5-29-03, 2:50 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Jay Hayes and Ricky Hunley, two of the Bengals' new assistant defensive coaches, thought about it. And they had to think about it a long time.
"No," Hayes finally said. "I don't think I ever played for a black coach anywhere."
Hayes, at 43, and Hunley, at 41, are part of the generation changing the face of the NFL through the league's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program that debuted in 1987. The next year, a young Long Beach State assistant named Marvin Lewis spent three weeks in training camp with Bill Walsh's 49ers that, yes, ended up breaking the Bengals' hearts months later in Super Bowl XXIII.
It was the first of Lewis' two NFL internships and led to Thursday's announcement that the Bengals are joining the program this season when training camp opens July 27 at Georgetown College. Sherman Wood, the 42-year-old head coach of Salisbury University in Maryland, is to work with the coaching staff for the first two weeks of camp.
"It opens doors for people," said Lewis, another Bengals head coach with those seemingly endless 49er ties. "People get more comfortable with them and we get to learn about them as not only a coach, but as a person. It's helpful (breaking into the league) because people want to see how you react to the professional player. Knowing that it's not too big for you."
Lewis, 44, one of the league's three African-American head coaches and the first in Bengals' history, has built a staff in Cincinnati reflecting the impact of the program on the NFL's hiring practices. Seven of the club's 16 coaches are African-American and of those seven, five participated in the internship program.
"I don't think I would be here if I didn't go through it," Hunley said, and Hayes believes it's one of the reasons he got into the league as the Steelers' special teams coach in 1999 five summers after his training camp in Pittsburgh.
While Hunley coached in college, he did internships in defenses with Lewis in Pittsburgh, Joe Pascale in San Diego, Jim Johnson and current Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in Philadelphia, and Jerry Green in Buffalo.
He figures working with Lewis with the Steelers helped him get the job here, but Hunley may have helped Lewis, too. When Hunley left the University of Florida with head coach Steve Spurrier to work with the Redskins, Hunley educated Spurrier on Lewis as Washington sought a defensive coordinator. Lewis didn't need much help, but every little bit counts.
"You can change a lot quicker and at a more rapid pace when you do it from the grassroots level," said Hunley, who used to be on the board of directors for the Black Coaches Association and on the Minority Issues Committee of the American Football Coaches Association. "That's the same argument you always had with the grad assistants in Division I (college) ball. If you had more minority grad assistants, they would have more minority candidates to choose from for assistants, or head jobs, or coordinators. But if you never plant the seed, you never have any fruit to pick from. On this level, they've done that because if you go back and do a study of how many guys in the league have participated in one or more minority internship programs, I think it's well over 60 percent."
More than 700 minority coaches have participated since the program's inception and Hunley's grassroots appear to be growing with a record 14 African-American coordinators in the NFL on Opening Day, 2003. In 1980, there were 14 black coaches in the league and none as head coaches.
One of the new coordinators is Frazier, who participated in the program in the mid-90s with Buddy Ryan's Cardinals. Frazier played under Ryan when he was his coordinator during his stint as a cornerback for the Bears.
Lewis and the Jets' Herman Edwards are the program's first graduates to be named head coaches in a league that had 156 African-Americans coaches last season, which accounted for 28 percent of the 32 staffs.
The "in," with Walsh's 49ers made Lewis what he calls "a member of the family," down through the years after that first association with coaches such as George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, and Dennis Green. Then after working for Walsh, Lewis spent part of the 1991 training camp under his fellow Fort Cherry High School alum, Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
"I'm standing here today a lot because of those guys," Lewis said. "With Bill, I got exposed to organizational philosophies and with Marty you saw the value in how the head coach has to have responsibility for everything. Offense. Defense. Special teams. It's important for the players to know that you know."
Hayes, the Bengals defensive line coach, was in charge of finding the intern for this training camp. It's a process that has become harder and harder. The reason Hayes only did one stint himself in the program is because he was coaching at major schools like Notre Dame and Wisconsin that had early games, which usually prevented him from getting away for a couple of weeks to a NFL training camp.
"It's even tougher to find a Division I coach now because the NCAA has extended their practice schedules," said Hayes, who felt out such major college assistants as Penn State's Larry Johnson. "There are some schools that start even before we do."
But the Bengals like the fact they have tapped a head coach in Wood, a former defensive coordinator who has turned the Salisbury. Md., program into a Division III playoff contender.
"First and foremost, it's a great opportunity for the university to get exposure and for me to bring back to my staff things I learned about organization and practice in preparing for our camp," Wood said.
Wood has spent many of his summers observing NFL camps from the outside in, and he already knows Lewis from his visits to the Ravens and Redskins. He has always put an emphasis on career development with his assistants and the internship program is a perfect fit for him.
"You are enhancing professional development through this program and I'm huge in professional development," Wood said. "It's real important to me. That's why I take five or six assistants with me to every coaching convention. This experience with the NFL is something I can add to that."
Wood has been a Division II and III head coach for 10 years, which in itself is probably some kind of byproduct from the program. After playing defensive back at Salisbury, he began his career as a graduate assistant at Division II Bowie State University in 1985 and became the assistant head coach/defensive coordinator there in 1988. After one year at Virginia Union as assistant head coach, he returned to Bowie as head coach and led a 1-10 team to its best finish in a decade at 6-3 in 1998. Since returning to his alma mater in 1999 as head coach, his record is 20-20 after leading the Sea Gulls to their first postseason since 1995.
Wood is going to work with either the receivers or defensive line during his two weeks with the Bengals.