Paving the way

Jason Cole

MOBILE, Ala. – John Wooten pulls a small, clear plastic box from the right pocket of his sweatsuit pants. The box fits easily in the palm of his large right hand. In it is a rosary of black beads and a crucifix.

"Now, I don't have to pray anymore that a black head coach will win the Super Bowl one day," the 70-year-old Wooten said with a satisfied smile. Wooten, the director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance that helps promote NFL minority coaching candidates, held his longest and strongest personal prayer vigil last week.

Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears and Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts made his hope a reality. As the Bears and Colts prepare to meet in Super Bowl XLI in Miami on Feb. 4, it is already assured that a black man will finally lead his team to a NFL championship.

For men like Wooten, Jimmy Raye, Mel Phillips and Jim Anderson, who have all spent the majority of their lives in the NFL, seeing this finally happen is the end of a journey of personal sacrifice. All endured their own slings of racism, learning to overcome it and setting the table for Smith or Dungy to accomplish what they never got a chance to do because of social morays and stupidity.

Raye, the running backs coach of the New York Jets, has spent the past 31 years coaching in the NFL. He speaks eloquently, using an array of words that paint his emotions in ways his somber voice will not convey. On the night his long-time friend Dungy reached the Super Bowl with a victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, his feelings blended in a sweet mix.

"It was a combination of jubilation and exhilaration, a mixture of emotions that culminated from a lot of anxiety and frustration over the years," said Raye, who is 60. The past five months have been a celebration of what his life's purpose has been.

In September, Raye attended the 40th anniversary of the famed 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame game which ended in a 10-10 tie. Raye was the Michigan State quarterback and the only black man starting at that position at the Division I level at the time, also the height of the civil rights movement.

At the time, Raye did his best to fit in rather than rock the boat of college athletics. He kept his afro short and his moustache trimmed so as not to offend. As a young coach, he always worked to perfect his understanding of strategy and management.

"I made sure I was qualified, an excellent teacher of football … my expertise had to be far and away better than the guys I was competing against," Raye said. "I made sure I wasn't the social director or just the guy they came to when there was a problem with the black players."

Earlier this month, Raye watched Florida beat Ohio State in the BCS national championship game, each school starting a black quarterback. Now, he'll get to see a black man win a Super Bowl.

"I'm grateful that all the arrows and mortars that had been fallen upon weren't in vain," Raye said. "Now, it's the rule rather than the exception that two major-college programs could be in the championship game with black quarterbacks. Now, it's possible that two black head coaches can lead their teams to a Super Bowl.

"From where it was when I entered the league to where it is now … I've been very fortunate to see that the social [mores] have changed."

Even if the changes can be painfully glacial and personally frustrating.

There was a time in the 1980s that Raye and Dungy were talked about as being the most likely candidates to be the first black head coach in the modern NFL. Neither arrived first, getting beaten out by Art Shell – hired by the Oakland Raiders – in 1989. Raye became the offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1983, but couldn't get much more than a couple of token interviews.

"First, you had to be an assistant head coach or a coordinator before you could be considered for a head coaching position," Raye said. "Then it was that you had to have head coaching experience somewhere else … There was always some criteria set up that blacks couldn't fulfill."

In the meantime, blacks would be set in certain roles. Phillips and Anderson have spent their entire careers as secondary and running backs coaches, respectively. Those jobs (along with wide receiver coach) were often designated for blacks because most of the players at those positions are black.

"Anybody who is a competitor wants to be given a chance to lead their team, whether you're a player or a coach," said the 65-year-old Phillips, a former San Francisco 49ers safety currently on the Miami Dolphins' staff. "But when you get into doing your job, you realize how you fit in to the entire equation of the team being successful. You go out and work to be the best coach you can be and you hope that the opportunity presents itself."

To Anderson, gaining respect was part of the process.

"You develop a reputation as a coach that makes it clear to everyone that you're a good coach and not just a good black coach," said Anderson, who has spent 23 years on the Cincinnati Bengals' staff. "That's what's important about the two men who are coaching in the Super Bowl. Lovie and Tony aren't two black coaches. They are two good coaches, period. That's how you want it to be and if it took all of us to help that happen, that's our contribution.

"The chance for me to be a head coach has passed me by and I understand that, but I'm not bitter about it because it helped open the doors for others.

Or as Raye put it: "It's gratifying to see that our sacrifices have manifested themselves in an opportunity for others to make it … I did my deal as good as anybody. It does my heart good to know that.

Better yet, the football landscape is now vastly different.

"The younger [black] coaches coming up today, they couldn't begin to understand the prejudices that existed," Raye said. "And that's OK.

The world is a little better place.