INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Dungy always considered football just a career path.
Not his life's mission.
On Monday, Dungy began the transition from head coach to full-time dad and devoted volunteer by announcing his retirement after seven years leading the Indianapolis Colts.
"We just felt this was the right time," Dungy said. "Don't shed any tears for me. I got to live a dream most people don't get to live."
The move triggered a succession plan Indianapolis put in place a year ago, making Jim Caldwell, the associate head coach, Dungy's replacement.
But the culmination of a 31-year NFL career, which started with Dungy winning a Super Bowl ring as a player in Pittsburgh and ended two years after he became the first black coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, brought out some rare emotional moments from the usually stoic Dungy.
"My wife Lauren told me to bring some Kleenex. I thought I would make it a little farther than the first sentence," Dungy said, his voice cracking.
He told owner Jim Irsay of his decision Sunday.
"And we spent about 2½ hours crying," Dungy said. "But I had a real peace about it."
The 53-year-old Dungy informed his staff of the decision Monday morning, then met with some players after the traditional one-week waiting period ended. Dungy and his wife, Lauren, spent the last five years discussing whether he should continue coaching.
Receivers coach Clyde Christensen, who served as Dungy's assistant the last 13 years, said he was 95 percent certain Dungy would return as recently as Friday. Others, like safety Melvin Bullitt, were still hopeful Monday afternoon that Dungy would change his mind.
Unlike the previous four years, when Dungy ultimately decided to continue coaching, he decided it was time to stay home and work in the community.
Perhaps for good.
"I think I've got a responsibility to be home a little bit more, be available to my family a little bit more and do some things to help make our country better," Dungy said. "I don't know what that is right now, but we'll see."
Dungy made a remarkable impact around the league. In an era when there were few black head coaches, Dungy helped open the door to rising stars and a growing number of minority candidates. Among those from his Tampa Bay staff who have had head coaching jobs are Herm Edwards, now with Kansas City, Chicago's Lovie Smith, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli.
Dungy also set league records for most consecutive playoff seasons (10) and consecutive 12-win seasons (six), and leaves with the highest average of regular-season victories of any coach in league history (10.7).
And those around the league acknowledged Dungy's legacy will be the way he won.
"People often say that teams reflect their head coach, and that can be said of Tony Dungy's teams, which are consistent winners every single year," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "Tony has been such a fixture in this league that his absence will take some getting used to."
Dungy has always considered faith, family and football to be his priorities.
But he always wound up back on the sideline. Last year, he returned to help open the Colts' new stadium after Irsay agreed to let Dungy commute home on his private jet.
Although Dungy said the travel was not a burden and enjoyed this season, clearly, the time away from home was something that tugged at Dungy's heart.
Even Irsay sensed this would be Dungy's last go-around before their Sunday night meeting.
"I knew this day would come some time, it always does in life," Irsay said, tearing up. "It's been an incredible journey, and as an owner, I think, you dream of having the kind of relationship with a head coach that I've had with Tony."
The decision came a little more than a week after the Colts lost their first playoff game for the second straight season, and it ends a coaching career in which Dungy reached one NFC Championship Game and two AFC Championship Games.
In addition, Dungy finished his six-year tenure in Tampa and his seven-year stint in Indy as the career leader in victories for both franchises, finishing with an overall record of 148-79.
But the critics always questioned Dungy's postseason numbers. In Tampa, his adopted hometown, Dungy went 2-4 in the playoffs and failed to reach the Super Bowl. He was 7-6 in Indy, failing to advance past the first game four times.
"You always think you can win a few more," Dungy said. "But I won't look back and think that we could have won one more if I had put more time in."
While the city of Tampa reveres Dungy for turning a moribund franchise into a perennial playoff team, Indy's bond with Dungy was just as strong.
The city applauded Dungy's achievement when he finally won the Super Bowl and rallied around Dungy's family when he endured his greatest tragedy -- his son's suicide in 2005.
"His biggest legacy will be all the people around the country who he's inspired to be better and to deal with some of life's tragedies in a manner that gives people a lot of strength," Edwards said. "What he went through with his son and how he handled it, was something that says a lot about Tony, his faith and what he stands for."
What's next for Dungy is unclear. He has been involved for years in prison ministries, with Family First and as part of All-Pro Dads.
"Where my heart is, is really with our young men right now," Dungy said. "We have so many guys that didn't grow up like me, didn't have their dad there and that's something I'm very, very interested in."
He also believes the Colts will continue to win under Caldwell, who takes over after spending the past eight seasons on Dungy's staff. Caldwell spent seven of those seasons, one in Tampa, as the quarterbacks coach before being elevated to associate head coach last January.
Caldwell's only other head coaching experience came at Wake Forest, where he went 26-63 from 1993-2000.
But it will take more than wins and losses to fill Dungy's shoes.
"Tony Dungy taught us all how to handle triumph and tragedy with dignity and grace," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Although we will miss him, Tony is a great man and his impact will be part of the NFL forever."