National Football League head coaches Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears have been friends for years. Dungy mentored Smith when both were with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and now the two men will lead their teams into Super Bowl XLI in Miami February 4. As VOA's David Byrd reports, the two men have already made history by being the first black head coaches in the NFL's championship game.
The Super Bowl represents the pinnacle of National Football League achievement. To make it to the championship game after a 16-game season and the playoffs takes dedication, hard work, focus, and intensity. But in the 41-year history of the championship game, an African American coach has never won the title.
That statistic is largely because of a lack of opportunity. In the modern era, Art Shell became the first African-American NFL head coach in 1989. This season, seven of the 32 head coaches - or just over 21 percent - were African Americans, with 161 assistants league-wide. This is in a league where more than two-thirds of the players are black.
Tony Dungy has been an NFL coach since joining the Pittsburgh Steelers as an assistant in 1981. Dungy says making the Super Bowl reminds him of the many coaches who did not have the opportunity he and Lovie Smith have.
"I came in in 1981 and there were less than 15 African-American assistant coaches at that time," he said. "But there were some good guys, some guys who were exceptional and never really were given the chance to do what Lovie and I have the chance to do."
Dungy was close to the Super Bowl before - with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He spent five years with Tampa Bay, took the team to the playoffs three times and won a division title in 1999. However, he was fired after the 2001 season when the Bucs lost to Philadelphia in the playoffs. But the team Dungy built went on to win the Super Bowl in 2003.
Lovie Smith was one of Tony Dungy's assistants at Tampa and was named the Chicago Bears' head coach in 2004. Last season he was voted NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Bears to 11 wins and five losses. Chicago lost to Carolina in the second round of the playoffs.
Smith says facing his one-time mentor in Miami is the fulfillment of a dream he has had for a long time.
"A dream of mine was to have a chance to play the Colts," he said. "My dream was for Tony Dungy to be in the Super Bowl. That dream has been fulfilled. Now it's about the Chicago Bears trying to win the Super Bowl."
Both Smith and Dungy are known for their respectful treatment of players and their calm in situations where many other coaches would lose their temper or berate players. Both men also share a deep Christian faith, and Smith has said he learned what it means to be a coach from Dungy.
The Reverend Nelson Rivers is the Chief Operating Officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He told VOA that Dungy and Smith show that character - not just performance - are paramount to success.
"Tony Dungy said 'coaching the way I do, respecting the players, having the right people on my team, being more concerned about character than athletic ability, I believe I can win like this.' And they kept saying he was too nice to win," he said. "And I am so glad that Tony Dungy has proven that nice guys can finish first."
Rev. Rivers said that Lovie Smith followed Dungy's coaching model, particularly when Chicago fans wanted to bench Bears' quarterback Rex Grossman.
"Lovie Smith absolutely refused all year to listen to the nay-sayers, those who were trying to become the lynch mob, metaphorically, for what was going to happen to Rex Grossman," he said. "And the real irony is that this is an African-American coach, standing up for this white player, who represents a group of people who in many instances in the past, not too distant past, did not have the same kind of support."
Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy made the Super Bowl the week after the United States marked civil rights leader Martin Luther King's birthday. They will face one another in February which, ironically, is Black History Month in the U.S. But both men have already made history, regardless of who wins February 4.
And their legacy will continue beyond Super Bowl XLI. The NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers hired their first African-American head coach - and another of Tony Dungy's protégés, Mike Tomlin - in late January.