After years of talk, the National Football League may finally be within scoring distance of having its first black head coach. This was the chief thrust of commissioner Pete Rozelle's annual State of the NFL message to the hundreds of reporters gathered here for Sunday's Super Bowl XXII showdown between the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos.
Rozelle made it clear that he thinks the climate is right, and that this is an idea whose time has come. He said he was hoping for some owner to make his day - as he put it - by taking the long-awaited step.
As to why pro football has lagged behind major league baseball and pro basketball in hiring black head coaches, the commissioner said he thought the problem was ``an old-boy network.''
``People in our industry seem to have a tendency to hire people that they have known for a long time and that they are comfortable with,'' he explained. ``But I think that is changing now, and that it will continue to change.''
The opportunities are there at the present time, too, with the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Raiders both currently looking for new head coaches.
The Packers are seeking a replacement for Forrest Gregg, who left after four years there (and 11 as an NFL head coach) to take over the rebuilding job at Southern Methodist University. The Raiders need a successor to Tom Flores, who resigned or was eased out (take your choice) after nine years at the helm.
``I think that because we have so many experienced black assistant coaches already working in the NFL [there are 41] that the first black head coach will probably come from within the league,'' Rozelle said. And indications are that he is probably right.
Green Bay, after first offering its top job to Michigan State coach George Perles (who turned it down) is said to be concentrating now on current NFL assistants. And among those with whom the Packers reportedly have scheduled interviews are Tony Dungy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dennis Green of the San Francisco 49ers, and Johnny Roland of the Chicago Bears - all of whom are black.
As for the Raiders, there has been quite a bit of speculation that owner Al Davis is interested in some of the assistants currently on Bill Walsh's staff in San Francisco including Green, who once was head coach at Northwestern University and who now works with the 49ers' receivers.
Asked about the irony of his longtime personal nemesis (Davis) possibly being the one to break the barrier, Rozelle replied: ``I would welcome that.''
Turning to other subjects, the commissioner said that while he expects the 28-team NFL to add two new franchises in the near future, he doesn't think the owners right now are prepared to vote in favor of such a move until a new contract with the Players Association has been signed.
Rozelle was referring to the fact that the last contract between NFL owners and the players' union expired on Aug. 31, 1987. It was the failure of both parties at that time to reach a new agreement that triggered the 24-day strike early in the 1987 season. The walkout and the use of replacement players for a few weeks resulted in considerable bitterness; a regular season shortened by one game; and financial losses on both sides.
Yet looking back, Rozelle claims that the league has now recovered from this strike.
``Going through a strike was painful for all of us, and I expected the brooding to last a year,'' Pete said. ``But thanks to the players, it didn't last that long. While I would like to see a collective bargaining agreement signed, I don't have the negative feelings about the strike that I thought I would.''
The NFL commissioner also touched on several other subjects, presented here in capsule form:
On the proposed move of the Cardinals' franchise from St. Louis to Phoenix in time for next season:
``This move will need the approval of three-quarters of the owners when they meet in Phoenix on March 14. The Cardinals have complied with the league's Jan. 15 deadline for providing certain information, and we will go from there. However, I have not polled the owners as to what their decision might be.''
On the cash flow problems of the New England Patriots, who stalled a takeover by potential buyers recently by withdrawing an estimated $2.5 million from a league escrow account to meet their January payroll:
``We allowed that because we felt we were preserving the quality of the franchise, rather than giving those players a cause to declare free agency. We will continue to monitor the Patriots' situation while working with the Fran Murray buyers' group.''
On league finances:
``Since the fiscal business year is not yet up for most clubs, we haven't seen all the figures we need to make a proper appraisal. Probably half our teams will lose money this season. But on the overall vitality of the league, I still feel we are very strong.''
Rozelle is probably right on that latter point. Forbes Magazine, for example, named seven NFL owners as among the richest individuals in America in 1987. Heading the list were Jack Kent Cooke of the Washington Redskins and W. C. Ford of the Detroit Lions, each of whom was said to have a net worth of more than $1 billion.