True indeed, not one, but two African-American head coaches will for the first time participate in the most widely-watched sports extravaganza in the U.S. – the Super Bowl. In its 41-year existence, this famed championship of the National Football League has never hosted a black general on its sidelines. Profoundly, 6:25 p.m. on Sunday, February 4th will be the initial time of another significant moment in black history as Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears play each other for the Vince Lombardi Trophy and world championship title in Miami, Florida.
To call it a Soul Bowl may initiate commentary, but there is nothing trivial with using “soul” in this circumstance – not when the word reached its potency from icons including Rev. Jesse Jackson, James Brown and others especially during the Civil Rights Movement to promote black upliftment, unity and strength. Today, “soul” will reign supreme again, as two African-Americans prove that with virtues like patience, strength, perseverance and spirituality – nothing is impossible.
Tony Dungy never shied away from acknowledging his Creator as the source of his strength to get him through the adversity and hardships he has endured over the years. Already attempting to defy the odds of being a successful black coach during a time where they couldn’t be counted on one hand, he had to answer the challenge making a horrific Tampa Bay Buccaneer franchise a force to be reckoned with. From 1996-2001, he miraculously qualified for the playoffs four times in six seasons. Even with the impressive track record, Dungy parted ways with Tampa Bay, only to see his creation become slightly tweaked to win the Super Bowl the next year
On Jan. 22, 2000, the struggling Colts recognized Dungy’s ability to resurrect a franchise and coupled the defensive mastermind with a potent, showtime offense led by All-American gunslinger Peyton Manning. Indianapolis became instant Super Bowl contenders, but got victimized by the Jets (2002); dream-killer Tom Brady of the tenacious New England Patriots (2003-2004); and the Pittsburgh Steelers (2005). Regardless of Dungy being the NFL’s winningest head coach from 1999-2005 and the only one to beat all 32 NFL teams, Brady owned him and the Colts for two years straight. It became a beating that everyone except Patriot fans could barely endure.
Even with the tragic death of his son, James, coupled with the heartbreaking playoff loss delivered by the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Championship game, Dungy’s strength of character shined through. On January 21, on his home turf, Dungy & Co. defeated their arch nemesis and triumphantly forced New England to make plans on where they were going to watch the Super Bowl in 2007. Dungy’s family, friends and the entire Colts organization finally exhaled by reaching the Promised Land.
Then there’s Lovie Smith, who is technically the first to black coach to reach the Super Bowl. Just hours before the Colts’ victory, Smith and his ferocious Chicago Bears became the champions of the National Conference, sending the New Orleans Saints and their feel-good story of the year home. The Saints had a great run, coming back from a last-place stance the year before and practically stealing the “America’s team” moniker from the Dallas Cowboys after overcoming the Katrina catastrophe. In the end, Smith was the victor. But it wasn’t easy.
Smith, who just edged Dungy by a few votes to win the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year Award in 2005, was also a game away from being in the history books as the first black coach in the Super Bowl, but lost to the Carolina Panthers. Even with his accomplishments, he was constantly questioned when not opting to find a replacement for his unpredictable, inconsistent and injury-prone quarterback Rex Grossman. With his defense touted as one of the most feared in the NFL (that had to win some games single handedly), Grossman was often labeled the thorn in the side of the Chicago Bears’ organization. Nevertheless, Smith further pursued other players to enhance his already formidable defense instead of making a new field general his priority. Answering prying reporters who questioned his decision making, Smith said repetitively with a smile, “Rex Grossman is my quarterback. Next question.” After ending the regular 2006 season with the League’s second scoring offense and third overall defense, Smith (remarkably the lowest-paid head coach in the League) stayed with his intuition and became the first black coach to be in the Super Bowl.
To further enhance this already enlightening story, Smith celebrated his win by going out to dinner, watching the American League Championship and openly cheering for Dungy to win against the Patriots. See, Dungy gave Smith his first NFL coaching opportunity in 1996 as a linebacker coach when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The coaching tandem created one of the stingiest defensive schemes in League history called the “Tampa-2.” After four years, Smith later became the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams before earning the head coaching job with Chicago in 2004. Throughout their coaching tenure, however, both Smith and Dungy have remained good friends that talked weekly, encouraging each other to succeed and defy the odds. And now they are both Super Bowl-bound.
In a league where over 70 percent of the players are non-Caucasian, yet only six out of 32 teams have African-American head coaches, it’s a beautiful miracle – a storybook ending – where these highly respectable, humble class acts meet in a NFL Championship that will have no loser.
The greatest highlight of the game will not be an acrobatic catch or a bone-jarring hit. The climax of the game will be when Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy embrace in the middle of the field once the game is over, congratulating each other for standing up to the press, conquering their adversities and jointly becoming the first African-American head coaches in the Super Bowl during Black History Month.
Now that’s soul.