dorrell said. "When we see what they're doing to address hirings, that can be the driving force."

At Southern California high schools, black coaches say they have more opportunities than their colleagues at higher levels, but still face discrimination at predominantly white schools.

"We have guys applying for jobs in different areas, and they have as much chance as a snowball in hell," said Willie Donerson, the coach at Compton Dominguez High for 24 years. "It's been that way for quite some time."

Still, some high school coaches take encouragement from last weekend's NFL games.

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