Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith will be the first black head coaches to face each other in the Super Bowl because of groundwork laid by Bill Walsh.
From his first year as a head coach — at Stanford in 1977 — Walsh looked for black assistant coaches. Denny Green was on his first staff.
"Denny was one of our first hires," Walsh said this week. Green later became head coach at Stanford and then one of the first half-dozen black head coaches in the NFL.
When he came to the 49ers, Walsh started an intern program to bring in black assistants. One of them was Ray Rhodes, who also became one of that first group of black head coaches in the NFL.
"You have to start somewhere," Walsh said. "At that time, NFL teams weren’t even hiring black assistants."
In 1987, Walsh created the Minority Coaching Fellowship program, which has produced several black college coaches, including Tyrone Willingham, who hascoached at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
He also started a yearly conference of black college coaches to discuss their situation among themselves. Lowell Cohn and I were the only writers present at one memorable meeting, when coaches talked frankly among themselves and then listened to a candid message by Dr. Harry Edwards about their specific role and the condition of black society. An organizer of the black athletes’ protest at the 1968 Olympics, Edwards was a sociology professor at the University of California who had been brought to the 49ers by Walsh to counsel players. He is still on the 49ers’ payroll.
Walsh then turned his focus to the NFL, working with Roger Goodell, now the NFL commissioner but then an assistant to Paul Tagliabue, on a program to help black assistants get head-coaching jobs.
"They weren’t even getting interviews," Walsh said. "I don’t think it was racism so much as just indifference. White coaches and administrators had their own jobs, their own concerns."
"I’ve worked with Bill almost from the time I came into the league in 1982," Goodell said when I interviewed him before he became commissioner, "and I’ve never ceased to be amazed at the depth ofhis knowledge and understanding. He has a way of processing information and formulating a plan quickly."
That’s exactly what Walsh did with his program to get black assistants into head-coaching jobs.
"They weren’t even getting interviews," he noted, "So, we set up a video program where these coaches were interviewed and could then send tapes to clubs."
One black assistant who did get interviewed was Marvin Lewis, but Lewis didn’t interview well because he didn’t know what was expected. So, Walsh set up seminars with other NFL executives to instruct the black assistants on how to interview.
The black assistants were prepared when the Rooney Rule, which mandates the interviewing of at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs, was installed in 2002. There were seven black NFL head coaches last season.
It all comes back to Walsh, who has affected so many people with his intelligence and compassion.
"To focus on him as a football coach is really a mistake," Goodell said, "because it ignores the breadth of the man. He’s been involved in our league in so many ways."
Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith can attest to that.