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Affirmative action goes the way of the Rooney Rule

PHOTO: Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren (center, front row) with his 1994 staff. Three of them became head coaches, John Gruden (far left, front row), Steve Mariucci (next to Gruden) and Dick LeBeau (far right, front row), but Sherman Lewis (next to Mariucci) never received the same opportunity.

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Sherman Lewis celebrated his 81st birthday on June 29 accepting the NFL Awards of Excellence at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He was on stage for his career as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator with four Super Bowl rings.

June 29 also was the date the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action.

What an ironic day.

Affirmative action, implemented to create diversity on college campuses, may soon be as punchless as the Rooney Rule, the NFL’s well-intended-yet-failed effort to promote hiring minority coaches.

As Lewis stood on stage, the distance from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, was 332 miles on a map. But in the arc of American history, he was another world from the African American kid he was while raised in the Jim Crow South. So much of Lewis’ 81 years is wrapped up in the racial equality debate.

Long before affirmative action was in place the past 40 years to counter to white privilege on college campuses, athletic ability provided Lewis his path out of segregation. Michigan State College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty was bigger than his times, assembling the game’s first fully integrated rosters. Lewis was an All-American halfback for the Spartans as a senior in 1963.

But level playing fields in college athletics and academics are different paradigms. Sports among athletes is mano a mano, while academic records can be skewed by disparate school systems or the unspoken, skin color. Like it is in coaching.

Skin color came full circle for Lewis when the Rooney Rule was unable to counter owners feeling comfortable only with a coach who looked like them.

Lewis’ coaching career began when Daugherty hiried him in 1969 among the college game’s early Black assistants. Lewis moved on to the NFL in 1983 with the San Francisco 49ers as a pioneering Black assistant. Forty-niners coach Bill Walsh also was a leader who recognized the Black assistants were overlooked.

PHOTO: Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Sherman Lewis on the 49ers’ sideline.


But white privilege remained a hurdle despite Lewis wearing Super Bowl rings — three with the 49ers and one as the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator. Lewis never got a call as a head coach.

Offensive coordinators of Super Bowl teams are typically the hot candidates for open head coach jobs, but Lewis didn’t land one of the 11 vacant positions in 1997 after the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI title from the 1996 season. The Packers won the 1997 NFC title to return to the Super Bowl XXXII against Denver on January 25, 1998, but Lewis again wasn’t a hot name.

Holmgren endorsed Lewis as a head coach candidate and noted he turned over play calling to Lewis at times for a change of pace. But as Lewis met with the media during the week leading up to the Denver game in San Diego, he was told one knock against him was Holmgren called the plays.

“That’s just another excuse,” Lewis said during the Super Bowl media session. “When Bill Walsh was the coach, Sam Wyche didn’t call plays, Paul Hackett didn’t call plays and Denny Green didn’t call players. What’s more important in the game is the game plan.”

PHOTO: Sherman Lewis with Dan Fouts, the Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback serving as the Masters of Ceremonies, at the NFL Awards of Excellence ceremony.


Wyche and Green became NFL head coaches and Hackett was USC’s head coach. Green was Black, but he had gained a reputation as a head coach for his success reviving Northwestern’s moribund program.

A job on Holmgren’s staff turned out to be a launching pad for three white coaches — John Gruden, Steve Mariucci and Dick LeBeau.

It takes men like Daugherty and Walsh, bigger than their times, to overcome white privilege.

White privilege survives in America’s underbelly, but not even state of Alabama with its history of segregated teams under coach Bear Bryant wants to go back to the old days.

Yes, Alabama denizens elected former college football coach Tommy Tuberville as a U.S. Senator despite Tuberville failing to understand a white nationalist is a racist, but those same bumpkin voters (Auburn fans excepted) want Alabama coach Nick Saban to remain in office in Tuscaloosa continue collecting national titles with colorblind eyes.

Two opposing attitudes can co-exist, the Supreme Court has ruled.


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Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America.

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I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read a summary.

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Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

Foreword by Tony Dungy

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