On the surface, the forced dismissal of Dennis Green in Minnesota and the firing of Tony Dungy in Tampa looks bad for the NFL as it tries to promote black coaches.
Beneath the surface, league and team officials say, it's only a slight setback in a business where all coaches, black and white, are hired to be fired.
So while Herman Edwards of the New York Jets is now the NFL's only black head coach and there have never been more than three in one season, the future looks brighter. Consider this: At the NFL's annual March meeting 15 years ago, there was just one black among the 250 league officials.
Not so in Division I college football, where there are only four black head coaches for 115 schools and only one -- Notre Dame's newly hired Tyrone Willingham -- at a high-profile university.
Four NFL jobs are open and two could be filled by blacks -- one, perhaps, by Dungy.
More important, there are far more minority candidates than ever in the loop for head coaching jobs. Of the six or seven assistant coaches most mentioned for those openings, four are black.
''It's no longer a black and white issue,'' Joe Browne, the NFL's senior vice president, said Tuesday. ''Whatever is going to help a team is the decision that's being made on a club-to-club basis.''
Black coaches have done well since Art Shell became the first of the modern era, with the Raiders in 1989. That was the same year Paul Tagliabue became commissioner and made it one of his priorities to move blacks into coaching and front-office positions.
The five blacks to coach NFL teams -- Shell, Green, Ray Rhodes, Dungy and Edwards -- are 262-212-1 in 27 combined full seasons. They have won a total of six division titles, with 17 playoff appearances and four trips to conference championship games -- two by Green and one each by Shell and Dungy.
Only Rhodes, now Denver's defensive coordinator, has a losing record for his career -- 38-44-1.
Some other harbingers:
-- Blacks are now in the recycling loop -- something that kept them out of head coaching jobs in the past when they correctly complained there was an old boys network that kept white coaches moving around the league.
Rhodes was hired by Green Bay in 1999 after being fired by Philadelphia in 1998. Dungy, the only winning coach in Tampa Bay history, is at the head of the list for vacancies in Indianapolis and perhaps Carolina. And Green, who is taking a year off to become a television analyst, would probably be a hot candidate if he chooses to return after next season.
-- Of the half-dozen coordinators most frequently mentioned as future head coaches, four are black: Ted Cottrell of the Jets, Lovie Smith of the St. Louis Rams, Greg Blache of the Chicago Bears and Marvin Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. Lewis most likely would have gotten a job last season had he not had to wait until after the Super Bowl to interview.
-- Dungy's downfall might have been the result of losing his two top assistant coaches, both of them black. Edwards went to the Jets as head coach and got them to the playoffs, and Smith went to the Rams to take over the defense, which ended the regular season allowing 12 points a game fewer than a year ago.
-- Cottrell also is interviewing in Indianapolis, and Carolina might talk to Lewis but can't until the Ravens' season ends. This is the first year on the ''hot list'' for Blache and Smith, who might not move up until next season.
But like Lewis, Blache and Smith work for teams still in the playoffs, so they can't be approached yet.
Still, at best next season there will be no more than three blacks among the 32 coaches in a league in which about 70 percent of the players are minorities.
There are four vacancies and the hiring trend seems to favor coaching superstars -- Steve Spurrier in Washington and probably Bill Parcells succeeding Dungy in Tampa Bay.
Given the NFL's track record, however, teams with openings should look beyond just a name.
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