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NFL head-coach opening? Blacks need not apply

Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness.

He would see this Catch-22 clearly, too, see it spinning like a top. To wit: A black man will not be a head coach in the NFL until he has acquired the experience and peer respect demanded by the job; a black man will not have attained those qualities until he has been an NFL head coach.

Yossarian would say, "There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking." Then he would gag. For this Catch-22 sticks in one's craw like an open pin. It is an embarrassment to all, but especially the NFL.

The Atlanta Falcons' recent search for a head coach to replace the fired Dan Henning demonstrated this farce once again. For six weeks the Falcons offered the job to virtually any current or former head coach from any league who had a remote interest in settling in Suwanee, Ga. Ex-Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil turned it down. So did UCLA's Terry Donahue and Denver's Dan Reeves. Prospects came and went in a parade of whiteness. Finally, Atlanta promoted its defensive coordinator, Marion Campbell, whom the team had fired as head coach in 1976 after he had guided the Falcons to a 6-19 record in three seasons. "He has the head-coaching experience we wanted," said team owner Rankin Smith Sr. Oh? Campbell's lifetime NFL record is 23-48-1, and he has never had a winning season.

I don't want to single out Atlanta for not offering the job to a black NFL assistant or one of the three black NCAA Division I-A head coaches: Ohio University's Cleve Bryant, North western's Francis Peay and UNLV's Wayne Nunnley. (The NCAA's record is only slightly better than the NFL's.) History says no other team would have, either. Indeed, the NFL's one and only black coach was Fritz Pollard, who led the Hammond (Ind.) Pros from 1923 to 1925 and was the team's star back.

Today 55% of the players in the league are black. Blacks scored 81% of all touchdowns in the NFL in 1986. On this year's 10 playoff teams, all 20 starting cornerbacks were black. Evidently blacks can pull the oars, but they can't crack the whips. Oh, there are black NFL assistants—34 in fact—but that works out to about one black per 10-man staff, perfect tokenism.

It is often said in NFL front offices that the first black head coach will have to be "better" than anybody else just to bear up under the pressure he will encounter. The implication is that management is protecting aspiring black coaches from unknown terrors by not hiring them. Management usually adds that the best-qualified blacks, the sharpest former NFL players, have been going on to other professions. "They go into other business where they feel they can do much better," says the Cowboys' president, Tex Schramm. Given the alternative, who wouldn't?

Of course, major league baseball and the NBA used the same rationale for years before they broke down and hired blacks—and they still seem to be functioning. The problem in football has a lot to do with what a head coach is perceived to be. Football people would have you believe that basketball coaches simply throw their best five out there and cheer them on. Baseball managers fill out the lineup and then spit seeds for a few hours. NFL head coaches, however, lead armies. They have staffs. They are genius generals. And they scare the hell out of NFL bigwigs, who are now, and always have been, 100% white.

"Choosing a head coach is like choosing a wife," Pete Rozelle has said. "It's a very personal thing." It is remarkable how this man, who can get so impassioned over issues ranging from headband slogans to drug testing, can be so wishy-washy on this matter. "I think there will be a black head coach, though I can't predict when or where," Rozelle said just last season.

Make no mistake, there are black men qualified to head-coach in the NFL. I know them. Dallas' Al Lavan, Pittsburgh's Tony Dungy, San Francisco's Dennis Green, the Raiders' Willie Brown, Chicago's Johnny Roland, to name just a few.

A couple of years ago, when then 26-year-old David Shula was being courted for Philadelphia's head-coaching job, someone asked Dungy, the Steelers' defensive coordinator, what he thought. At the time, Shula's main qualifications were long experience as a Miami Dolphins ballboy, three seasons as the Dolphins' receivers coach and the right name. "Just don't say that there aren't any blacks who are qualified," said Dungy. "Don't say it's not the right time or the right place."

Sorry, Tony, it's not the right time. It's the 20th century. And it's not the right place. It's the NFL.