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“Lovie, Tony A "Super" Pair”

Tom Flannery
First Prize - $10,000

Tom Flannery is a reporter and columnist for the Carbondale News. He has written opinion pieces for publications such as Newsday, The Los Angeles Times, MovieGuide, Christian Networks Journal, and WorldNetDaily.  He is a winner of the Eric Breindel Award for Outstanding Opinion Journalism and a past Amy Writing Award winner.  He also won a Keystone Award from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association (PNPA) for his work.

For the first time ever this Sunday, a black head coach will be leading his football team to the Super Bowl when Lovie Smith takes the field with his NFC champion Chicago Bears.  On the opposing sideline will be his mentor and close friend Tony Dungy, another black head coach, leading his AFC champion Indianapolis Colts.

A milestone to be sure, and a truly historic moment in sports -- as well as for society at large.  Still, the leading storyline of this highly-anticipated Super Bowl goes well beyond race, as both head coaches have acknowledged.

Both these men are Christians whose coaching styles are very similar in that they don't yell, curse, rant and rave at players.  They are teachers, not drill sergeants.  They instruct their players in the fundamentals of the game, make sound decisions, and somehow manage to consistently field winning teams wherever they go without the benefit of screaming in players' faces until spit is flying out of their mouths.

For many years, Dungy has been criticized as being too easy-going and mild-mannered to ever make it to the big game, much less win it.  In a recent interview, he noted that reporters would often ask him how he expected to motivate players without screaming and cursing at them. 

During his years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and since taking over the Colts, his teams have regularly made the playoffs and won some big games.  But he hadn't made it to the Super Bowl, so the questions about Dungy's temperament persisted, along with the criticism.

Lovie Smith, who worked as an assistant coach for Dungy in Tampa Bay, has a similarly laid-back personality.  That was evidenced most recently when Bears quarterback Rex Grossman came under blistering attack from the media for some truly atrocious performances.

When Grossman admitted publicly that he hadn't prepared for one late-season game because it was New Year's Eve and he had other plans, the calls for his scalp reached a crescendo.

Through it all, Smith remained unflustered.  At press conferences, he would get bombarded with questions about benching Grossman and treated shabbily himself for not having done so already.  Yet he would respond in his customary even-keeled way during these intense grillings.

"Rex is our quarterback," he would say calmly, even serenely, as many times as the question was asked.  "We believe we can win with Rex."

And how has Grossman fared?  Well, all he did this year was lead the Bears to an NFC-best 13-3 record in the regular season and to the Super Bowl with two post-season victories in which he played well in both playoff games.

It's no wonder that Dungy and Smith were rooting for each other to make it to the Super Bowl, while also doing everything necessary to guide their own teams there.  Their appearances as the head coaches of the two conference championship teams this Sunday will indeed make history, but it will also be a vindication of their shared philosophy on football and life itself.

As Dungy put it in an interview last week:  "I'm so happy Lovie got there [to the Super Bowl], because he does things the right way...with a lot of class, no profanity, no intimidation, but just helping his guys play the best they can.  That's the way I try to do it, and I think it's great that we're able to show the world not only that African-American coaches can do it, but Christian coaches can do it in a way that, you know, we can still win."

For that, they have earned not only the respect of their players and of people throughout the league, but their admiration as well.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning says of Dungy:  "He's among the finest people I've ever met."  And the much-maligned Grossman could not be more grateful to Smith, stating:  "I have the deepest possible regard for Coach."

And while both Dungy and Smith are proud of their race and heritage, they are by no means consumed by it.  They have never used it as an excuse during the difficult times, realizing that would only create a victim mentality that would end up hurting them in the long run.

Instead, they simply persevered.  They faced the trials, overcame the obstacles, dismissed the stereotypes that some people tried to attach to them and excelled on their own terms -- on the basis of their strength of character, hard work and dedication to their craft.

After the Bears beat the Saints for the NFC championship, Smith was asked about being the first black head coach to make it to the Super Bowl (Dungy followed a few hours later).  Smith said there would be time to talk about that in the weeks leading up to the big game, so he preferred to focus instead on his team's victory.

As for Dungy, from the time he got his first head coaching job with the Bucs, he's routinely been criticized for refusing to hire on the basis of skin color.  Race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who make big bucks fanning the flames of racial animosity and perpetuating problems they claim to be fixing, blasted him for daring to hire some white assistant coaches.

The race hustlers argued that it took so long for Dungy and other blacks to break into the coaching ranks, due in large part to passive if not overt racism, that they were now obligated to hire only black assistants.  Dungy, however, would have none of it, insisting on hiring the best people regardless of race and in the process hiring white as well as black assistants.

In so doing, he demonstrated the best and only way to end racial strife in this country.  It won't ever happen by continually highlighting and exacerbating racial tensions, but rather when whites and blacks do the exact opposite -- when we all begin removing race entirely from the equations of our daily lives as factors in personal relationships, business dealings, hiring opportunities, and so on;  when we begin treating each other as human beings, not defining each other on the basis of racial designations;  when, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed, we begin judging people not by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character.

This is a Christian principle, as the Baptist minister Dr. King understood, for the Bible tells us that "man looks at [judges by] the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (I Sam. 16:7).  In other words, it's the inner and true man that matters, not the hue of one's skin or other superficial characteristics.

The historic success of men of such sterling character as Dungy and Smith shows that we are continuing to move ever closer, however slowly, toward Dr. King's lofty ideal.


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