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Like hundreds of other NFL assistants, Lovie Smith wants to be a head coach.

But before Smith can be a head coach, he first had to become an offensive or defensive coordinator. He finally got that chance this year when the St. Louis Rams hired the former Tampa Bay linebackers coach to run their defense.

"I'm happy to have this opportunity," Smith said by phone from St. Louis. "But I'm even happier to be a part of a growing fraternity."

That fraternity is the rising number of African-Americans who hold offensive and defensive coordinator positions in the NFL.

Eleven teams have one African-American coordinator, and the Minnesota Vikings are the only club with two - Sherman Lewis, offense, and Emmitt Thomas, defense.

The total of 12 black coordinators (10 on defense) is an all-time high, up two from a year ago and seven more than in 1997. There were only two in 1990, but none the following year.

The rise of African-Americans in all coaching positions has been more dramatic. In 1980, when the league had 28 teams, there were 14 black coaches but no black head coaches or coordinators. This year, there are 147 black head coaches, coordinators and assistants on 31 clubs. That represents about 30 percent of all coaches in the NFL.

"I think the NFL has made strides in the hiring of minorities," said Buffalo Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe, whose team made defensive coordinator Jerry Gray the successor to another African-American, Ted Cottrell. "Obviously, there is no way to make up for past injustices. But I think the league is moving in the right direction," Donahoe said.

Small steps

Despite improvements, many coaches aren't satisfied. They feel the league's minority hiring practices have been poor for too long. That's especially true at the head coaching level.

In the past five years, just four African-American head coaches have been hired among 47 openings. There are three black head coaches - Minnesota's Dennis Green, Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy and the New York Jets' Herman Edwards - out of 32 jobs, including expansion Houston.

Edwards this year became the sixth black head coach in league history, joining Green, Dungy, Ray Rhodes (twice), Terry Robiskie and Art Shell. The first African-American head coach was Fritz Pollard, who worked for the NFL's precursor, the American Professional Football Association, in 1921.

"Has it improved? Yes," Edwards said. "Is it where it should be? Obviously not."

"I think the opportunities are long overdue," added Cottrell, the Jets' defensive coordinator. "But at least we aren't being ignored."

Still, African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the NFL head coaches. That's a very low number when taken in the context of other major professional sports.

Blacks account for 20 percent of major league baseball managers and 34 percent of NBA head coaches, according to the 2001 Racial and Gender Report Card issued by Northeastern University.

"It's frightening how far football has not come," said Richard Lapchick, who directed the study. "For there to be only four African-American head coaches in a league where nearly 70 percent of the players are African-American . . . it's mind-boggling."

The current coordinators want to be head coaches based on merit, not color. But because so many qualified African-Americans have been shut out of the hiring process, they understand why it remains a sensitive issue.

"Football is no different than the rest of society," Smith said. "It has taken us awhile to get certain jobs. But I think after we get those certain jobs and do a good job, it has opened up more doors."

Training ground

In most cases, being an offensive or defensive coordinator is the final step toward becoming an NFL head coach.

Dungy and Rhodes, for instance, were highly successful in those roles before getting promotions. Dungy became the first black coordinator when the Pittsburgh Steelers chose him to guide their defense in 1983.

"Getting experience as a coordinator goes a long way in preparing you to be head coach," Donahoe said. "To me, a coordinator is like a mini-head coach. Head coaches give them a lot of responsibility on their respective side of the ball. They're the direct contact on a daily basis with the players on that side of the ball."

Although the Bills are struggling defensively, Gray, in his first year, thinks his experience as a coordinator will benefit him down the road.

"Every day I'm learning something new," he said. "The challenge is you're the one who determines who plays in certain schemes and who will do the blitzing and things like that. For someone like myself who aspires to be a head coach someday, being able to make those decisions on a day-to-day basis is invaluable."

Of course, having success helps. Marvin Lewis became the hot prospect after building a dominating defense that carried the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl championship last season. Under Cottrell's guidance, the Bills ranked sixth, first and third in total defense over the past three years.

Smith's star is on the rise because he has turned a Rams defense that allowed an NFL-high 471 points in 2000 into one of the stingiest units in the league.

"I was brought up to believe that if you do a good job at something you will be rewarded," Smith said. "When you're on the field, no one is looking to see what color the head coach or coordinator is. All you care about is if he gets the job done. As a black coach, if I do a good job and don't get rewarded then something is wrong."

Breaking glass ceiling

If success is the key to a promotion, then why is Marvin Lewis not a head coach today? Several coaches, especially Dungy, openly questioned whether race had something to do with that.

Perhaps the NFL shoulders most of the blame. The league prohibits assistant coaches from interviewing for jobs while their teams are in the playoffs. Eight of the nine teams with openings decided on head coaches before the Super Bowl.

