- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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It seems almost impossible now, after the Colts began the season on a 13-game winning streak, but there was a time when Tony Dungy was just as well known for a sensational string of losses. In 1996, the Buccaneers were a laughingstock, a franchise in utter disarray. And after rejections from Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier, the Bucs' search for a head coach turned to Dungy, a little-known but widely respected Vikings defensive coordinator. Moments before his interview, Dungy's glasses had broken and, without knowing it, he went the entire conversation with his specs tilted awkwardly across his nose. The Bucs hired him anyway.
Dungy's team started that season a lopsided 0—5. With pressure mounting, and the 5—1 Vikings coming to town, I was dispatched to Tampa to report on his imminent demise. We met on a Saturday morning in his sun-splashed, woodpaneled office at the Bucs' facility, where his then-4-year-old son, Eric, was watching Scooby-Doo in the corner. When our conversation made it hard for Eric to hear his cartoon, he would turn around and shush us both.
That day, Dungy insisted he wasn't going to do anything different with his team. He would not cut players or turn over a table in the locker room or bench his quarterback. For a reporter looking to get some color, this steadfast belief in his players, coaches and schemes-even in the face of mounting evidence against them-was as maddening and disconcerting as those crooked glasses.
Without a single juicy tidbit in my notebook I headed for the door defeated, and paused for a moment to ask Eric about his favorite team. "I like the Vikings," he responded without hesitating. "Dad's team, I don't know, they seem like they're sick or something." Here comes my scoop, I thought. Next thing I hear is Dungy's hearty laughter echoing throughout the building. Referring to the Bucs' loser mentality, the coach said, "Now you see what I really have to change around here."
Looking back, the key to Tony Dungy's genius was evident in that exchange with his son. Because over the next decade, he did in fact change the game-making over the once-hapless Bucs, perfecting the Cover 2, exorcising Peyton's Patriot demons, improving opportunities for African-American coaches-and he did it without the game's ever changing him.
The next day, the Bucs upset the Vikes, 24-13. A year later, they were in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Since 1999, Dungy has won more games (77) than any other NFL coach. He's been to two championship games, and the year after he was fired in Tampa (following the 9-7 2001 season) the Bucs won a Lombardi trophy under Jon Gruden. "Tony was like our Moses," says Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. "He led us out of the darkness and right up to the promised land. He just didn't get to go in with us."
If Dungy does complete his journey, it would come at the end of a landmark season. He will have become the first African-American head coach to win the sport's biggest game, in a year in which all three of the top candidates for Coach of the Year (Dungy, Lovie Smith and Marvin Lewis) are African-American. "But you limit a great man and you cage in Tony's influence by bringing race into his accomplishments," says Brooks, sounding like he wants to reach through the phone and shake me for bringing up the subject. "Integrity has no color. Character has no color. Don't sell him short. Tony is a leader among all men."
Race, though, will always be an issue in the NFL. Cleveland's Romeo Crennel, Dungy, Lewis, Smith, Arizona's Denny Green and Herm Edwards of the Jets are the league's only African-American head coaches. That's nearly 19% of that peer group, even as 70% of the league's players are black. But race is less of an issue now because of people like Dungy. His approach on the subject has always been simple and eloquent: real progress is not getting special deals for people,
it's giving good people opportunities to rise to the top, regardless of their color. "I take great pride in my role as an African-American in this game," Dungy says. "But overall, my job is to coach for the Colts. Not just for the African-American players or the African-American coaches, but for everybody."
Dungy grew up in Jackson, Mich., the son of a high school English teacher and a college biology professor. He has three siblings. One is a nurse, one a dentist and one an obstetrician. "That puts me in last place with my family," he likes to say. His father, who died in 2004, had perhaps the greatest influence on Dungy as a coach. All great ones think of themselves as teachers. And Wilbur Dungy always reminded his son that the sign of a great teacher is someone who brings out the best in every one of his students, someone who can do it without tricking them or bullying them or wanting credit for their achievements.
A college quarterback at Minnesota who was converted to safety by the Steelers in 1977, Dungy once filled in for an injured Terry Bradshaw, throwing an interception and making one in the same game. Later, he used this rare dual perspective to formulate a swarming, disruptive version of the Cover 2 scheme that is now commonplace across the NFL. "Tony installed that defense in Tampa before anyone else in the league," says former Bucs GM Rich McKay, now with the Falcons. "He's just not interested in the world seeing it that way. He doesn't seek to be in the first 15 minutes of SportsCenter every night, and so when people rank great coaches, he doesn't always pop up at the top right away. That bothers me."
Even more irksome is that the football establishment seems so quick to label a coach like Bill Belichick a genius with a great quarterback while the Colts are often described as a team with a genius quarterback and a great head coach. "That's just the world we live in," says Edwards. "I guess we still have different things we call different people."
Dungy sees this as a difference in styles, not race. The Colts' schemes are based on football fundamentals, traditional and straightforward. Belichick is more of an innovator. His game plans can be wild, inventive and flashy, and he certainly doesn't hinder the notion that they are the work of a brilliant football mind. For better or worse, that's just not Dungy. If he gets less credit in a world of bombast and sound bites, it's because he's unassuming and not because he's African-American. "The joy I receive from coaching in this game comes from the preparation and the winning," Dungy says. "Not getting the credit or the attention."
Maybe, then, the real test of just how far the league has come lies in the month ahead. Can a self-effacing man like Dungy get the credit he deserves but refuses to seek? If respect is power and results are what matter the most, then how can the Colts' season be looked upon as anything other than the work of a genius? Edwards, who's known Dungy since the 1970s and worked under him in Tampa, describes his friend as a man in perfect balance. Faith. Family. Football. And in a game obsessed with brute force, Dungy remains driven by something just as potent, although far less titillating: inner strength.
Which is why the notion that he might have been anguishing or waffling over the decision to rest his starters before the playoffs, thus jeopardizing Indy's chance at a perfect season, was utterly ridiculous. Several days before the Chargers handed the Colts their first loss this year, the decision had already been made. If the game was out of hand one way or the other, some starters would sit. Why? Because that's what Dungy's mentor, Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, did in 1978, when Dungy won a Super Bowl with the Steelers. "We're not going to make wholesale changes," Dungy says. "But we are going to be smart with the guys who need to rest."
Noll's decision in 1978 allowed Dungy, a backup, to contribute to the team's third world championship by starting the last two games of the season. And that's what he has in mind now. If the Colts are going to win the game that matters most to them, it will be up to everyone on their roster. It won't happen because Dungy decided to scream, pound his fist, levy huge fines or cut players indiscriminately to send a message. Dungy doesn't coach through the traditional method of intimidation, but rather through, believe it or not, disappointment. Players are more afraid of letting him down than incurring his wrath.
Before the Chargers' loss, the last time the Colts lost a regular-season game of any significance was on Halloween 2004, when Kansas City rang up 590 yards of offense in a 45-35 romp. Colt players and staff shuffled into the team's Monday morning meeting expecting even the staid Dungy to let loose. Instead, the coach calmly informed them he wasn't changing a thing.
To a man, the Colts say that's where the seeds of the 2005 season were first planted. "After that, it was like you respect him so much you're willing to do anything to make sure he doesn't end up disappointed in you," says Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett. "He has this great mind, this deep humility and faith and this aura to him. I can't think of any other word to describe him other than genius."
Neither can we.
Quietly-maybe too quietly-Tony Dungy has become the best coach in the NFL. It's a shame more fans don't know that