Tony Dungy of the AFC's Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the NFC's Chicago Bears will be on opposing sidelines in the Super Bowl, but for reasons that transcend those roles and even their warm personal relationship, they will be entwined forever in NFL history.
As the first African-American head coaches to reach the Super Bowl, they will be remembered for attaining a place in their mutual journey that many regard as much a challenging beginning as a triumphant conclusion. It was only in 1989 that the Los Angeles Raiders made Art Shell the first African-American coach in the league's modern era.
"I think it's an important hurdle to get over, but not one that changes any essential dynamic," said pioneering sports sociologist Harry Edwards of the Super Bowl benchmark. "It's not a panacea," he added. "We can't relax and say, 'Look, we figured it out.' "
In a serendipitous twist, the most recently hired NFL head coach is Mike Tomlin, who becomes the first African-American to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tomlin, who was the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, is one of several current head coaches who once worked for Dungy with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Although Tomlin becomes the NFL's sixth current African-American head coach, that number is still below the seven who started the season. Oakland's Shell, in his second coaching stint with the Raiders, and the Arizona Cardinals' Dennis Green were fired earlier. Two NFL coaching vacancies remain, the Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys, after yesterday's resignation of Bill Parcells.
For the moment, though, the spotlight is on Dungy and Smith.
"This should be celebrated [because] they both reached the pinnacle of their careers," said Antwaine Smith, a former high school football star at Poly and Northeastern University who heads the Baltimore branch of that college's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "And they're excellent role models for black youth because they've put in the work, time and effort to be the best in their field."
But echoing Edwards, he added, "We have so much work to do. I hope it doesn't give people a false sense of security as far as minorities in sports."
In the glow of their respective wins Sunday, both Dungy, 51, and Lovie Smith, 48, acknowledged the milestone without letting it overshadow their respective teams' accomplishments.
"I'm very, very proud as an African-American," Dungy said after the game. "It's going to be special, but I want to really just let us savor this and make this about the Colts."
Smith was unabashedly rooting for his friend in the Colts' game against the New England Patriots.
"Of course, our players knew about it and they wanted to help us make history," Smith said. "So I feel blessed to be in that position. I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy."
The reverberations of Sunday are already being felt throughout football, right down to the high school level - especially in Maryland, where, for the first time, all four state championships this past season were won by teams coached by African-Americans.
"I wasn't alive for a lot of the major events, such as Jackie Robinson doing his thing, Jesse Owens doing his thing, even Muhammad Ali - people who gave hope to African-Americans in all walks of life and open doors," said Randy Trivers, coach of Northwest High in Montgomery County, whose Jaguars have won three regional crowns and captured the Class 3A state title in 2004.
"When you see faces that look like yours - a Lovie Smith, a Tony Dungy - being the focal point on the grand stage, these are African-American men who can create change in society and give people that feeling of, 'Hey, if he can, I can.' "
Despite not having reached a Super Bowl, Dungy already had influenced the NFL landscape. He was just the sixth NFL coach to reach 100-plus wins in his first 10 years. And just as there have been current coaching trees credited to Bill Walsh, Parcells, Mike Holmgren and Bill Belichick, there is a distinct Dungy coaching tree.
From his Tampa Bay staff, there are four head coaches - Smith, Tomlin, Herm Edwards (Kansas City Chiefs) and Rod Marinelli (Detroit Lions). Clearly, having Dungy's name on a coach's resume adds cachet.
"I think it did before [Sunday] ... because he's one of the most admired men in pro sports beyond putting wins in the win column, and now that he's getting to a championship, that will help even more," said Richard Lapchick, a researcher and commentator on social issues in sports at the University of Central Florida.
Dungy, whose calm and dignified demeanor is a trademark, said he believed the common characteristics in the coaches with whom he has worked are not primarily limited to race.
"I'm so happy that Lovie got there because he does things the right way," Dungy said. "He's going to get there with a lot of class, no profanity, no intimidation, but just helping his guys play the best that they can."
Although the success enjoyed by Dungy and Smith might have its positive effects, some local coaches said the battle for standing remains a day-to-day struggle.
"We're judged on similar things [as white coaches], but it's critiqued with a lot more scrutiny when you're an African-American coach," said Dunbar coach Ben Eaton, whose city team won the 1A state title. "You are judged harshly on whether the team is or is not prepared, the professionalism you're supposed to have. Like, how are your players performing at each position? Are the linemen taught to block? Are the backs disciplined enough to carry the ball correctly and hold onto it? Do your receivers run precise routes?"
Edmondson High coach Dante Jones said much the same.
"[There are] perceptions that we have athletes that are just out there running around, quarterbacks who are just throwing the 90-yard bomb for the guys to run under them for a touchdown. That we have the 'thug kids' who are not well-coached at all and that you, as a coach, can't win the big one," said Jones, whose team was 13-1. "You'd like to believe that there will be changes in perception when they see how we carry ourselves as coaches ... and that it will make a difference."
According to Lapchick, hiring practices regarding minority coaches in the college ranks badly lag behind those in the pros.
While six of 31 currently filled NFL jobs are held by African-Americans, only six of 119 Division I-A head coaching positions are filled by African-Americans and one by a Latino, he said.
Whether the success and prominence enjoyed by the two African-American Super Bowl coaches has a broader lasting effect remains to be seen, but at the very least, Dungy's place among the NFL coaching elite might be secured.
"I've always resented that we often withhold the notion of greatness from coaches who don't win a national title in spite of incredibly successful records," Lapchick said. "But I'm glad that now [Dungy] has shed that by making it to a Super Bowl."
Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.
With the hiring of Mike Tomlin by the Steelers yesterday, there are six black head coaches in the NFL, one fewer than at the start of the 2006 season. There are 32 NFL teams. The college numbers are far worse: Of the 119 Division I-A jobs, just six are held by African-Americans.
Tony Dungy ................... Colts
Herman Edwards ........... Chiefs
Lovie Smith ..................... Bears
Mike Tomlin .................... Steelers
Sylvester Croom .......... Miss. State
Karl Dorrell ...................... UCLA
Turner Gill ......................... Buffalo
Ron Prince ..................... Kansas State
Randy Shannon ............ Miami
Tyrone Willingham ....... Washington