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The brotherhood Super Bowl XLI: Coaches embrace the issue that they are first African-Americans to reach the NFL's championship game

Every day since their teams won the AFC and NFC championships, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears have been asked the same question over and over again:

How does it feel to be the first African-Americans to coach in the Super Bowl?

You would think Dungy and Smith would be tired of the question by now. Certainly, a lot of people think this story has been overblown. "We don't see them as black coaches," they say, "We see them as coaches, period."

But Dungy and Smith live in the real world. They understand that this isn't a color-blind society, as much as they wish it was. Race matters in this case because no one who looks like them has taken a team this far.

So instead of downplaying the issue, Dungy and Smith have embraced it.

"One of the reasons that we need to talk about it is our history," Dungy said. "I'm very, very proud to be an African-American and be in this position. Lovie feels the same way."

Bill Russell was the first African-American coach to win an NBA title. John Thompson was the first to capture an NCAA Division I basketball championship and Cito Gaston was the first to bring home a World Series crown. On Sunday, Dungy or Smith will join that select company.

"There has to be a first and this is a first," said Smith, who spoke with Russell earlier this week. "Yes, it is very special to both of us. I don't think it will be talked about as much (after this). Whenever you cross one barrier, it isn't as big a story. But right now, we realize it is. Both of us would like to be the first black coach to hold up that Super Bowl trophy."

It should be noted that this isn't the first time two African-American coaches have met in a championship setting. In 1975, Al Attles led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA title over K.C. Jones' Washington Bullets.

Attles and Jones didn't receive the attention Dungy and Smith are getting in part because the NBA had already broken down racial barriers.

Dungy and Smith would like to do the same in pro football. They are mindful of the men who came before them, long-time NFL assistant coaches like Sherman Lewis, Jimmy Raye, Lionel Taylor and Emmett Thomas who never got a shot to be a head coach. As Dungy and Smith stand in this spotlight, they think of men like Eddie Robinson (Grambling State) and John Merritt (Tennessee State), who coached at historically black colleges and yet never got a chance to move up to the major college and pro ranks despite their glittering records.

"I think that it's important to point out that we may be the first to get here but we certainly aren't the best or the only ones who could have gotten here," Dungy said.

And because Dungy and Smith are here, they hope it will increase opportunities for future coaches of color.

"We would like to open doors for others coming through the ranks and I think we are doing that, being on an international stage like this," Smith said. "Hopefully, young coaches out there will see that and know that you can achieve whatever you like."

Smith was helped by the NFL's adoption of the "Rooney Rule," which requires teams searching for a head coach to interview minority candidates.

But Smith said he wouldn't be here if not for his mentor and friend, Dungy. After years of trying to land a head coaching job, Dungy was finally hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. During his six-year tenure, he turned a losing franchise into a consistent playoff contender.

Dungy is 60-20 in five years with the Colts, and no NFL coach has won more games (90-38) since the start of the 1999 season.

Other teams around the league took notice. Now, four of Dungy's former Tampa Bay assistants are NFL head coaches -- Smith, Herman Edwards of Kansas City, Rod Marinelli of Detroit and Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh. Of the six African-Americans leading NFL teams, three of them (Smith, Edwards and Tomlin) are from the Dungy coaching tree.

"It's hard to picture this many guys getting head football jobs, but being around Tony Dungy and what we were able to do, to me the natural step is to move up the ladder," said Smith, who worked his way up from high school and college assistant jobs before Dungy hired him to coach the Bucs' linebackers. "This does say a lot about Tony Dungy. He doesn't get enough credit for what he has been to the National Football League."

Dungy and Smith share more than skin color. They are good coaches whose teams play with poise and discipline. They are religious men with a calm, even-keel, no-profanity style that is different from the loud, in-your-face tactics employed by other coaches.

Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher doesn't recall ever hearing Smith raise his voice. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning calls Dungy, "a cool customer," because of his calmness on the sideline.

"I think Tony and Lovie prove that you don't have to [be] a yeller and a screamer to get your point across," said Colts defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who played in Tampa Bay when Dungy and Smith were there. "These are great coaches who are good teachers and motivators. More importantly, they are great people who live the right way. It goes to show you that good guys can finish first."


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