It's character, not color, that separates Smith, Dungy

Yes, they made history, but it's time we stopped judging Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith by the color of their skin, and celebrate the content of their character, writes Michael Smith.

Updated: February 16, 2007, 4:31 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

So just how big a deal is it that a brotha (two as it turned out) finally led a team to the Super Bowl? Put it this way: a big enough deal to make black folk in Baltimore root for the hated Colts.

"We're leaving Baltimore," Colts coach Tony Dungy recalled, "and the bus drivers, they were all black guys. They said, 'We were rooting for you today [in the divisional-round game against the Ravens] and we're rooting for you next week. Even though we live in Baltimore, we want you to win and get to the Super Bowl.'"

In the African-American community, the excitement of having Dungy and Chicago's Lovie Smith -- two of the league's six coaches who happen to be members of said community -- make history by becoming the first such coaches to reach pro football's biggest game (played during Black History Month, no less) is similar to when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx won Oscars for leading roles. The difference is that awards and elections are subjective. Having two coaches whose skin happens to be darker than most of their peers lead teams to the Super Bowl simply is the inevitable result of equal opportunity.

"It's just like we've said all along," Dungy said. "If you give enough people an opportunity, it's going to be just like everything else -- you're going to have some guys that rise to the top, you're going to have some guys that do well, you're going to have some guys that have to change situations. We're going to be no different than anybody else. Eventually there will be plenty of guys that get there."

For Dungy and Smith to get their teams here had nothing to do with where their ancestors originated. Just as a person's ethnicity, ideally, should have nothing to do with ... well, anything.

So, then, why are we wasting so much (air) time talking about the colors of these men's skin?

I've been guilty of it for six paragraphs, but no more. It distracts us from what's really important: what's inside these men. And, trust me, it would do people good to see more of that.

Dungy and Smith are role models, not just for coaches who look like them or men who look like them, but for all coaches and all men. They live their lives the right way, and as a result they do their jobs the same way. Their priorities are, in order: faith, their families and football. The outcome of the Super Bowl or any game does not define them. They personify words such as class, grace, dignity, honor and integrity. We all can draw inspiration from men such as these.

Dungy and Smith haven't sold their souls in pursuit of the game's Holy Grail, and yet here they are, reminding us that good men can do great things, that nice guys can and do finish first. Dungy learned from Dennis Green and Chuck Noll and passed it on to assistants Smith, Mike Tomlin, Herman Edwards and Rod Marinelli (all head coaches now) that it's OK to enjoy life outside the facility. Dungy and Smith are family men. And they still win.

You won't hear either utter a word of profanity. And they still win. They care about and foster relationships with their players. And they still win. They serve their communities. And still, somehow, they find time to do what it takes to prepare their teams.

Dungy can -- imagine -- spend the Saturday evening before the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots at the mall with his family. Or Dungy, Smith, Edwards and each of their wives can gather for dinner at P.F. Chang's the night before Dungy's Colts and Edwards' Chiefs met in the first round of the playoffs. And yet it didn't halt the Bears' or Colts' journeys to Miami.

Dungy and Smith are Christian men who serve the Lord first and spend nearly as much time serving their communities. Doesn't prevent them from winning. And often. In just three seasons Smith, last season's Coach of the Year, has helped build the Bears into a league power. Dungy has won more regular season games than any coach since 1999. Where does color factor into that?

After they won their conference championships, you heard Smith talk about his "being blessed" and Dungy give thanks to God. That isn't just lip service with these guys. As Christians they believe it is their responsibility to let their light shine whenever they're in the spotlight. Just as they have a game plan for each other come Super Bowl Sunday, both plan to use the global platform that the Super Bowl provides to speak words that could make an impact beyond football. At his oldest son James' funeral last year, Dungy used the eulogy as an opportunity to teach lessons about manhood and fatherhood.

Neither man gets caught up in, you know, being the head coach. Talk about humility: Smith was seated among the fans at the RCA Dome for the Colts-Chiefs playoff game (the Bears had a bye) when a fan approached him for an autograph. Smith, who had been signing for several minutes already, politely told her "not right now" and said he would like to turn his attention to the game. But he watched as she returned to her seat, and during the next break he went over and gave her the autograph.

Regarding a coaching matchup between friends and former colleagues, these are the kinds of things we should be talking about exclusively leading up to the game, the class way in which Dungy and Smith lead their respective organizations. Not something as trivial as Dungy and Smith's skin color. It seems as if every day we hear about players getting arrested or being involved in some embarrassing incident -- and failing as role models. When Dungy walks away from coaching he likely will devote more of his time to the prison ministry about which he's so passionate. He and Smith are examples of what a strong man is. Never mind what they look like. They're the perfect people to represent not just the African-American community but the NFL community.

On Jan. 15, the nation celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We could honor his dream by celebrating Dungy's and Smith's achievements not because of the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

There's a lot of talk about hoping for a day when black coaches in the Super Bowl won't be a big deal, when we won't find it necessary to refer to a coach as a "black coach" (or any person by their race, for that matter).

What's wrong with that day being today? Dungy and Smith have made history, and we happily acknowledge it. As for our practice of categorizing NFL head coaches, let's make that history, too.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.