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Successful NFL black coaches smash glass ceiling

Christmas Day has elements of Thanksgiving in it this year, at least for minority coaches in the National Football League.

They are thankful because for them a level playing field has arrived in the NFL at last. There are eight divisions in the new-millennium NFL and the champions of three of them for 2005 are coached by African-Americans, erasing the despised adjective "token" forever.

Tony Dungy coaches the premier team in the league, the Indianapolis Colts. Marvin Lewis just steered Cincinnati to the AFC's North Division championship, the Bengals' first winning season in 16 years. That dreadful stretch included 11 years of double-digit losses. The last time they enjoyed a winning season was 1990 under current Bills quarterback coach Sam Wyche.

Lovie Smith, in his second year as their head coach, led the Chicago Bears from a 5-10 season to domination of the NFC's North Division.

The idea of a glass ceiling for minority coaches in the NFL was not a figment of someone's imagination. A few years ago the league established a rule in which teams were forced to interview minority candidates for vacant head-coaching positions, with serious penalties involved for those who failed to do so. Still, there were more than a few teams that approached those interviews as formalities to get them off the hook.

Minority coaches were in the same sort of bind which held back black quarterbacks from receiving legitimate opportunities in the NFL. That finally changed in Super Bowl XXII when Doug Williams of the Redskins torched the Denver defense for 340 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-10 victory. I suspect that this season's three division championships will have a similar trail-blazing effect.

I submit that the failure to hire minority coaches years ago had far less to do with racial bias than the cultural and generational cocoon which surrounded many owners. There was a worry among some of the moguls that a black head coach couldn't find a rapport with white players, or that they didn't have the "right stuff."

If the owners needed proof that something like that was unlikely, Smith provided it last Sunday night in Chicago's victory over Atlanta. Late in the second quarter the Bears were beating the Falcons in their customary manner, with defense. It had become their custom over the last two seasons because they couldn't keep their skilled young quarterback, Rex Grossman, out of the infirmary.

But Grossman had returned to the practice field during the previous week and had gone through entire workouts without one of his passes touching the ground. After more than four months of rehabilitation on his broken ankle, he was ready. His teammates were excited just seeing him in uniform and the Chicago fans were energized just seeing him throw the football in warm-ups.

But Smith recognized the sensitivity of the situation. Rookie Kyle Orton had an important role in the Bears' early-season success. His role wasn't to win games, but to play so conservatively he wouldn't lose them. There was no comparison in the talent levels of the quarterbacks but Lovie understood that there might come a time later on when he would need Orton again, especially considering Grossman's injury history.

At the two-minute warning, the coach called Grossman to his side. "Get your mind straight," he told him, "you're going in. But not until after halftime." At intermission Smith patiently explained to Orton the reason for the switch while Grossman met with offensive coordinator Ron Turner to plot the second-half strategy.

When Grossman led his team out of the huddle there was an emotional explosion in Soldier Field. It expanded when he led the Bears to 10 points on his first two series in two years.

By any complexion, that was good coaching.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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