Harris Pleased With New Steelers Coach
Friday, January 26, 2007
By ALAN ROBINSON, AP Sports Writer
E-MAIL STORY PRINTER FRIENDLY VERSION
PITTSBURGH — Franco Harris remembers the day it would have been a big deal that the Pittsburgh Steelers hired a black coach.
When Harris reported to the Steelers as a rookie running back from Penn State in 1972, black assistant coaches were uncommon in the NFL. Starting quarterbacks and middle linebackers were almost exclusively white. And there wouldn't be a black head coach for another 17 seasons.
This week, the only negative rumblings Harris detected in Pittsburgh about new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is whether, at 34 and with only one season as a coordinator, he is somewhat inexperienced for the job.
"There's not much talk about it," Harris said Friday of Tomlin being the Steelers' first black coach. "That's what so great about sports: It opens many doors, it's broken down many barriers and gives people new perspective on how they see things. Again, sports has taken a lead in this."
Harris, one of six former black Steelers players in the Hall of Fame, stayed in Pittsburgh after his football career ended to start several successful businesses. He said he admires the way his adopted city has been a forerunner in advancing the cause of minorities in sports.
Two years after Harris joined the team, the Steelers became one of the first teams to start a black QB in Joe Gilliam. They later made Tony Dungy, one of Harris' former teammates, the NFL's first black coordinator.
The Pirates also fielded the majors' first all-minority lineup and Duquesne University produced Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by the NBA in Chuck Cooper. Yet Pittsburgh has one of the smallest minority populations of any major U.S. metropolitan area, with blacks making up only about 9 percent of the area's residents.
Harris said he also is proud that his former boss, Steelers owner Dan Rooney, pushed the NFL to adopt in 2002 a rule requiring teams to interview minority candidates for job openings. Harris' parents were of black and Italian descent.
"It was a great thing when they incorporated the Rooney rule _ to me, the most important step ever in this situation," Harris said. "It's about giving opportunity. And when you give opportunity, you really get to see the talent of people and get to meet them personally and build relationships.
"And when you meet with new people, you realize, `Wow, OK, this person is a great person.' When you see that, color and race really shouldn't enter into it," he said.
"It helped opened the door for me that may not have been opened had it not been for the rule," Tomlin said.
When the next NFL season starts in September, there will be attention focused again on the fact that Tomlin is black, Harris said. After that, he believes it will be all about winning and losing, not race, creed or color.
"In the start, it will be given a lot of play and a lot of attention," Harris said. "When things get going, you find that it's, hey, you have to perform, you have to do the job, can you pull things together? I'm just so happy he has the opportunity to do it, and that's what I'm really happy about."
On Friday, Harris paid tribute to Steelers receiver Hines Ward for his community service work by announcing that his picture will be on the boxes of the Super Donuts and Super Buns sold by Harris' RSuper Foods.
Harris' former coach, Joe Paterno of Penn State, is being similarly honored.