Super Bowl's Black Coaches Indicative of 'Great Strides'

Attorney Johnnie Cochran, right, shown in 2003 with, from left, former NFL players Kellen Winslow and Warren Moon, and attorney Cyrus Mehri.
Attorney Johnnie Cochran, right, shown in 2003 with, from left, former NFL players Kellen Winslow and Warren Moon, and attorney Cyrus Mehri. (By Amy Sancetta -- Associated Press)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

MIAMI, Jan. 29 -- The first Super Bowl matchup of teams led by black coaches is the culmination of a four-year push by people inside and outside the sport to open doors to minority coaches that had been closed for most of the NFL's history.

After he and Johnnie Cochran once threatened to sue the NFL over its hiring practices, Washington lawyer Cyrus Mehri said he is pleased with the changes the league has made to improve diversity in its head coaching ranks.

"I think you have to look at it as a great success," said Mehri, general counsel of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group formed to promote minority hiring at all levels of the NFL. "You know it's a great success when it matters to the owners. From a process point of view, they're doing everything we've asked them to do. Now, does that mean we've eradicated bias in the NFL? No. It's part of America. But we've made great strides. We couldn't have written a better script."

The next step, Mehri said, will be to try to persuade university presidents and NCAA administrators to enact similar measures for hiring in college football, which has only seven black coaches out of 119 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A). But for this week, he can savor the accomplishments of Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy and Chicago Bears Coach Lovie Smith.

"It couldn't have happened to two finer people and two finer coaches," Mehri said. "We're on cloud nine. We couldn't be happier. We came into this to change America's game. . . . Sunday gives us a chance to have America's game change America's consciousness."

The NFL had only two black head coaches -- Dungy and Herman Edwards, then with the New York Jets -- and a dismal history on the issue when Mehri and Cochran issued a scathing report in 2002 about the league's hiring practices. That led team owners, under the threat of litigation, to enact a rule late that year requiring each club with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate.

The leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group spawned by the efforts of Mehri and Cochran, who died in 2005, and named for the first black coach in NFL history, have always said they didn't want to tell the owners which coaches to hire. They simply wanted to create interviewing opportunities, they said. But those opportunities led to jobs. The league had seven black coaches this season, an all-time high.

Smith, in his third season as the Bears' coach, is one of seven black head coaches to have been hired since the minority interviewing rule -- widely called the Rooney Rule after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the chairman of the NFL's workplace diversity committee -- went into effect.

"If there was no Rooney Rule, Lovie Smith would not be the head coach of the Chicago Bears," said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. "Believe me. . . . This fills me with a great sense of pride."

The diversity movement has had its setbacks. It appears the number of black head coaches in the league will be down to six next season. The Arizona Cardinals' Dennis Green and the Oakland Raiders' Art Shell were fired recently. But Mehri and Wooten said they were delighted when Rooney hired young Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to replace the Steelers' retiring coach, Bill Cowher.

"Everything we're doing has exceeded our best expectations," Mehri said. "We really have had a cultural change. We don't win every time. We shouldn't win every time. But everyone is following the process."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company