CHICAGO (Jan. 21, 2007) -- It took 41 years for a black head coach to make it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Lovie Smith did it Jan. 21 on a snowy afternoon in Chicago. Four hours later, his good pal and mentor Tony Dungy joined him. Not one, but two black coaches meeting in the nation's biggest sporting spectacle.
It's historic. And it's about time.
Change has come appallingly slow. But now two of the most decent, deserving men have pushed the NFL forward.
And that is a very good thing.
"It means a lot," Dungy said after his Indianapolis Colts beat New England 38-34 in the AFC title game. "I'm very proud of being an African-American. I'm very proud of Lovie."
And Smith equally so of Dungy.
"We have to play someone and, in my perfect world, I would like to see the Colts be that team," Smith said after his Chicago Bears pummeled the New Orleans Saints 39-14.
"Tony Dungy has done an awful lot for our game," Smith said. "He hasn't had a chance to coach in the Super Bowl. I would love to see it."
Now he will.
It wasn't all that long ago that the NFL's best jobs were off-limits to blacks. Never mind that three-quarters of the league's rosters were filled with black players. Or that there were qualified black assistants. When the time came to hire a new coach, they were passed over, time and again.
Meanwhile, white coaches who had done little to distinguish themselves in their previous jobs got additional chances. It was the old boys' network at its worst.
There's been some progress over the last two decades. It's been far slower than it should have been, and it took an active hand by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to pull it along.
Art Shell and Dennis Green paved the way in the modern era, and Dungy took it a step further. Low key and humble, he would never be the type to grandstand and bluster about injustice. But he was honest about the league's inequalities, and knew that his success would go a long way in opening doors for others.
One of those would be Smith, Dungy's protege in Tampa Bay. He, too, led by example.
When the Bears and Colts take the field in Miami on Feb. 4, men of color who dream of being in the center on the grandest stages will see that the door has been blown wide open. Men of color who have been held back, told in words or deeds that they weren't good enough, will have not one, but two role models as they fight for equal footing.
"Being the first black coach to lead this team, of course our players knew about it and they wanted to help us make history," Smith said. "So I feel blessed to be in that position.
"I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy."
If he doesn't, at least he'll have the consolation of knowing Dungy will.
Whether he wanted to be or not, Dungy has long been the standard bearer for minority coaches. He was just 25 when he became the NFL's youngest assistant, taking a job on Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh staff. Three years later, he was the defensive coordinator and the odds-on favorite to advance.
Oh, he got plenty of interviews. But somebody else -- somebody white -- always got the job.
Smith's odyssey was equally bumpy: Tulsa, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Tampa Bay, St. Louis. Those were only a few of the stops he made in his 20-year journey to become a head coach.
Did both deserve shots before they were hired, Dungy by Tampa Bay in 1996 and Smith by Chicago in January 2004? Certainly. But instead of whining about life being unfair, they have done their part to make sure those who come after them will have an easier path.
"When you have an opportunity like this, of course you want to take advantage of it," Bears running back Thomas Jones said. "Any time you're the first person to do anything, regardless of your race or anything like that, it's special."
Smith and Dungy know the responsibility they carry. Unlike baseball or basketball, it is still news when a team hires a black coach in the NFL. Even bigger news when a black man is hired to run the front office.
With every big victory, they remove another thorn of prejudice.
"I'm happy for both coaches," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "I hope we get to the point we don't have to hear about it."
The day when a coach's skin is no longer an issue isn't here yet. But by making history together, Smith and Dungy have brought it a little closer.