Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and the Next Hurdle for NFL Rooney Rule Graduates

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Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and the Next Hurdle for NFL Rooney Rule Graduates
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Coach worship is a virtual religion in this country. It’s a key pillar in our understanding and enjoyment of sports.

The best example of coach worship might be the reverence we hold for the Green Bay Packers' legendary head coach Vince Lombardi, who is perhaps football’s greatest coaching icon, and deservedly so. The Super Bowl trophy is named for Lombardi.

But rarely if ever do I read, watch or hear about real coaching excellence or genius when it comes to the assessment of minority coaches.

The NFL’s “Rooney Rule” was established to increase the pool of head coaching candidates. Thanks to the rule, minority coaches, mostly African-American, now have a chance to interview with owners and general managers looking to fill head coaching vacancies. Because of the rule there are in fact more minority head coaches in the NFL.

But some who are quick to dismiss and belittle see the Rooney Rule as merely a gimmick, a way to placate the minority community; or a farce, designed to parade minority candidates in front of owners who have no intention of hiring them, but who do so only to meet the requirements of the rule.

Am I sensitive about this issue? You bet I am, just as I was when I was young and observed dozens of qualified African-American men systematically denied the opportunity to play quarterback in the NFL.

The code words athletic, running quarterback, pocket passer, heady, instinctive and leader were variously used to cleverly describe the attributes and deficiencies of the guy taking snaps. Runner and instinctive were flaws most often attributed to black quarterbacks. Pocket passer, heady and leader were the descriptions of what it took to be a successful and white quarterback.

As a result, I can list on one hand the number of black men who got the chance to start at the quarterback position prior to 1980. Not one of those men was considered a star. It took years for the stigma to be erased. Remnants of that era still exist today.

I see this with coaches. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, now in his fourth season, is positioned to win his second Super Bowl. Imagine that. He was hired appropriately by the Rooney family, which owns the Steelers. The Rooneys got a chance to meet Tomlin and understand and appreciate his coaching philosophy—his budding genius.

But analysts, commentators and roving cameras tend to miss how Tomlin has carefully constructed his team, how well prepared he is, how much of a leader he is, how much of a genius he is, how he inspires his players.

This week all I’ve seen and heard are the platitudes heaped on Tomlin’s counterpart and opponent this Sunday, the New York Jets' colorful Rex Ryan, who is without question an excellent coach, but last I looked Ryan is without a Super Bowl ring as a head coach. All I’m asking for is balance and fairness. Where is the love for Mike Tomlin?

How about Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith? Smith, too, is on the verge of going to his second Super Bowl as his Bears prepare to take on the Green Bay Packers this Sunday. But the sideline cameras all season tend to focus on Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and what strategies Martz is employing, with commentators rarely mentioning head coach Lovie Smith at all. It’s an outrageous slap in the face.

This is never done with media-anointed genius Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, whose role with the Patriots is exactly the same as Smith’s is with the Bears.

I use Tomlin and Smith, two black men, just one game away from coaching in their second Super Bowls as examples of how this subtle, mostly unconscious game is played. No, I don’t think the commentators, writers and other observers are racists. But I do think many of them live in a simplified world where deep thinking is rarely called for and blind spots are the norm.
This is neither new nor limited to the NFL.
The very first modern black head coach in pro sports was Bill Russell. Russell was hired by outgoing coach and general manager Red Auerbach in 1966 to coach the team he played for, the Boston Celtics. As player-coach Russell won two NBA titles. But Russell was never given real credit for his coaching.
The popular wisdom was that Russell had Bill Russell for a center—of course he could win. However, those same critics ignorantly ignore the fact that legendary coaching genius Red Auerbach won all those titles with Bill Russell at center too.

Real respect, admiration and praise are the next hurdles for Rooney Rule graduates and other minority coaches to successfully leap. Let’s hope it comes soon.

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