Coaching change

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Josh Peter
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Coaching change

Also see: Tony Dungy coaching tree

Long after people forget the score and the venue, they might recall Super Bowl XLI as the most socially significant football game since the NFL discovered Roman numerals.

Tony Dungy, whose skin color and calm demeanor contrast with those of Vince Lombardi and the dozens of drill sergeant-like coaches the Green Bay Packers legend spawned, on Sunday became the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl. His Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

What led to this historic moment – when not just one, but two black head coaches reached the Super Bowl for the first time in the game's 41-year history – and what impact will it have? And will the fact that these two men, known for their even-keeled approaches, set the standard for others on the sideline?

In search of answers, we rounded up an esteemed panel of experts. The group includes two Super Bowl-winning coaches, two former NFL players, a college professor and a sports psychologist.

For the purpose of our roundtable, they will be known as "The Genius," "The Professor," "The Sociologist," "The Shrink," "The Assistant" and "The Debunker."

Read on to find out who's who and what they think?

THE GENIUS

Bill Walsh earned his nickname and three Super Bowl rings as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 1979-1989. During his tenure, he perfected the West Coast offense, drafted Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott and, in what now appears more meaningful than ever, traded a 10th-round draft pick in his first year with the team for a decent defensive back.

That player's name was Tony Dungy.

In 1978, Dungy was a member of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. A year later, he was a member of a team that was headed for the Super Bowl only if it bought tickets for the game. The 49ers finished 2-14 and Dungy retired after the season.

Bill Walsh


Walsh

"We only won two games that year, but you could see coach Walsh putting the groundwork together, the things he really believed in," Dungy recalled in a recent interview with the Oakland Tribune. " … Nothing could make him waver.

"He believed in the short passing game. He believed in being precise. He believed in getting quality players who believed in the system. That taught me a lot. It was really the ground level of how to build a championship team."

Later, Walsh began to watch Dungy. Watch him rise from a defensive backs coach with the Steelers to defensive coordinator. Watch him get his first shot as a head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Watch people speculate that Dungy was too calm, too composed, too nice to make it to the Super Bowl even while Dungy built the Buccaneers into a defensive juggernaut.

Walsh then watched Dungy get fired, get a second shot as head coach with the Indianapolis Colts and this year, at last, reach the Super Bowl. Walsh noticed something else, too: That Dungy hired an assistant coach in 1996 by the name of Lovie Smith, who distinguished himself as a linebackers coach for the Buccaneers, got his shot as head coach with the Chicago Bears three years ago and, lo and behold, reached the Super Bowl the same year as Dungy did.

"Tony and Lovie are professionals, and I think that's what players want," Walsh said last week. "There are some coaches who are screamers in the NFL, but not as many as there used to be.

"Some of [the players] just can't see the real value of the coach if he's continually harping at them and harping at the media and harping at everybody else. I think it's a defense mechanism. The coaches who continue to be so animated that they distract everybody are usually coaches without a lot of confidence. The confident coach can plot out what he needs, how his staff should function and people respect that.

"Tony and Lovie take a more civilized approach to it and they can reach more players that way. But I think in both of their cases they're pretty darn firm when necessary, but they don't go public with those things. Both are very knowledgeable about the game of football and how to deal with people.

"I hope this style is what survives rather than the coaches who run amok whenever they're tested on the sideline, and the players see that they may have a madman on their hands and they may have to overcome it."

These are not the musings of a man who retired as head coach after winning the '89 Super Bowl and walked away from football. These are the careful observations of a man who returned to the 49ers as vice president and general manager from 1999 to 2001 and remained with the team as a consultant for the next three years.

"It's a changed environment over the last 20 years, 15 years, 10 years," Walsh said. "Coaches must be more discerning. The players are more sophisticated than they were and they just don't blindly fall in step.

"You've got to be willing to listen to them and make sure that you respond to them and be aware of distractions. There are coaches who are just blind to that type of thing. A lot of coaches today won't even go into the players' locker room just because it's another culture in their mind and they're just uneasy and they'll only meet players on the practice field."

Could it be that black coaches like Dungy and Smith stand a better chance of connecting with players in this changed environment, particularly since almost 70 percent of the NFL's players are black? Walsh sounded unsure, but The Professor sounded certain.

THE PROFESSOR

Leonard Moore runs the African-American studies program at Louisiana State University, and he considers sport part of the curriculum. He has spent time studying coaches, including Dungy and Smith.