Only the Bills waited to interview Lewis. In fact, Donahoe's list of finalists was racially balanced with two blacks (Lewis and Cottrell) and two whites (Gregg Williams and Giants defensive coordinator John Fox). But Donahoe was stung by the widespread criticism he received for choosing Williams over Lewis and Cottrell.

"It was not a slap against Marvin Lewis or Ted Cottrell," Donahoe said. "They are excellent coaches and they will get their shot. There's no question in my mind that somewhere down the road they will be head coaches in this league."

Despite accusations to the contrary, Donahoe said all four were asked the same questions and had the same amount of time. Williams impressed him the most.

"It's unfair to Gregg Williams and Tom Donahoe if people are suggesting race was involved," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Even Dungy came to Donahoe's defense.

"I never said Marvin Lewis should have been hired," Dungy said at the NFL annual meetings in March. "Buffalo should be commended. They interviewed all the candidates, and that's how the system is supposed to work. You can never be critical of someone who goes through the whole process.

"My point was: What happened to the other eight teams? I have a problem with that. I just asked if one of the factors is that Marvin is black. You have to determine that. I want to believe the best, but then you ask me if Marvin was white would it have been just one out of nine? I don't know."

It seems the only person not bothered by Lewis getting passed over is Lewis. If the Ravens' defense remains one of the league's best, he surely will get a call from some team. But Lewis won't be pressured into taking a job because of his race.

"It has to be the right situation for me and my family," he said earlier this year. "I think our people will appreciate the fact that you don't have to take every job because it is extended out there. I would like to be a head coach in the right situation. I'll know when it's right."

After being ignored by teams his first two years as the Bills' defensive coordinator, Cottrell finally got a foot in the door by getting interviews with the Bills, Jets and Houston.

"All you work for is to get an opportunity," he said. "Hopefully, it won't be the last time."

No guarantees

Minnesota's Sherm Lewis is a 20-year veteran of NFL coaching. He has coached offense and defense, been to five Super Bowls as an assistant (three with San Francisco and two with Green Bay) and tutored legends such as Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Brett Favre and Cris Carter.

"I think I've served a hell of an apprenticeship," Lewis said.

Few coaches, black or white, have Lewis' qualifications to be an NFL head coach. Yet few coaches have been overlooked more. Dallas (in 1998) and Chicago (1999) showed some interest in the past, but none of the nine teams with openings in the offseason called him.

"(The fact that) Sherman Lewis is not a head coach in this league is a travesty," Minnesota's Green said. "When a guy as qualified as he is gets passed over, something is definitely wrong."

Lewis was knocked for his lack of play-calling experience under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. But Mike Sherman didn't call plays under Holmgren in Seattle and the Packers hired him two years ago.

Now 58 years old, Lewis has come to terms with the reality that his window of opportunity may have closed.

"I enjoy where I am and what I'm doing," he said. "At least I can control that. Getting a head-coaching job is something you have no control over. It hurts when you get passed over, but it's happened so many times that I've learned not to think about it too much."

Dungy knows what Lewis is going through. First considered for a head-coaching job at age 33, Dungy had to wait more than a decade before the Buccaneers hired him.

Dungy said the perception of being bypassed hurt him.

"When I was interviewed by (Tampa Bay GM) Rich McKay for this job, he said, "You've had 12 interviews before,' " Dungy said. "I said, "No, I've had three.' That's how ideas get around. Your name gets thrown out there and people think you've failed."

NFL seeks solutions

Familiarity has a lot to do with who gets hired. Owners tend to hire candidates they know or have dealt with in the past.

Perhaps that explains why coaches such as Marty Schottenheimer, Dick Vermeil and Bill Belichick get recycled.

But more teams are willing to look at new blood, thus the hiring of Edwards by the Jets.

The NFL has taken steps to level the playing field even more. In an effort to promote the hiring of black coaches, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue initiated a plan in 1998 to videotape interviews of selected assistant coaches and make the tapes available to teams.

The league also has the minority summer internship program for aspiring coaches. Edwards is the first coach from that program to become a head coach. The NFL holds coaching seminars in conjunction with the annual owners' meetings as well. The NFL believes these initiatives eventually will unclog the pipeline of opportunity.

In the end, the league can't force teams to hire minorities. But clubs can no longer hide behind the age-old excuse that they can't find enough qualified candidates.

For now, African-American assistants have to accept their small gains as offensive and defensive coordinators while hoping they won't have to wait long before getting a chance to coach in the NFL.

Many assistants compare minority-hiring gains to sawing wood: Both take time.

"I don't mind paying my dues," Gray said. "I do expect to have some success in this league, and I'd like to think that will be noticed when the time comes."

"It's not going to happen overnight," added St. Louis' Smith. "But the real progress won't happen until we don't have to talk about this issue. If we're still talking about it five or 10 years from now, then we've got a problem."