WASHINGTON — A curious thing occurred during the summer of 2002. Marvin Lewis did not become a head coach in the National Football League.
There was no doubting his credentials. As defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, he had marshaled perhaps the most dominant defense in history - a defense that won the 2001 Super Bowl with shockingly little help from the team's offense.
Yet during the two years after that victory, six head coaching vacancies had come and gone. There was never any suggestion that the color of Mr. Lewis's skin had a part to play. Yet for black coaches, who essentially had been frozen out of the coaching ranks until 1989, it was yet another opportunity lost.
This season, Lewis is getting his revenge in the best possible way: At last a head coach, he is taking a team synonymous with incompetence to the playoffs.
It is but one part of a watershed year for black coaches in professional football: As the regular season closes Sunday, arguably the top three candidates for Coach of the Year are all black.
In a league that only recently has erased the stigma that black quarterbacks are somehow inferior, and that sees the need to fine teams that don't consider hiring minority coaches, it is a moment long awaited.
As much as conscience or sanctions, performance destroys stereotypes, football analysts say, and this year can leave no lingering doubt that football brilliance knows neither black nor white.
"Five years down the road we'll look back and say, 'Maybe this is when it changed finally,' " says Tony McClean, editor in chief of the online Black Athlete Sports Network. "What you are starting to see is that more blacks are starting to get the chance."
In truth, few people say that that the question is overt racism anymore. Perhaps there are vestiges of the sort of lingering prejudice that beset black quarterbacks until only a few years ago, when the words "black quarterback" were almost an epithet to describe quarterbacks who could run but not pass.
Today, however, the phrase is an anachronism, as a host of black quarterbacks have come into the league with a variety of styles - from quicksilver scramblers to lead-footed pocket passers. Again, it was their success that toppled stereotypes, and analysts see the same thing happening in the coaching ranks now.
Lewis has taken the Cincinnati Bengals - a team so inept that they were often called the "Bungles" - to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, matching an opportunistic defense with a blitzkrieg offense that treats the gridiron like a bombing range.
Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy took his team to the brink of immortality, as the Colts won their first 13 games of the season. And Lovie Smith has guided a Chicago Bears team expected to finish among the dregs of the league to a division title.
In all, there are six black coaches in the National Football League - a record. Yet finding more is a surprisingly thorny prospect in a league where 70 percent of the players are black. Head coaches come almost exclusively from the ranks of assistant coaches, coordinators, and college head coaches. Of the 119 Division I-A college football programs, only four have black head coaches.
In the NFL, by contrast, the situation has improved markedly. Twenty-five years ago, there were 14 minority assistant coaches and no minority coordinators - a head coach's second-in-command. By last season, the numbers had swelled to 173 and 14, respectively.
Yet perhaps the biggest challenge that still lies ahead is breaking into the football elite's inner circle. "It's not a matter of racism anymore," says Bob Carroll, who writes for Pro Football Weekly. "It's probably more: The people who golf together stay together."
In part, that is the purpose of the so-called Rooney Rule, which requires each team to consider a minority coach when filling a head coaching vacancy. It is the only rule of its kind in American pro sports, and it reflects the fact that minority coaches have had more difficulty breaking into the NFL than in either baseball or basketball. The Detroit Lions were fined $200,000 for hiring a coach without interviewing a minority candidate in 2003, the year after the rule came into effect.
By the numbers, the NFL shouldn't need a Rooney Rule. The nine black head coaches of the modern era have won 56 percent of their games and taken their teams to five conference championships. Never, however, has a black coach made it to a Super Bowl. But just as the sporting nation focused its attention on Doug Williams in 1988, when he became the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, the attention given to Lewis, Dungy, and Smith could work a subtle mental change among fans and owners.
"The focus should not have happened," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "But as a result of it happening, it made it less of a point."