No call for Packers' Lewis bad call for NFL

January 22, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO -- Here's his condensed resume:

Occupation: Offensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers.

Previous employers: Bill Walsh, George Seifert.

Honors: Four Super Bowl rings.

References: Roger Craig, Jerry Rice, Brett Favre.

"It leaves me almost speechless," Al Lavan was saying yesterday. "Here's a guy who's in a certain position and has shown a certain level of competency that can't even get a telephone call, an inquiry as to what's going on.

"It's almost laughable that you can't find someone to at least talk to him. Not hiring him, that's a whole another ball of wax. But not talking to him? I don't even understand it."

No one does.

Not Lavan, the Ravens' running back coach.

Not dozens of other black NFL assistants.

And most of all, not Sherman Lewis.

It's perhaps the most blatant exclusion of a qualified minority candidate in recent sports history.

If Lewis were white, is there any question that he would be a head coach by now?

He has been in eight of the past 15 NFC title games. He has worked for the best coaches, tutored the best players, compiled the best credentials.

And he can't get a call.

Eleven coaching vacancies last year, no interviews. Four more this year, no interviews.

Buffalo recycled Wade Phillips. Indianapolis recycled Jim Mora. Oakland is about to hire Jon Gruden, who worked under Lewis in San Francisco and Green Bay.

Lewis, 55, is about to earn his fifth Super Bowl ring.

Gruden, 34, has yet to win one.

"To say Jon is more qualified than me is to say I'm more qualified than Bill Clinton to be president," Lewis said Tuesday.

He is not angry, just frustrated. He doesn't want to be a martyr. He just wants to be a head coach in the NFL.

One vacancy remains -- Dallas. Owner Jerry Jones reportedly wants to interview Lewis, but under NFL rules, cannot contact him until after the Super Bowl.

"I can't say I expect to hear from him. I hope I hear from him. It would be nice," Lewis said yesterday.

Is he the victim of racism? Lewis prefers to cite the old-boy network. Of course, that's just a kinder way of putting it. Most of the old boys are white.

Meanwhile, only three of the NFL's 30 head coaches are black -- Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy, Minnesota's Dennis Green and Philadelphia's Ray Rhodes.

No wonder a group of black assistants have privately talked about filing a class-discrimination lawsuit against the NFL, according to the New York Times.

When it comes to minority hiring, the Ravens are the industry leader, with more blacks in the front office and coaching staff than any other team. But even their coach, Ted Marchibroda, is recycled.

Lewis said he has been interviewed twice for head coaching jobs since becoming the Packers' coordinator six years ago, but won't name the teams that pursued him.

"He's worked his entire career in the premier system that's dominating our game today," Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "He knows it backward and forward and he has four rings. I don't know what else would qualify a person, what else he has to do."

So, why hasn't Lewis been interviewed in the past two years? There are two main theories. One is clearly ridiculous. The other is simply denied.

1. Lewis is a victim of the Packers' success.

Buffalo and Indianapolis filled their vacancies during the playoffs, before they had a chance to talk to Lewis. But why couldn't they have waited? It's not like Phillips and Mora were such hot commodities.

"Things like that become insulting," said the Ravens' Lavan, who served on the same staff as Lewis with San Francisco in 1989 and '90.

"It's absolutely insulting to everyone I know. To say all the jobs were taken while he's at the Super Bowl, that's absurd. That insults my intelligence. That's a slap in the face."

The Broncos waited until after Super Bowl XXIX to hire Mike Shanahan. Ted Marchibroda got hired after the Super Bowl. So did Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll.

"It's just an excuse," Lewis said.

2. Head coach Mike Holmgren is the Packers' offensive mastermind.

This is, by far, the more serious question, though both Holmgren and Lewis again downplayed the importance of play-calling yesterday.

"That is a lame reason. Anybody that uses that reason for not hiring a coach is really scrambling, in my opinion," Holmgren said.

"There have been a lot of coaches hired who hadn't called plays. At some points in his career, he has called plays. I don't buy that too much."

Holmgren said he turns over the play-calling to Lewis when he's XTC "losing it" (read: becoming annoyed with Favre).

Lewis said that happened three or four times this season. He would begin calling plays from the coach's booth as early as the second quarter, and continue the rest of the game.

"There's a lot more to being a head coach than calling plays," Lewis said, citing game plans and organization skills as more critical.

So, why hasn't he been interviewed?

Some black assistants believe Holmgren didn't endorse Lewis strongly enough last season, but the Packers' coach certainly hasn't held back at this Super Bowl.

"He's the most qualified," Holmgren said yesterday. "He has a tremendous history of success. He's very good with people. The players like him and respect him. He's a disciplinarian. In my opinion, he's the perfect candidate."

Yet, the Raiders are set to hire Gruden, the Eagles' offensive coordinator the past three seasons.

And last year, the Niners hired Steve Mariucci, who also served under Lewis in Green Bay.

"He's got to feel pain about that," Lavan said. "Nothing against those guys. But this guy doesn't warrant a telephone call?

"Just call him and say we're not interested. But pretending the guy doesn't exist? That's the way it is now. He doesn't exist."

Five decades after novelist Ralph Ellison's shattering portrait about racism in America, here walks another invisible man.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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