When the Chicago Bears triumphed over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC title game, you can bet the folks in Big Sandy, Texas (population 1,500), were celebrating. Native son Lovie Smith, head coach of Chicago, led the Bears to the big dance for the first time since the 1985 “Super Bowl Shuffle” season. With the victory, Smith became the first African-American head coach to take his team to the Super Bowl, but such accomplishments are not new to the people in East Texas.
Before he was making NFL history, Smith led Big Sandy High School to three straight state championships, and as an end and linebacker was all-state three years for the Wildcats. He went on to become a two-time all-American at Tulsa and would eventually coach both of his alma maters before reaching the pro ranks.
“It means quite a bit for me being the coach of the Chicago Bears and being able to lead our team to another Super Bowl,” Smith said on ChicagoBears.com., after his team secured the conference crown. “But being the first black coach to lead his team, of course our players knew about it and they wanted to help us make history today. So I feel blessed to be in that position, but I’d feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy.”
Later that day, Smith was joined on sport’s biggest stage by his mentor, Tony Dungy, the chronically underrated head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. After taking a few days to reflect on his team’s come-from-behind win over the New England Patriots, Dungy addressed the additional pressure faced by African-American coaches.
“You know you’re being judged on wins and losses, so there’s pressure to win in your job, anyway,” revealed Dungy on Colts.com. “I think I felt — and I’m sure Denny (Green) and Art Shell did, too — that. It wasn’t that if we lost, other guys wouldn’t get a chance, but if we won, more guys would get chances faster. So, you felt pressure to win — I did, anyway — so that other guys who deserved it possibly would get that shot a little quicker.”
While in college, one of my football-watching buddies always cheered for the Kansas City Chiefs and if the Chiefs weren’t playing, whichever team had either an African-American quarterback or an African-American coach. This made sense to me in the same way that my father and many Chicanos his age have always shown an affinity for the Oakland Raiders, who were led by Tom Flores to two Super Bowl victories in the early ’80s. Flores was the first “minority” head coach to capture a Super Bowl crown, and the first Latino quarterback in the NFL, and a Mexican-American at that. His first ring actually came when he coached the Heisman Trophy winning, Mexican-American QB Jim Plunkett to a Super Bowl MVP trophy in January, 1981.
This year, for the first time in the history of America’s favorite sporting event, two coaches of color share center stage. “I think there are times when things need to be said, and if there’s an issue that comes up with minority hiring, the way things are going, I think you can comment on it,” shared Dungy on Colts.com. “For the most part, I know the time of year when it’s going to come up and I know there’s going to be a time I’m going to get asked about it, so I guess I’m patient enough to just wait for that time.
“I know it’s something that’s going to be addressed, and this will be a two-week window where we’ll be able to make some points. A lot of things will be said and it will make people think about some things that have happened or haven’t happened over the course of the NFL. I think it’s something that’s going to go with the territory until the game is played.”
Hopefully, some of those points will target the absence of Latino head coaches in the NFL and the lack of minority coaches in college football, an environment where hollow terms like diversity and multiculturalism are tossed around like a wet pigskin.
Expect Dungy’s Colts to dominate Smith’s Bears, but even if the game is a blowout, like many of these are, at least Prince is performing at halftime, and regardless of the outcome, you can bet those watching in Big Sandy will be beaming.