Tony Dungy: Can This Nice Guy Finish First?

As a player and coach, Tony Dungy has made the best out of bad situations throughout his 25 years in the NFL. No one doubts his character, but everyone will be looking to see whether this good guy can lead the Colts to a winning season.

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Tony Dungy
Tony Dungy

Photo by Tony Valainis

Editor’s Note, August 5, 2016: This weekend the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducts Tony Dungy, Colts head coach from 2002 to 2008, into its Class of 2016. Dungy is joined by Marvin Harrison, Colts wide receiver from 1996 to 2008, in a Hall of Fame class that is led by quarterback Brett Favre. The Colts open the NFL pre-season in Canton against the Packers in the Hall of Fame Game.

This article first appeared in the September 2002 issue.

It didn’t feel so nice at the time, but Tony Dungy made the best of things.

It was 1977, and he’d ended his University of Minnesota career as the fourth-highest generator of offense in Big Ten conference history. He was a threat to move the ball through the air or to tuck it away and run.

This was, however, before the National Football League became comfortable with that sort of quarterback. The league was married to the idea of a strapping quarterback who dropped straight back and heaved—or else handed off to a separate, designated runner. And even more to the point, the sight of a black man commanding an offense was an extreme oddity. James Harris was the only starter on the league’s radar. Warren Moon, young Dungy’s West Coast contemporary, would have to jump to Canada in order to play the position.

About 300 players were chosen in the 1977 NFL draft, and none of them was named Tony Dungy.

The quarterback avoided bitterness, and then he caught a break. Dungy’s Minnesota coach, an offensive specialist by the name of Tom Moore, convinced the champion Pittsburgh Steelers to offer his quarterback a free-agent contract. But disappointment again visited Dungy. The Steelers assigned him to play defensive back, a position he was unfamiliar with, and Dungy struggled as a pro, injuring himself repeatedly in his high-contact new slot.

But he didn’t complain. He just learned. By 25, Dungy was done, having played for three teams (the Steelers, the 49ers and the Giants) and logged so little playing time that he failed to qualify for a pension. None of that stopped him from developing a vision, one that benefited from putting in time on both sides of the ball. And when he got a shot at coaching, Tony Dungry never turned back. Now, nearly a quarter-century after making the best of a demeaning situation, he’s author of a defense that is emulated across the league that once dissed him. And Tony Dungy’s vision is fodder for conversation with strangers across Indianapolis, at the grocery store, at the barber shop, at church.

“As a quarterback, you learn defenses, what the weak spots are and what they’re trying to do,” Dungy says. Focused and philosophical at the Colts’ headquarters, the wiry quarterback is now 46, light in the follicles beneath his tipped-back cap, but trim and youthful in a blue sweatshirt and shorts. “When I shifted over to defense, I always thought of things from a quarterback’s perspective: What is he gonna see? How can we camouflage the weak spots?”

Once more, Dungy’s inability to succumb to bitterness has been rewarded. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers awkwardly released Dungy from their head-coaching position last January and, after a whirlwind eight-day courtship, he finds himself part of the biggest movement to hit Indiana sports since young Hoosier coaches started emulating Bob Knight. With Notre Dame’s hiring of Tyrone Willingham, Indiana now has the most concentrated level of black coaches in high-profile positions—the Pacers’ Isiah Thomas, IU’s Mike Davis, and IUPUI’s Ron Hunter are the others—of any market in the country. This coincidence is bound to bring Dungy as much notoriety on the national level as the prospect of his repairing and inspiring the Colts’ wobbly defense.

Around the country, an ironic—and probably anachronistic—gaze has been cast on Indiana’s new concentration of black coaching talent, identifying the state with racial hate groups as much as a storied sporting tradition. Truth is, the arrival of Dungy and company to the top coaching ranks is remarkable primarily because Indiana is a place that closely mirrors America, a place where all of the country’s issues—from black to white, urban to suburban—come together. Regardless of the societal observations that it provokes, Dungy’s presence at the helm of the biggest sports franchise in the state is no benevolent act of affirmative action. A casual scan of his record—not to mention the perfectly conservative record of team president Bill Polian’s politics—shows that. Just like any other coach, he’s here to win football games.

 

Winning—and Dungy’s famous defense strategy for winning—is what people ask about all the time. If they’re still asking this fall, it will indicate a serious problem. But today, on an unseasonably cool summer afternoon, when workouts at Colts headquarters are still voluntary, a discussion of defense supplies some post-practice geniality.

“‘What are we doing about the defense?’ ‘How are we going to get this defense together?’” quips Dungy, grinning shyly. “‘Coach, did you bring any defensive players?’ Their perception right now is that all we have to do is fix the defense. I understand that. It may not be totally accurate, but that’s what they’ve zeroed in on.” They ask because the Colts lost 10 games last season and gave up more points than any other NFL team.