"By them being African-American men, I think Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith understand the culture of the hip hop generation," Moore said. "And I think by being African-American men, they can relate to African-American men a whole lot better than those old-school white coaches.

"They know that Bobby Knight stuff isn't going to work in 2007, that yelling and trying to be that strict dictator. I think you're dealing with a different generation of ballplayers that aren't going to tolerate that stuff.

"I don't think [Dungy and Smith] are trying to be players' coaches at all. I think it's, 'Hey, we're black men and we've had similar experiences. I'm going to treat you like a man and in return I expect you to treat me like a man. ' They're treating the athletes like men, and in the past I've seen white coaches treat the players like boys.

"I think Dungy and Smith see their role not only as coach but as mentor, father figure and friend. I think that's what black coaches bring to the table if they're given an opportunity.

"Kids of this generation don't want to be yelled at. I think you [lead] by example. In the black community, we're big on this thing: 'I don't care what you say. I'm going to model what you do.' So I think by Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith being very calm, cool and collected, players realize, 'Maybe I don't have to be loud and go off the handle. Maybe I can have some control over my anger and my emotions.' That's what I see from Dungy and Smith."

Yet The Sociologist takes issue with The Professor – and The Genius.

THE SOCIOLOGIST

Harry Edwards


Edwards (right)

He was a football player-turned-civil rights activist who went on to become a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the world's foremost experts in race and sport. In 1995, Harry Edwards, The Sociologist, joined The Genius as a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers.

Long before Dungy and Smith distinguished themselves, Edwards watched Walsh use a similar style of coaching – a poised, even-tempered teacher and mentor who was less entertaining than the likes of the volatile Mike Ditka yet ultimately more successful, too.

But Edwards said it's premature to suggest Dungy and Smith represent any philosophical shift in coaching.

"I don't think the NFL is going to get to a place where they have 32 teams, all with athletes who respond principally to the teacher-mentor approach," he said. "First of all, let's deal with the two teams that made it to the Super Bowl.

"They made it to the Super Bowl because their players made plays and they won games. That's the first thing. Now exactly how they engineered that situation, I think it has far more to do with the players they bring in, the players that they pick, than with any particular [coaching] style.

"If you have a guy that responds to a screamer, a curser, a guy who can put one arm around your shoulder while he puts a foot in your ass, then you want to know that you have a coach on board before you bring that player in. If you have a player that fits the bill in terms of athleticism and everything else but he responds to a teacher, mentor-type coach, you better be certain that you have that type of coach on board.

"I think Tony and Lovie have been able to work effectively with their front offices to bring in particular types of players and I don't think that's accidental. … As things became more and more Jerry McGuire-ish as in 'Show me the money, show me the camera, show me the endorsement,' I think they became more and more committed to bringing in a different kind of kid, a kid that's more compatible to what they're trying to do."

Edwards believes Dungy and Smith share something more important than a cool demeanor, heritage and race. He said both coaches understand their role as football CEOs.

"You're talking about a situation where executive command and an ability to manage men carries much more functional weight than simply having the authority and wielding the authority of a head coach," Edwards said. "At one time [a coach] could say, 'Do two handstands, a cartwheel, a flip and 10 pushups, ' and you'd have all the athletes down without question. Today they'd say, 'Why should I do that? ' A lot has changed and those management skills have become absolutely paramount.

"If there's a distinction between these two coaches and what you may have seen in the past, it's that they lean a lot less on 'You do this because I'm the head coach and you're the player and I have the authority to demand that you do this. ' They lean a lot less on that than on their management skills, knowing that young man, understanding what buttons to push, knowing how far you can push him and along with that cool, have that credibility as a coach that's in executive command."

THE SHRINK

Bill Cole had a strong rooting interest in this year's Super Bowl. Regardless of the outcome, he was guaranteed to win.

He's a fan of calm coaches.

"It's very important they don't spread their personal stress to the players," said Cole, a sports psychology consultant in California who works with coaches and athletes. "The coach feels better if they blow up? Good. But what does that do to your players? The players that need to be yelled at? Great. The players that don't need to be yelled at? They may take it bad or maybe shut down and that yelling can cause performance deficits in the players. So those are really the reasons I don't recommend yelling and screaming. If you've got to yell and scream in the first place, you're not getting their attention anyhow."

Pointing out that Dungy and Smith are both devout Christians who stress that faith and families take priority over football, Cole said, "Here's the real paradox. They're in the Super Bowl and football is not the biggest thing in their world. They have publicly stated that. Sure, it's important, but it's not the end-all and they have perspective. I think when you get life perspective as an athlete or as a coach, it calms you down more.

