M. Lewis against long odds from start

February 03, 2001|By Mike Preston

THERE IS STILL a belief within the Ravens organization that defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis will one day become a head coach in the National Football League, but there are no guarantees.

History suggests the odds aren't in his favor.

You see, Marvin Lewis is an African-American in a league where ownership makes some irrational decisions and the good-old-boy network still flourishes. The window of opportunity for any assistant coach to become a head coach is already small, but for blacks, it's almost nonexistent.

Lewis, 42, had his chance shortly after Super Bowl XXXV Sunday, when he began discussions with the Buffalo Bills about their vacant head coaching position. The two sides couldn't reach an agreement, and the Bills hired Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on Thursday.

"We're happy to keep Marvin, and we're confident he'll get a coaching shot sometime soon," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "Marvin will be in demand."

Nothing personal, Mr. Modell, but African-American coaches are never in demand in the NFL. If that was the case, then why haven't outstanding African-American assistants such as Minnesota's Willie Shaw, Emmitt Thomas and Sherm Lewis and the New York Jets' Ted Cottrell been hired?

If that's the case, why hasn't any team hired former Oakland coach Art Shell, who took the Raiders to the playoffs four out of five years?

Of the last 42 hirings of NFL head coaches, only two were black, including the Jets' Herman Edwards, hired about three weeks ago. The league has produced only five African-American head coaches ever.

Meanwhile, Bill Belichick gets a chance to run down another franchise in New England after failing in Cleveland, and Dave Wannstedt got another shot in Miami despite four losing seasons in six years as Chicago's coach. The league keeps hiring retreads like Dick Vermeil, Mike Ditka and George Seifert. All are white.

Lewis is black.

His opportunity may not come again.

That's why it was strange for him not to work out a deal with Buffalo. The consensus among black coaches is that if you get an opportunity, regardless of the situation, take the job, much like Terry Robiskie replacing former Washington Redskins head coach Norv Turner in the final three regular-season games of 2000. Robiskie had about as much chance of winning with that team as Cleveland winning the Super Bowl next year.

There has been speculation Lewis' agent, Ray Anderson, had high demands, such as upgrading practice facilities, top salaries for assistant coaches and major input in personnel decisions.

There is also speculation the Bills only wanted to pay Lewis a $1 million-a-year salary, which is absurd considering the Ravens agreed to pay Brian Billick $1.5 million per season.

Lewis said yesterday he felt some pressure to take the job because of his race. He said he also wanted to know more about the schools in the area. His interview with the Bills was in Baltimore, not Buffalo.

"Sure, there was some pressure," Lewis said. "But that's one of the reasons why I didn't want the job. It had to be the right situation for me and my family. I think our people will appreciate the fact that you don't have to take every job because it is extended out there.

"The money for assistant coaches was a concern, because you have to take care of the people who are in the foxhole with you. But we never got to that point of talking about money. I'm not looking at this as a negative. We just won the Super Bowl. My family is ecstatic we're staying here."

Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy, one of three African-American coaches in the 31-team league, wasn't as thrilled. He was surprised only one team interviewed Lewis despite several openings.

"If he were white, would it have been one out of nine?" Dungy reportedly said Thursday after learning Lewis didn't get the job. "I don't think so. I think it would have been more than one out of nine."

Dungy was less emotional yesterday.

"The bigger issue to me is that seven to eight teams had an opening and only one talked to Marvin," Dungy said. "Here is a guy who constructed what may be the best defense ever, but only one out of seven or eight teams talked to him. Everything happens for a reason, and Marvin will end up in a better place. But that doesn't let the league off the hook. There is something wrong with the process. It's flawed."

The same process passed over Dungy for nearly 15 years, and apparently, the league has no desire to change it.

First of all, the league needs to modify its policy of not allowing other teams to interview prospects until the candidates' seasons are over. Teams couldn't interview Lewis until after the Super Bowl. It's no guarantee teams would interview more black candidates, but it eliminates another way out.

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