They ask because, in Dungy’s last job as head coach of the playoff perennial Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he unveiled the “Cover 2” defense. Based on the fabled Pittsburgh approach, it emphasizes speed and teamwork over brawn and raw talent and has been copied around the league. (Aside from the Colts, the Bucs, the Bears, the Rams, the Ravens, and the Jets will utilize Cover 2.) The strategy sent the formerly awful Bucs to the NFC championship in 2000 and to the playoffs during four of Dungy’s six seasons.

The Colts’ new coach does not arrive with the “Does he deserve it?” baggage that hounds Isiah Thomas in his NBA travails. Call it a post-civil-rights twist on the old sports trope, but the kid was always a natural. Former mentor Tom Moore, the Colts’ veteran offensive coordinator, saw it back before Dungy came to play for him in Minnesota. Scouting a player whose rep suggested he must be seen to be believed, Moore watched how the skill set began to play out on a basketball court in Dungy’s hometown of Jackson, Michigan. “You could just see him out there orchestrating things. He was like a coach on the court,” Moore says. He would bring Dungy to Minnesota’s football program and confidently have him run the Golden Gophers’ pressure-packed no-huddle offense as a freshman. Moore was awed by his charge’s appetite for the study of game film: He devoured footage as though paid to do so. Dungy and Moore would be paired together again with the defensive-minded Steelers. Then with the Minnesota Vikings, through 1993, the elder ran the offense and the kid worked on “D.” Moore says Dungy was a finished product by then, ready to run a team.

The doormat Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Dungy his head-coaching shot in 1996. After failing to make the playoffs for 18 years, the Bucs returned to the postseason in their new coach’s second season. Dungy took them back three of the next four years. But then, in 2001, starting slowly and picking up with unexpected momentum, Tampa Bay’s team management let it be known that they’d let Dungy go if he didn’t at least get the Bucs to the conference title game.

In both the Tampa and national press, debate over who would next coach the team took an open forum rarely seen in professional sports. Famously stoic, Dungy kept quiet during the speculation while management declined to offer even a courtesy vote of confidence. Two-time titlist Bill Parcells was being coaxed out of retirement while Dungy tried to get his team ready for its playoff opponent. The players who had rallied late in the season—finishing in the defensive top 10 for the fifth straight season—showed half-hearted effort in the first round and lost to Philadelphia, 31–9. Broadcast announcers were eulogizing Dungy by halftime.

Not only did the coach refuse to carp at what was widely perceived as unfairness, he also went to great lengths to maintain a veneer of normalcy. The morning of the press conference in which management announced what even casual football fans knew, Tony Dungy handled carpool duties, carting kids off to school. Very few knew that at the height of speculation over the coach’s future in Florida, his 81-year-old mother, Cleomae, passed away after a lengthy battle with diabetes.

It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the appeal of a man like this in Indianapolis, where a humble, industrious guy like native music mogul Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds has a freeway named after him. “The way Tony handled what a lot of people see as shabby treatment really appeals to the blue-collar people of Indiana,” says Ray Anderson, Dungy’s former agent. Other, less long-suffering celebrities, for example a Jalen Rose, have a harder row to hoe. Observes Les Lamon, an Indiana University–South Bend history professor: “There is great pressure to win, so the best athletes and the best coaches must be obtained. That priority trumps racial prejudice or class prejudice or other exclusionary social stereotypes when the chips are down.”

Dungy’s welcome reception has been aided by familiarity. It’s not as though he’s a defensive genius who’s arrived directly from, for instance, the continent of Africa. He’s not a complex religious man who is of Islamic faith. He’s a profoundly Christian product of small-town Michigan, the son of teachers. He believes it’s God’s will that he come here and serve as a role model. Even as the new coach has overseen the transition from former coach Jim Mora’s regime, he’s been working with Kurt Warner’s Baskets of Hope charity. Dungy also continues to honor previous commitments in Florida, jetting down to take part in a prison ministry—a kind of service discovered in his initial brief Pittsburgh stint—and he has already laid a foundation for charitable works in Indianapolis. While his wife, Lauren, and children Eric, Jade, James, Jordan, and Tiara remain in Florida, Dungy has been involved in an ecumenical service at Indy’s power church, Second Presbyterian, and has launched an Indianapolis component of his All-Pro Dad program, which he starred in Tampa.

 

But what about the way the Bucs laid down in that last game? There’s a flipside to the nice-guy label that’s as much a part of Dungy as his love of the Lord. Talk around the league last year was that some members of the Tampa Bay squad flat-out quit on their coach. So, as much as Dungy’s arrival is about a good man being on the forefront of social change—in a league with a majority-black workforce and only two coaches from that racial background—it’s also about a good man trying to win all of the marbles in a league that keeps obscure the patriarchal manipulations between player and coach. A single Lawrence Phillips or Ryan Leaf (whom the Colts famously did not draft) can undermine a coach’s best efforts at establishing unity.

