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NFL sidelines get extreme makeover

The NFL zooms toward Super Bowl XLI on a magic carpet stacked with record profits, dizzying success and, yes, Lane Kiffin.

He's the Oakland Raiders' new coach, their seventh in the last 12 years. For further evidence why this franchise has tumbled to the bottom of the league, examine those coach-killing stats.

Hard to win if the leader most years is "to be announced."

Today's theme isn't necessarily about the Raiders, though they provide a nice point of departure. Fact is, Kiffin is 31, the youngest NFL coach of the modern era. He looks like he should be rushing Theta Chi, not rushing LaMont Jordan up the middle.

But Al Davis went young for a reason: The NFL is turning over its head-coaching whistles to a new generation and, frankly, it's a good idea.

Bill Parcells' see-ya from the Dallas Cowboys only accelerated a process already under way. He was a lion in winter unwilling to put up with further shenanigans from his boss Jerry Jones or his problem-child wide receiver Terrell Owens.

It came down to something like this: "I can walk with $5.5 million in my pocket or I can kick myself for another season with a raw quarterback (Tony Romo) and a pain-in-the-posterior star (T.O.)."

Easy call.

The Tuna's not-so-grand exit makes more room, however, for the next batch of NFL coaches. Before this time next year, he'll probably be joined on the retirement list by aging warriors Tom Coughlin (Giants) and Joe Gibbs (Redskins).

And check out the incoming 30-somethings: Mike Tomlin (Steelers), Bobby Petrino (Falcons) and our frat-house friend in Oakland. Youth often has been served in the NFL, but not in one gulp.

This year's changeover is encouraging because the league appears less-inclined to fill the positions with retreads like Jim Fassel or Dom Capers. There was a time when the good old boy network twisted all arms and called all shots.

No more. Why? Because the younger set, which already features the Saints' Sean Payton and the Jets' Eric Mangini, has shown positive results. And no league copy-cats like the NFL. If Sean Connery built an offense that could beat a 2-deep zone, we'd soon have a team named the 007s.

Consider Tony Dungy of the Colts and Lovie Smith of the Bears, soon to be the first black head coaches in Super Bowl history. One can't overstate the significance here. Martin Luther King Jr. would stand up and cheer, and he wouldn't be alone.

The NFL no doubt has made serious progress in integrating its coaching ranks. In fact, it's lapped NCAA Division I football.

But I find better reasons than just Dungy and Smith to salute minority coaches. When Art Shell was fired by the Raiders, much was made of the 2-14 record and Shell's presiding over one of the worst teams in recent NFL history.

The issue centered on Shell's performance and nothing more. That's progress.

Also noteworthy are people like Dennis Green, Herman Edwards, Dungy and Shell, all black coaches who received second chances. Indeed, they became part of the NFL personnel network, the in-crowd.

That's progress, too.

The Rooney Rule, which mandates the interviewing of minority coaches, has worked in the NFL. Too bad its existence is still a must, but changing attitudes takes more time than we'd like to admit.

Regardless, Dungy and Smith are part of an ongoing evolution. The league is getting younger, more diverse and more appealing to the masses it targets.

As for the Raiders, well, we turn our lonely eyes to Kiffin. Davis may have out-Davised himself in bringing in such a neophyte. The last time the boss deferred to a fresh face, he hired Jon Gruden, a full-of-ideas offensive coordinator. Conversely, Kiffin's NFL résumé starts and finishes with his time as a quality-control coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Read into it what you wish, but "quality-control coordinator" sounds a lot like the guy who runs for the morning coffee.

But remember this: Davis, 77, may be ailing, but he's always had a knack for identifying coaching talent: John Madden, Mike Shanahan and Gruden, among many others. Last year, he interviewed Payton, and let's ponder the Raiders' status quo had Davis opted for Payton and not Shell.

Simply, the Raiders didn't exactly select from the A-list. Davis settled on Kiffin, who takes his place with the rest of the NFL's new wave.

This much is certain: Kiffin will age about 10 years by November.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at 578-2302 or ragostini@modbee.com.

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