Tony Dungy is at the doorstep of history for the third time.
But in this case he has some company.
The Indianapolis Colts coach and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith can break ground if one or both advance to Super Bowl XLI by winning in Sunday's AFC and NFC Championship Games.
No African-American head coach has ever taken a team to the Super Bowl.
"That may not be significant to some people, but it is significant to some people," says Doug Williams, who became the first African-American quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1988.
"For African-Americans like myself and others who have played or coached in the league, we are pulling for Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith to get over the hump. The big key is they've got opportunities."
The NFL had a record seven African-American head coaches in 2006 and a record 197 coaches, including seven assistant head coaches. The numbers reflect much progress with diversity in a league where roughly two-thirds of the players are minorities.
In 1980, there were 14 African-American assistants in the entire league; Art Shell didn't become the first African-American coach with the Los Angeles Raiders until 1989.
More doors have opened in recent years, coincinding with the so-called "Rooney Rule" requiring teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching jobs.
"We can say that it really shouldn't matter, but we know that it does," says John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which monitors and promotes the hiring of minority coaches. "That's why it's rewarding to see that Tony and Lovie have reached this point. I'm proud of them. And they are so aware of the historical context."
This is the first time two African-American coaches have advanced to conference title games in the same season. On Monday, the national holiday for slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, the New York Giants named Jerry Reese as the third African-American general manager in NFL history.
"Dr. King has to be smiling about all of this," Wooten said.
Dungy and Smith have long shared the view that their success could open doors for other minority coaches. Smith, hired by Dungy for his first NFL job in with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996, recently said: "I can say, 'Nah, I don't feel any pressure. I'm just like anybody else trying to win.' That's all true. But there are not a lot of black coaches. In order for others to get a chance, the ones in position need to do well."
Said Wooten: "It's a copycat league. But that's not just a black or white thing. Coaches who are successful, their assistants get more shots."
Wooten points to the emergence of Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin as an example of how increasing opportunities can have broad impact. Tomlin, one of three finalists for the Pittsburgh Steelers job vacated by Bill Cowher, was hired by Dungy in 2001 for his first NFL job as the Bucs' linebackers coach. Despite just one year as coordinator, Tomlin has also interviewed for the Miami Dolphins coaching job.
"He was mentored by Dungy, Lovie and Herm Edwards," said Wooten. "That's why he's so prepared today."
Wooten said he congratulated Dungy and Smith for winning divisional games, then reminded them of the possibility they could meet in Miami for Super Bowl XLI.
"Lovie said, 'Let's not talk about that any further. Otherwise, both of us will be crying,' " Wooten said. "That was pretty funny."
Dungy knows it's first things first. His Bucs lost at St. Louis in the 1999 NFC title game; his Colts were set back in the 2003 AFC title game at New England. Dennis Green was the other African-American coach to lose in a conference title game, with the Minnesota Vikings.
"The main thing for any of them is to win," says Williams, who was MVP of Super Bowl XXII and is now a personnel executive with the Bucs. "That's why they are coaching. But we want to get to the point where it happened. They've come close before. At some point, someone's got to finish.
"For years, we dealt with that for African-American quarterbacks. Now it on the other side of the coin for coaches."
By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY