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NFL game plan: 3 black head coaches play to win more games and more opportunities.

IT was in so many ways, a battle of firsts. It was the first game-the preseason opener--for the Cincinnati Bengals, and the first game ever for Marvin Lewis as a head coach in the National Football League. His Bengals were up against the better-ranked New York Jets, coached by Herman Edwards, making this the first match-up of two alumni of the NFL's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program. That first game also was the first loss this year for the troubled Bengals, who went on to lose their last preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, coached by Tony Dungy.

These two games, the first and last of the preseason for Cincinnati, were like bookends for a larger story--a story of three men who have a connection, a bond, one that goes beyond just being members of the exclusive club of head coaches in the NFL. They are the only Black members of that club--the only three Black head coaches out of a total of 32 teams, a fact that has caused an uproar and set the league management in motion, rushing to gain ground in creating opportunities. But the connection is even closer still because these three coaches, who were once represented by the same sports agent, also are friends.

It might at first seem surprising that fiercely competitive men can maintain friendly relations with the opposition. But they do and still go head-to-head when the game is on. Like that first game for Marvin Lewis. It was a proud moment--for the opposing coach, Herman Edwards, 49. "No doubt about it," Edwards recalls. "I really felt good for Marvin. I could remember how I felt when I walked out of that tunnel on my first preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons as a head coach. The first thing I had to do when l walked out onto the field was figure out where to stand," he says with a laugh, reflecting on how he watched his friend across the field. "He was kind of walking around, probably just trying to figure it out. That's what goes through your mind. Where do I stand? Because you've never done that before."

That friendly moment, though, didn't stop Edwards from leading the Jets to a 28-13 win over Lewis' Bengals. "You compete, that's what you do," he says. Lewis agrees. "Were in a small fraternity," he says. "We're friends all the time but we're in the business of putting other people out of business."

No one knows that better than the 48-year-old Dungy. His record is impressive, having led his Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the playoffs four times in the six years he served as head coach of the team--the only coach in team history with a winning career record. In fact, he is credited with revitalizing the lackluster Bucs, who had 13-straight losing seasons before him. The former Vikings defensive coordinator helped build the Bucs' defense that finished No. 1 last year, the season after he was fired. In a noted irony, this year, following that same season after Dungy's departure, the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Many believe that ultimate victory was a credit to his work.

The Colts clearly are pleased to have him. In Dungy's first season as head coach, the Colts made it to the playoffs, even though they wound up going down in defeat in the AFC wild card playoff game at the hands of the New York Jets, coached by Dungy's friend, protege and former assistant coach at Tampa, Herman Edwards. It was a 41-0 loss. True to form, Dungy takes it all in stride.

"It's like playing against your brother," he says. "You definitely want to win, you don't want to let him have the bragging rights. But there's something inside you that wants to see him do well, too."

This season has been a lot better. Dungy's Colts have had the best start of the three teams, holding the most promise for a strong finish--especially after a stunning come-from-behind 38-35 overtime victory over the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Sweet revenge. On Dungy's 48th birthday, his team took the win and arguably the first-place ranking in the NFL. Still, he said later, it was tough "when you fight against guys you've gone to war with."

Beyond their competive drive, the three Black head coaches know there's a lot more riding on their success than won/loss stats, and division titles and trophies. In a way, their fan base extends to all of Black America.

"You do want to do well," Dungy notes, "because you feel that in some small way, that can help open the door for somebody else to get an opportunity that's probably long overdue."

Many feel Marv Lewis' opportunity was long overdue. The 44-year-old Lewis was a record-setting defensive coordinator during his six seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. With what many considered the best NFL defense of all time, the Ravens went on to a Super Bowl. But Lewis didn't get his head-coaching job following that Super Bowl season. Instead, he became defensive coordinator and assistant head coach of the Washington Redskins. Expectations are high for Lewis to reverse the pattern of 12 losing seasons in Cincinnati.

Even with all their competitive drive, there is a lot of support among the three Black head coaches. In a way, they coach each other, providing guidance partly by the examples they set, as Edwards has done with Lewis.

"He's been a role model to me because of his character and how he handles himself and how he's been able to just give direction to his team," Lewis says. "I'm following his model, his plan and knowing that he stuck to his conviction, which only gives me the reinforcement to stick to mine, as he's always reminded me to do."

It's the kind of advice Edwards has gotten from his mentor. "I talk to Herm quite a bit," Dungy says. It started years ago. Dungy and Edwards have known each other since 1974 when they met at the Hula Bowl. Edwards was a cornerback at San Diego State and Dungy a quarterback at Minnesota. They coached together as assistants with the Kansas City Chiefs before Dungy became defensive coordinator at Minnesota and Edwards went to the Chiefs' front office. It was Dungy's offer of assistant head coach/secondary coach later at Tampa that really got Edwards started down the path to his head-coaching job with the Jets.

"I can remember at night I'd go up when I got my work done and I'd sit with Tony," Edwards recalls. "I'd watch him break down film and he would explain what he was doing and why he was doing it, his reasoning for doing certain things. That helped me to get on to my coaching career."

That, in turn, is the way Dungy was guided by his mentor, Dennis Green, former head coach of the Vikings. "He talked to me about his thought process," he says, "kind of gave me a preparatory course. Once I got to Tampa and even when we were competing against each other in the same division, I could call him. He would always give me a call back and help me out with it. That's just the common bond that Black coaches feel--that we're in it together."

Except, of course, when they're staring each other down from across the football field. Dungy got his first chance in October 2000. It was the first NFL game featuring African-American coaches and starting quarter-backs, Green and Daunte Culpepper of the Vikings, Dungy and Shaun King of the Bucs. The Vikings went on to beat the Bucs 30-23.

Of course, mentoring can only work to develop Black coaching talent if the talent out there is given a chance. And the issue of giving more Blacks a chance as head coaches has been intensifying over the past year.

Many feel the NFL's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program is a good start, providing internships and assistant coaching possibilities, but it can't really be effective if Black head-coaching opportunities are limited by a sort of glass dome, if Blacks are not promoted up through the ranks.

The change is coming, gradually, according to former sports agent Ray Anderson, who at one time represented Green, Dungy, Edwards and Lewis, and now is executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Atlanta Falcons. "The leadership of the NFL teams is beginning to cross over to sons and daughters," he notes. "It's much more comfortable and natural and acceptable for them to look at diversity and, frankly, not be frightened or put off by it."

There is a move to quicken the pace. "When you look at a league where probably 70 percent of the players are African-American and they have such a dearth of coaches, it's terrible," argues attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Last year, Cochran and attorney Cyrus Mehri played offense, pushing the NFL to come up with a plan to recruit more Black head coaches. As a result of their efforts, the NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in December 2002 set up a committee on diversity to work on increasing Black coaching opportunities in the league. All 32 clubs agreed to the committee guidelines calling for, among other things, the teams to interview at least one minority candidate for each coaching opening.

The Detroit Lions got hit with a huge $200,000 fine this year for failing to do that. "It may not be comfortable, but this is not about comfort," notes Cochran, who like Dungy, Edwards, Lewis and Anderson, is on the Sports Illustrated list of the 101 most influential minorities in sports. "If left to their own devices, they will not do it. Everybody else can talk about it. But we can file a lawsuit."

Meanwhile, the three current Black NFL head coaches are sticking to the game plan. "Never lose that focus, never lose that dream," Dungy advises. "Attitude is so important."
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Author:Benson, Christopher
Publication:Ebony
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:1653
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