A forest fire of emotion continues to burn in a silent, yet furious fashion among some black assistant coaches in the National Football League.

It seems the latest fuel came as an unintended effect of the news that Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman is considering David Shula as a leading candidate to become his new head coach.

Shula is the 26-year-old son of Don Shula, the highly successful Miami Dolphins head coach. His coaching resume entails a total of four years as an assistant, with Miami's receivers. If hired, he would become the youngest NFL head coach in the modern era.

"We're always being told that being in the right place at the right time is important," says Jimmy Raye, Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator. "I guess this is a case of being born in the right place at the right time."

"Don Shula is a big name in this league," said Earnel Durden, San Diego's running backs coach, "and I guess his son is riding his wave."

"My reaction?" said Bobby Mitchell, Redskins assistant general manager. "You mean after I stopped laughing?"

Now, read deeper. Raye, Durden and Mitchell aren't bonded solely by their curiosity as to how David Shula apparently has captivated the interest of Braman, a Miami businessman.

Rather, they are bonded, philosophically, as black men who wonder how there have been 62 coaching changes (31 in each conference) over the past decade in the NFL without a black having been named head coach.

There are four openings for head coaches in the league now, at St. Louis, New Orleans, Houston and Philadelphia. Check the grapevine and you'll find that a 64-year trend in the NFL remains intact: No black is being named as a possible replacement in any of the four cities.

Major league baseball has had three black managers (Frank Robinson, Larry Doby and Maury Wills) in its history, all of whom had limited success. The National Basketball Association has had 12 black head coaches, with league titles being won by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones in Boston, Al Attles with Golden State and Lenny Wilkins in Seattle.

The NFL has not had a black head coach. Willie Wood, the former Green Bay Packer from Washington, D.C., coached in the World Football League and Canadian Football League, but not in the NFL.

To some blacks in the business today, all of this stings plenty.

"Some reporter from Cleveland asked me 10 years ago when I thought there was going to be a black head coach in the NFL," says Mitchell. "I said call me in 10 years. His time is up. Why don't you call me in about five years?"

Tony Dungy, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator, who is viewed as a rising star among black coaches, says of the apparent rise of David Shula, "If people would just understand it for what it is: When an owner hires a guy, it's his prerogative to hire whomever he wants.

"But just don't say that there aren't any blacks who aren't qualified. Just say that there are no owners who want to hire a black as head coach. Don't say it's not the right time or the right place."

"You're powerless to do anything about it. You're better off not saying anything if the only purpose is to make yourself feel better," says Raye, 39, who has been an assistant for 14 years (nine in the NFL) and who served as offensive coordinator for the Rams last year when Eric Dickerson rushed for a league-record 2,105 yards, before leaving to rejoin his old boss, Leeman Bennett, at Tampa Bay.

There currently are 32 black assistant coaches in the NFL (excluding strength coaches), which is more than ever before. This includes three blacks who have risen to the rank of coordinator, also an unprecedented total: Dungy with the Pittsburgh defense, Billie Matthews with the Indianapolis offense and Raye, with the Buccaneers.

Several owners and executives in the NFL point to this numerical progress with pride. The consensus among owners is that the time is fast-approaching when there will be a black head coach. If "when" is the most common question, then "soon" is the most common answer.

The NFL also is sure to note that since 1981, the league has sponsored a program during training camp in which nearly 1,000 coaches from the nation's 48 predominantly black colleges have attended, to learn new techniques and gain increased visibility. Grambling Coach Eddie Robinson has lauded the program.

Durden recalls that when he came into the NFL coaching ranks in 1971, there were only four black assistant coaches; Emlen Tunnell, Roosevelt Taylor and Lionel Taylor were the others. Of that group, only Durden, 39, remains in the league, a 14-year assistant coach.

Durden says that many black coaches leave the NFL because of a lack of upward mobility. He says of the recent increase in the number of black assistants, "It's a limited progress, a 'Keep him quiet' type of progress.

