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SPORTS: Super Bowl has special meaning for diversity watchdog

February 5, 2007

As this is being written, it is uncertain which head coach will grasp the Lombardi Trophy.

Those of us here certainly hope it is the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy.

If not, however, Floyd Keith of the Indianapolis-based Black Coaches Association still can't lose.

Because the trophy then would be in the hands of the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith.

As most of the world knows by now, Super Bowl XLI in Miami was going to be historic even before the opening kickoff. That's because it's the first time that not just one team, but both, have been led into the Big Game by African-American coaches.

So, why should we care? There are those who suggest we shouldn't and wonder if such milestones even need to be noted anymore, let alone dwelled upon.

But to Keith, whose BCA exists to create opportunities for minority coaches-especially at the collegiate level-it is a watershed moment, one he journeyed to Miami to witness.

"This is similar to when Doug Williams was the quarterback for the Washington Redskins and won the Super Bowl, which led to more opportunities for black quarterbacks in the NFL. This can make a difference the way it did when John Thompson [Georgetown University] and Nolan Richardson [University of Arkansas] won NCAA basketball championships. You could go back further to when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. It's just so gratifying to see those barriers broken."

Hyperbole? To some, perhaps. But not to Keith, the former Indiana University football assistant and head coach at the University of Rhode Island who took over the reins of a floundering BCA in 2001 and has made it relevant again.

"I want to be able to tell my kids I was there," Keith said. "There's a lot of emotion to this, and there's a lot of emotion to see Tony and Lovie and see the pride they have. When I saw their faces ... well, maybe you just have to be an African-American coach to have empathy for where they were coming from to reach this moment.

"A lot of baggage has just been taken off the train."

Still, it is the NFL's train, where seven of 32 head coaching positions are held by African-Americans. In the Division IA college ranks, the number of African-American head coaches is abysmal-six of 117.

"Paltry ... embarrassing," Keith called those numbers. "You can't just keep sweeping this under the rug."

Minority opportunities in the NFL have been abetted by the "Rooney Rule," inspired by Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who heads the league's diversity committee. It mandates that at least one African-American must be interviewed every time a head coaching position opens. If not, the franchise faces a $200,000 fine.

In the NCAA, there is no rule. NCAA President Myles Brand is solidly in favor of increased minority hiring, and often uses his bully pulpit to preach that particular gospel.

"Myles Brand gets it," Keith said.

However, Brand cannot mandate inclusion of minorities in the hiring process. So it's left for Keith and the BCA to independently review every college hire. From that, the BCA issues its an annual report card. And every year, the BCA hands out far too many C's, D's and F's.

"We can't fine anyone," he said. "All we can do is embarrass them."

The NFL hiring process also is much simpler. The owner and the general manager are usually the only two involved.

"In college, you've got the president, the athletic director, the search committee, the guys who give all the money ... what's the likelihood all those groups will 'get it'?" Keith said.

Perhaps they'll get it by seeing Dungy and Smith, especially the character and class those two men exude.

"How can [Dungy and Smith in the Super Bowl] not be a positive statement to college presidents and athletic directors?" Keith asked.

In an ideal world, Keith said, he would like to put himself out of business, having no need for the BCA to advocate for equal opportunity in hiring.

He also has shared with me, on occasion, some of the hateful, racist e-mails and messages he receives. They turn your stomach.

A man with less determination than Floyd might be dissuaded from pursuing the BCA mission.

But then, there comes that Sunday when two African-American coaches share a handshake on the biggest stage of all, and it makes the quest to overcome and persevere worthwhile.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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