It’s nothing you’ll see in NFL promo materials, but the simple truth is that many players respond to a scary, quasi-military hand, and the new Colts coach is not trying to frighten anyone into doing his best. One look at the cruel mouth of the imperial Steve Spurrier—who was paid double Dungy’s estimated $2.5 million a year to take over the Washington Redskins—and you know the heyday of coach as emotionally intimidating bastard is not done.

NFL player talent has become younger—and more married to the vagaries of stars raised with uneven, single-parent backgrounds—each decade. Increasingly frequent roster changes make team chemistry so volatile that familial bonds rarely reach fruition. So why did Tampa Bay go after Bill Parcells, a known kick-ass father surrogate? Why are hard guys like Brian Billick, coach of the 2001 Super Bowl champ Baltimore Ravens, ever in demand? “It’s fear,” says Jerome Stanley, agent for Tampa Bay’s Keyshawn Johnson. “Parcells was a bully. People need that, because of life in the NFL.”

Colts wide-receivers coach Clyde Christensen disagrees. “It’s getting harder and harder to coach through intimidation and fear. The guys like Tony Dungy are the ones who win year after year after year,” Christensen insists. “It’s such a long season, and it’s so hard to keep your stars happy. It’s so hard to get a team, a unit, built. In the short term [they’ll play for] the coach they’re scared of. But at a certain point, after five years of hearing the same bark, I think it wears off.”

Fortunately, Colts management is among the NFL’s sticklers when character is the issue. After all, the team took Peyton Manning, not Leaf, when experts called the choice a toss-up in 1998. For the coach whose involvement in Tampa’s Family First, an organization that reinforces the role of the father in domestic life, was so deep that the group publicly grieves his absence from local civic life, this management commitment is no small advantage. Says Dungy: “How you handle adversity, how you handle success, how you handle your life, how you handle failures, all of that is gonna determine how you win.”

It’s an understatement to call Dungy even-tempered. In fact, the closest thing to passion that’s elicited from him in a wide-ranging interview is when he’s asked about the role of character—not just displaying it, but projecting it—in his duty as coach. Through portions of our interview, which takes place in his spacious Colts office, the coach maintains a respectful monotone. He’s wheeled his chair out from behind a broad oak desk and delivers his comments from a relaxed, cross-legged posture. When the subject is character, he touches his fingertips to the side of this thin, copper-colored face. He’s not the old-school template.

“You go to the grocery store, you go to the barber shop, people are taking an interest because you’re here. And there’s a certain responsibility that goes with that. I think it’s important for people to see all sides of it, that yeah, we want to win games—that’s why they brought us here—but you want to be more than that.”

 

Ultimately, Indianapolis’s new football figure’s present notoriety comes back to race. Each participant in Indy’s coaching renaissance knows fully that nothing like it is going on anywhere on the planet. “We talked about it,” Dungy says. He met Thomas and Davis only this year, but Willingham’s an old friend, a former Big Ten competitor. “We understand because we grew up at a time when you didn’t have that many role models,” he says. “Maybe John Thompson at Georgetown. Bill Russell, Frank Robinson … and I think we all understand the significance of the role.

“Sports is one of the few areas where we’re able to get people focused on one thing,” he continues. “That thing is ‘Did we win the game?’ In the final analysis, if we’ve won, people go home thinking it’s a good day. It’s not, ‘Is the coach black, is the coach white? Is the quarterback black, is the quarterback white?’”

When Tyrone Willingham, Dungy’s former collegiate opponent, says, “We hope it allows for a greater probability that those who have the skills, not just black, whether it be Hispanic or any other race, would be given a chance,” he couldn’t dream up a more above-reproach fellow traveler.

There’s irony in how this man has come by his accomplishments. He was almost done with football at 25, cut once more—this time by the New York Giants—and ready to take everything he had learned about business administration from the University of Minnesota and get on with his life. But the last coach to release Dungy, New York’s Ray Perkins, told the youngster he had cerebral qualities that his football club would miss. Perkins asked him to consider staying on as a coach.

Excited, Giants president and co–chief executive Wellington Mara mentioned to the Steelers’ Art Rooney that he was about to hire one of his former players. The Pittsburgh owner asked whom, and when Mara said the player’s name, Rooney sprang into action. He called coach Chuck Knoll, and only then did Dungy get connected with the organization that would so shape his life.

At the end of the interview, Dungy is asked, “It’s kinda like this, isn’t it? One slight oversight and your whole life can change. You just never know.” He replies, “Yeah, you don’t know.” For once, the coach’s words ring false. With some guys, in the right situation, you just know.

 

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