"I'm not sure that (the consideration of David Shula as head coach) is not the ultimate slap to black coaches. When owners come out and say black coaches don't have experience, that's erroneous. That's wrong. That's an escape. I don't accept it at all."

The view is different from the NFL management side:

"Choosing a head coach is like choosing a wife: it's a very personal thing," Commissioner Pete Rozelle says. "(NFL owners) basically want a coach who will give them the best chance for winning. I think there will be a black coach, though I can't predict when or where."

"There have been strides made," says Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns for the past 25 years. "When a qualified man comes along, I don't think there is any owner who wouldn't hire him. That color situation is long, long gone.

"You have to look to the line of succession -- 95 percent to 97 percent (of NFL head coaches) came through the ranks of NFL assistants. If you accept that as fact, then somebody among the current 32 (NFL black assistants) with extraordinary talents will get that opportunity. All the great ones -- Lombardi, Landry, Knox and Shula -- were assistant coaches.

"If you're suggesting collusion (among NFL owners), there never has been and never will be. This is too competitive a sport; everybody wants to win. I don't care whether the coach is black, white or Chinese."

"I think we're coming close to (a black head coach in the NFL)," says Tex Schramm, president and minority owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a team that has had only one coach in its 26 years, Tom Landry. "The natural process is taking place and it's going to happen. Yes, it's a sore subject in the NFL because people in the league recognize that it is not the result of any degree of racism.

"I don't think the racial issue has much of an effect in sports because the desire to win supercedes any prejudices of that nature. One of the biggest problems is that in nearly every case where the (black NFL) players have the ability to become a head coach, they go into other businesses where they feel they can do much better."

Of course, some NFL owners say in pointed terms that the major colleges haven't had an exemplary record in hiring black head coaches, either. Currently, Northwestern's Dennis Green is the only black head coach in Division I-A football.

These owners say that when an NFL team looks to hire a head coach, they often consider the most successful coaches in the major colleges (as well as NFL assistants) and there just aren't any blacks there. Black coaches call this passing the buck.

A breakdown of the 32 black assistants in the NFL shows that three teams have no black coaches (the Rams, Minnesota and New Orleans) and 19 teams have one black assistant, including the Redskins, who employ Hall of Famer Charley Taylor to coach their wide receivers. Raye says, once upon a time, the charge of "tokenism" may have held true in the NFL -- that a club hired just one black assistant, whether he was capable or not, either to offset any discrimination charge it might have faced otherwise or to handle problems with the team's black players, or for both reasons.

Nowadays, though, Raye says he is convinced that if a black coach isn't capable, it is unlikely he will endure.

"The black players watch closely to see if (the black assistant) can teach techniques or if he was hired just to settle the so-called 'black problems' on the team," Raye says. "If he was hired for that second reason, the players would question the guy who hired him and the (black assistant) would lose all respect in the locker room."

Lionel Taylor became the first black coordinator in the NFL, directing the offense of the Los Angeles Rams in 1980. The Rams made it to the Super Bowl that season and to some it seemed that Taylor, 45 at the time, was certain to become the first black head coach in the NFL.

The next season, though, the Rams fell to 6-10, their offense failed miserably near season's end, and Coach Ray Malavasi fired Taylor. Next, Taylor says he was unable to land a job with Detroit, so he became an assistant coach at Oregon State.

Now, Taylor is the head coach at Texas Southern. Just like that, nobody says anymore that Lionel Taylor will become the NFL's first black head coach.

"I hate to separate them by blacks and whites," Taylor says, "but how many (white) head coaches have failed in the NFL and then get hired as a head coach somewhere else in the league?"

Of his parting with the Rams and Malavasi, Taylor only will say, "A good black coach can easily be viewed as a threat to a white coach, but only if the white coach is worried about his job."

Depending upon who you talk to, the leading candidates to become the first black coach now are Dungy, Raye or perhaps Ken Houston, the former safety for the Oilers and Redskins, who coached the defensive backs at Houston this year. All of these coaches say they would like to become a head coach.

