MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Super Bowl XLI will make history. It will be the first time that a black head coach has made it to the NFL championship. Check that, not just a black coach, two black head coaches - Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and his good friend Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears. After his win, Coach Smith talked about this landmark moment.
LOVIE SMITH: Being the first black coach to lead his team, of course our players knew about it. And they wanted to help us make history today. So I feel blessed to be in that position. Feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy.
BLOCK: And four hours later, it was Coach Dungy's turn.
TONY DUNGY: I'm very, very proud. And as an African American, it's going to be special. But I want to really just let us savor this and make this about the Colts and our organization tonight.
BLOCK: The rise of black coaches in the NFL has been a goal of Cyrus Mehri. Four years ago, he and fellow attorney Johnny Cochran reported on the dearth of black head coaches in the NFL.
Cyrus Mehri is now legal counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, whose mission is to promote diversity among NFL coaches and front office and scouting staff. He joins us at our studios. Thanks for coming in.
CYRUS MEHRI: It's a pleasure to be here.
BLOCK: Let's put these numbers in some context. Seventy percent of NFL players are African American. What are the numbers for coaches?
MEHRI: Okay, currently, there are six black head coaches. When Johnny Cochran and I started this project in 2002, there were only two black head coaches and it had been stagnant for years. Now also on the front office side, we've increased the numbers from one in 2002 to six in terms of GM or GM-like positions.
BLOCK: Your report that came out in 2002 led the NFL to make some very concrete changes. It's called the Rooney Rule. It has to do with hiring and interviewing.
MEHRI: That's right. In 2002, we issued a report that showed that black candidates were held to a higher standard than white candidates. And a few black coaches, such as Tony Dungy back then, had really excelled - gone to the playoffs very frequently, and so that we're able to show that kind of double standard.
What we advocated is the concept of a diverse candidate slate. And the league with its leadership of the commissioner, Dan Rooney, adopted the idea of interviewing at least one minority candidate for each head coach position. And we've dubbed it the Rooney Rule, name of Dan Rooney, the owner of the Steelers.
BLOCK: It's interesting if you read about Tony Dungy, when he was head coach at Tampa Bay, people talked about him being a real catalyst for finding and nurturing talent, not just among African American assistant coaches, but there are a number of them, including Lovie Smith, who have risen quite far.
MEHRI: Exactly. One of the reasons we so admired coac, Dungy is he's not only one of the finest coaches in the NFL and one of the finest human beings, but he's doing everything he can to open doors for others. And this platform now with him and Coach Smith and the Super Bowl creates an even greater platform to open doors for others.
BLOCK: What is that platform, do you think? What is the takeaway message from that?
MEHRI: Success leads to other success. And as the owners see black coaches creating phenomenal success, it makes it easier for them to not only be inclusive about minority coaches, but to select minority coaches, such as today when the Steelers selected Mike Tomlin as the new head coach of the Steelers.
BLOCK: Becoming the sixth African American head coach.
MEHRI: Right. We peaked at seven last in the 2006-2007 season. And now we're at six going into 2007, but there's still two openings to be filled.
BLOCK: One of the Colts players, Dwight Freeney, said I hope we get to the point were we don't have to hear about it, meaning the fact that he is an African American coach. How long do you think it will be until this isn't an important point of conversation? It's just something that's accepted, not remarked upon?
MEHRI: Well, this may be the turning point on that. I mean, one thing we know is that no matter what, regardless of the outcome, we know an African American head coach is going to walk away with the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
BLOCK: And can you imagine a time when it will just be something that's a matter, of course, not a big deal at all that an African American coaches are going to the Super Bowl?
MEHRI: I think that we're probably a few years away from that. It's probably not too far down the road.
BLOCK: Cyrus Mehri, thanks very much for coming in.
MEHRI: Okay, it's my pleasure.
BLOCK: Cyrus Mehri is legal counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which aims to promote diversity on NFL team staffs.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.