"They've been with their teams long enough where the guys on the team know who they are as people and they figure it out and say, 'He gets his point across without yelling and they accept that.' It's more of a style thing. They're comfortable in their own skin, with their style, and people understand that and they accept it. They're not doing anything for show."

Though Cole resists calling this Super Bowl the death knell for volatile coaches, he said he sees a new trend in the corporate world that might be permeating football as well. The trend started about 15 years ago, Cole said, when business analysts started paying attention to a leader's "emotional intelligence."

"Your emotional intelligence is how you deal with people," Cole said. "Can you get them on your side? How do you build rapport? You still have yellers out there, bully bosses. But I think less."

THE ASSISTANT

Earnest Byner


Byner

The influence of hip hop might have less to do with a new culture among NFL players than the massive amounts of money they now make, according to Earnest Byner, a one-time Pro Bowl running back-turned-assistant coach. He played in the NFL from 1984 through 1997 and said he witnessed changes that have led to what he considers a new era, which he studies first-hand as running backs coach for the Washington Redskins.

"When we were players, for the most part, you did whatever you were told to do and you didn't really ask a whole lot of questions or make a lot of demands," Byner said. "Now you basically have to explain even more so why you want things to be done and why you want things to be a done a certain way and also explain how it affects the overall dynamics of the team if it's done this way.

"You can't scare guys into doing a job now that they've got the [guaranteed] money. What are you doing to do, cut them? That's what you used to be able to hold over guy's heads. Now it costs so much, especially if you've made a hell of an investment in someone.

"Part of that has made the coaches evolve and produced a different level of coach that was needed now that you've got guys who will challenge authority figures more so than we would have when we were playing. The relationship that you have with the guys now has to be more of a parental relationship than somebody that's a dominant figure and a dominant personality."

A dominant figure is how Byner would've described Marty Schottenheimer, for whom Byner played as a member of the Cleveland Browns. Byner cited Schottenheimer, now head coach of the San Diego Chargers, as an old-school taskmaster who adapted his ways, evidenced by the coach's willingness to hold out All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson from preseason workouts for precautionary reasons.

"I would have never thought Marty would hold a player out of the preseason," Byner said, noting that Schottenheimer also has reduced the amount of contact during practices. "He's made adjustments.

"That doesn't mean that everybody's not going to curse at a player. There's always different ways of being successful. But with Lovie and Tony, these guys are consistent, accountable and smart. You'll very rarely see them overreact to a situation."

THE DEBUNKER

Dick Vermeil


Vermeil

Considering 20 years separated the first and last time Dick Vermeil reached the Super Bowl as a head coach, one would expect he would have seen any evolution among coaches. But when told about Byner's remarks, Vermeil replied, "That's sounds good, but the players still do what the head coach says.

"Every coach that goes to the Super Bowl goes with his own personality, leadership, makeup and his own style. When you have enough good players, your style tends to work.

"Could Lombardi come back and coach today? You bet. Could Tom Landry come back and coach today? You bet. Could Don Shula do the same thing? You bet."

Then Vermeil paid homage to the NFL's legendary sourpuss, Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots. Under Belichick, who usually radiates all the warmth of a blizzard, Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2001, 2003 and 2004 and nearly got there again this year.

Pointing out that Belichick's cold style contrasts with that of Dungy and Smith, Vermeil added, "If you wanted to go based on [Super Bowl victories], you'd have to say Bill Belichick's style is better. It's totally dependent on number one, being very good at what you do in your own personality, and number two, having very, very good football players."

That said, no matter how small, Belichick has undergone his own evolution. He will never be described as a mentor, teacher and father figure the way Dungy and Smith are, but few could have expected what happened during 2001 season.

After his team suffered a 30-10 loss to the Dolphins, Belichick held a mock funeral. He put a football inside a small coffin and, with that, said he and the team were going to bury the loss.

With that, Belichick buried the notion that he was devoid of emotion, and his team responded with four victories in the next five games.

"Probably like all of us in 10 years, I feel I've learned a lot," he told reporters before the 2002 Super Bowl. "I'm more aware and more cognizant of the total things that affect a football team, as opposed to just what happens between the white lines.

"It's pretty important what happens between the lines, but there are other things outside the football team that emotionally and psychologically I've probably given a little more attention to."

And that, Bill Walsh might agree, is real genius.