The Colts' Matthews has been an assistant for 15 years (six in the NFL) and has a reputation for precision and detail. But he is 55, which borders dangerously close to the category called Too Old.

Dungy's Pittsburgh defense has rated near the top of the conference in his two years as the league's youngest coordinator. Dungy is considered a bright young football mind, although since he is just 30 (four years older than David Shula) and has just five years of coaching experience (one more than Shula) he is viewed by most as still too young and inexperienced to become a head coach.

Dungy says, "I just try to put my faith in God. I try to learn as much as I can. That may lead to me becoming a head coach. (But) it's not an obsession with me. If it happens, it happens. In the right situation, I think I could do real well."

Raye had been considered for the head coaching job with the now-defunct Washington Federals of the U.S. Football League, but lost out to Ray Jauch, who later was deposed. Raye says he has had no interviews for a head coaching job before or since.

"I thought I'd get an interview for the Indianapolis job last year (Rod Dowhower was hired). I was in disbelief when I didn't get it. I figured, 'Geez, at least I could get an interview,' " Raye says.

"But once the malice sets in, you realize that in this business you have just got to survive. It's tough on the mind to put it all together."

The Redskins' Mitchell feels as though he has seen and heard it all before. He has been in the NFL for nearly three decades and is a member of the Hall of Fame. He was in the same Cleveland backfield as Jim Brown and later became the first black to play on George Preston Marshall's Redskins.

Mitchell says now he has no interest in being a head coach, but has a keen interest in seeing some other black take on that role.

Mitchell says he recalls that sometime in the late-1970s "somebody asked Pete Rozelle who he thought was qualified to become the league's first black coach.

"Rozelle mentioned Willie Davis, the former Packer, who has become so successful in business (a millionaire, who owns several radio stations) and who wouldn't come back to football. Why should he? And Rozelle also named Irv Cross, who had become successful with the (television) networks and who wouldn't come back to football, either. What could he get out of it?

"He had been commissioner since 1960 and after all that time, Rozelle could come up with only two names," Mitchell says. "That knocked me back a ways.

"Then somebody asked Jack Pardee (then Redskins coach) the same question and he gave the same two names. All that said to me was that, in our football society, no one knows blacks. No one looks at them. That's a sad commentary."

Ask Mitchell to name the leading candidates to become a black head coach and he says, "There aren't any. See, to be a leading candidate you have to be in the minds of owners and I don't know what's in the owners' minds."

So what will it take for a black to be hired as a head coach in the NFL?

Says Larry Little, the former all-pro offensive lineman in Miami who is the head coach at Bethune-Cookman, "There might have to be black ownership in the NFL before there will be a black head coach.

"There have been so many players in the NFL who played in black colleges. Someone must have coached them in college, right?"

"All it will take," says Ken Houston, "is for some guy to step forward."

Mitchell says he hopes that when a black is named as an NFL head coach, he inherits more talented teams than Doby, Wills and Robinson inherited in baseball.

The Steelers' Dungy says that once the first black head coach has been named and the initial media overexposure fades, in time it will become easier for black coaches to rise to the top.

"It's just like when James Harris became the first black quarterback in the league (in the mid-70s)," Dungy says. "If I asked a lot of guys on my team now who the first black quarterback was, they wouldn't know. With guys like Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham around now, being a black quarterback is no big deal."

For the time being, all of the talk about David Shula irks Mitchell. "That says two things to me," Mitchell says. "First, the saying that this NFL coaching society is not closed is a lot of bunk. What you have is friends hiring friends and you're getting a lot of bad coaching.

"Second, it says that probably the greatest thing to happen to an NFL coach is to get fired for incompetence because then he'll go to another (NFL head coaching) job which will pay him more money. It means that this coaching circle is not working.

"I wish I could see the end of the tunnel," Mitchell says, "but I don't."