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Blacks now connected to coaching network

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is how far the NFL has come in six years.

In January 2000, coaches were bequeathing their jobs to their friends, and teams were gratefully handing out compensation for the right to hire candidates with spotty won-lost records. It all seemed like a sure sign that the path to those jobs for black coaches was permanently blocked, no matter what was being tried to unblock it.

Now it's January 2006 - and coaches are bequeathing jobs to their friends, and teams are compensating their colleagues in order to hire them. Except that this time, it's a black coach that's the object of all this affection.

Didn't see that coming, did you?

Yet the way that Herman Edwards was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday might have been the act that turns minority candidates, candidates of color, "Rooney Rule" candidates, into just plain ol' NFL coaching candidates.

Edwards got his job the old-fashioned way: Somebody he knew hooked him up.

If that means Edwards - rescued from the New York Jets after a four-win, five-quarterback disaster this season - is now part of the old-boy network, that he's in the recycling bin like every other retread coach, then it's about time.

At the introductory news conference in Kansas City, president Carl Peterson talked a lot about how long he has known Edwards, from back in his days as an assistant coach. Edwards talked about how long he had known departing coach Dick Vermeil. Vermeil, for his part, had dropped some of the least-subtle hints you'll ever hear in the final weeks of the season to promote the coach he once recruited in college and coached in the NFL.

This makes Edwards about the millionth coach in the history of organized sports to get his job through connections. Most of the relative handful of black coaches in the history of all the big-time sports got their gigs that way. The very first black head coach in the NFL's modern era, Art Shell, was a favorite of Raiders boss Al Davis. No committees, no initiatives, no sanctions threatened by executives pressured into action by potential lawsuits.

Well, not really. Somewhere, Johnnie Cochran is smiling. Tie his legacy to gloves fitting and not acquitting if you like, but the four black coaches hired by NFL teams in the past three years owe at least some debt to Cochran. His 2002 report on hiring, "Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities" - and his subsequent implied threat of litigation if the NFL kept dragging its feet - led to the occasionally effective Rooney Rule about including black candidates in the hiring process.

But don't include Edwards' hiring yesterday in that group. The Chiefs didn't need some league mandate to tell them they liked him. Peterson and Vermeil themselves liked him.

Back in 2000, Bill Parcells proved he liked Bill Belichick enough to boost him up to the head coaching job with the Jets when he resigned. When Belichick changed his mind a day later, the very fact that Parcells thought so highly of him (not to mention the chance to stick it to a former coach and nemesis) prompted Patriots owner Bob Kraft to take Belichick for himself and give up draft picks for the privilege.

That seemed to turn out well.

At about the same time in Miami, Jimmy Johnson anointed Dave Wannstedt his successor when he retired from coaching the Dolphins. Wannstedt had been fairly unimpressive as the Bears' coach, but he had his boy (actually, his 'Boy, his former boss with the Super Bowl champion Cowboys) to take care of him and give him another chance.

That didn't turn out so well.

But it has turned out well for Edwards, who brings to his new job the same sort of connections as, and a better record than, Wannstedt and Belichick did to theirs. Six years ago, such moves clogged an already-packed pipeline, to the point that lots of coaches and their supporters saw this as the last straw and sent their efforts for inclusion into overdrive.

The landscape has changed, maybe for good. The fact that six black men coached in the NFL this season, three won division titles this season, two are still alive in the playoffs and those same two, Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy, finished one-two in the Coach of the Year voting, erases one more excuse for skittish and/or backward GMs and owners.

Dungy can even claim to have his own coaching tree now, not unlike Paul Brown, Don Shula and Bill Walsh: Smith and Edwards came up on Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay.

The Chiefs had to extract their candidate from a contract with another team and give up a draft pick to get him. Yet in doing so, they proved that hiring a coach like Edwards wasn't as hard as the world was making it out to be.

You know someone who knows someone who knows someone. It's the American way.

Wonder if the seven NFL teams still looking have realized that yet.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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