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Snub of Green Bay's Lewis shows NFL's hiring shame


After 14 years as a college football broadcaster, Dick Vermeil has returned to the NFL as the head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Sherm Lewis, who has earned four Super Bowl rings since Vermeil last coached a game, wasn't considered.

Mike Ditka, who has spent the past four years saying nothing on television after being fired by the Chicago Bears, has returned to the NFL as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints.

Lewis, who built the offense that won the Super Bowl on Sunday, was passed over after being asked by the Saints to fill out a job application that included such questions as, "Are you willing to work weekends?"

If the big wheels in the NFL were capable of feeling shame, which they aren't, they wouldn't show their faces in public after snubbing Lewis, the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator, in the latest round of coaching hires.

It's the low point in the league's shameful history of minority hiring.

Eleven head coaching jobs have opened since the start of last season, and Lewis, an African-American, hasn't been a serious candidate for any of them.

Not because of his record, which includes 14 years as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers and Packers.

Not because of his background or personality, which includes a master's degree in education and a low-key, knowing coaching style.

There is only one explanation for why Lewis, 54, has failed to get so much as an interview, much less a job offer.

Too many owners don't want to put their teams in the hands of an African-American coach.

That isn't exactly breaking news, given that you can count on one hand the number of African-American head coaches in the NFL's 76-year history.

That three are in office right now -- Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy and Dennis Green -- would seem to suggest that the situation is improving, but Lewis' inability to get a serious look is evidence that little has changed.

It's the people who were hired instead of him that make his situation so shameful.

Cal's Steve Mariucci was hired to replace George Seifert in San Francisco, even though Lewis had a long association with the 49ers and Mariucci learned the pro game from Lewis as the Packers' quarterbacks coach.

Shame on the 49ers, who clearly are panicking in the wake of two straight losses in the divisional playoffs.

Vermeil? Fourteen years after burning out as the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, he will handle the coaching and personnel decisions for the Rams, despite having no experience with free agency, the salary cap or '90s players.

It's a hire waiting to backfire, a hire that was more about making headlines and attracting attention than actually building a winner.

True, Vermeil was a smart, inspiring coach who took the Eagles to the Super Bowl in the 1980 season, but he was all about loyalty and discipline, and that's not the foundation of the pro game anymore.

Ditka is an even more baffling hire. The moribund Saints also were desperate to make headlines, attract attention and sell tickets, but Ditka is all bluff and bluster, and neither a strong tactician nor a positive motivator.

Winning is the best way to sell tickets in the long run, and Lewis, who has worked among winners for more than a decade and is totally in tune with today's game, was a far better choice than Ditka to fulfill that goal in New Orleans.

No matter.

"I haven't talked to anybody, anywhere," Lewis said at the Super Bowl last week. "What can you do?"

Not much. The league can't force its owners to hire certain coaches. And the owners can easily claim innocence, insisting they just want do what they can to win.

Of course, that's the same thing that coaches and general managers said in the '60s when they limited the number of blacks in the league through a practice known as "stacking." Coaches were loath to put black players at positions requiring decision-making skills, forcing them to compete against each other for jobs.

That wasn't the result of overt racism so much as sad, outdated stereotyping.

Lewis' inability to get a job is an injustice rooted in the same, lamentable thinking.

"The African-American coaches are getting frustrated," Lewis said last week. "And it's not just about the head coaching jobs. How many coordinator jobs are open? I keep seeing those jobs filled by the same guys. I mean, come on."

Granted, the lack of African-Americans in management positions is a problem that exists throughout society, not just the NFL.

But few other enterprises are as reliant on African-American employees as the NFL, which is two-thirds black.

The absence of black faces on the sidelines is a joke, particularly considering that Rhodes and Dungy have proved to be two of the game's brightest coaches.

Sherm Lewis is just as qualified.

The owners should he ashamed for repeatedly snubbing Lewis and other African-American candidates such as Emmitt Thomas, and then hiring retreads such as Ditka, Vermeil, Dan Reeves and Joe Bugel.

But then, the NFL isn't in the shame business.

As Lewis said, what can you do?

Pub Date: 1/31/97

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