Dungy looks back at his troublesome beginnings

by Gary Shelton on July 14, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Thursday, 6 a.m.

Given the viewpoint of time, he stands in accomplishment.

He is a Hall of Fame coach. He is a Super Bowl champion. He led 11 of 13 teams into the post-season. He is admired, accomplished, respected.

Twenty years ago, however, it was not this way for Tony Dungy.

He was starting to look like the latest coach without the answers. He had taken over a decade and a half of dysfunction, and he didn't seem to be making things a lot better. Dungy lost his first five games here, and eight of his first nine. The monster that was the Tampa Bay Bucs appeared to vicious for Dungy, too.

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What, then, is the guy doing on the front porch of the Hall of Fame?

Dungy coached that Bucs' team to 6-10, and he made reaching the playoffs seem normal. He fielded smart teams of good human beings, and he made reaching the post-season feel so routine that fans took it for granted. He would coach great players and lead great teams. But no one knew that then. No one knew things were about to change. In that snapshot in time, Dungy was losing. There were questions, which were stacked on the skeptics, which stood behind the doubts.

“I can't say I never doubted,” Dungy said on a Hall of Fame conference call Wednesday. “I went in with high expectations. I thought we had a group of talented players and the right system. When you don't win, it catches you by surprise.

“I was very surprised to be 0-5. That's when you have to stay together and not doubt. I knew we'd get there, but the question was how fast this was going to take to turn around. I didn't know how long the team would hang in there without seeing results. I remembered (former Steeler) Joe Greene telling me he was inches away from giving up before the team won its first Super Bowl.”

How dark can a season start. The Bucs had lost forever; they knew the way there from here. Trent Dilfer was throwing touchdown passes to the wrong team. Errict Rhett was holding out. The stadium had just barely passed the vote. Derrick Brooks was at least on the proper side of the defense, but he hadn't become the force he would.

Were you there?  Did you try to look into Dungy's eyes and see a difference than in the clowns who had come before? Could you feel the team getting closer? And closer?

Yeah, that's what Dungy is doing in the Hall of Fame. He cured the NFL's sickest franchise.

Oh, there have been those who wonder. Dungy won only one Super Bowl, and the Hall is usually reserved for those who have won multiples. But the Miracle of Tampa Bay was something to behold. And now that the team is in a similar funk, it seems like the perfect time for Dungy to be acknowledged. From nothing, he grew a garden. From mediocrity, he grew greatness.

It must be said that in any press conference, there are several Dungys who speak into the phone. The football analyst. The old Bucs' coach. The old Colts' coach. The former Steelers player. A black man. A religious man who works with charities. An adoptive father. And on and on. His is a life well-lived, a shadow thoroughly cast.

Dungy revisited his former lives in Wednesday's conference call. He talked about an 8-year-old boy who was taken to the Cleveland-Detroit preseason game by his father so he could see Jim Brown. He talked about his brief playing career. He talked about joining Chuck Noll's coaching staff at a time when  there were only 10 black assistant coaches in the NFL.

And, naturally, he talked about his two franchises. The defensive Bucs. The offensive Colts.

There are so many legacies for Dungy: The teacher, the mentor, the role model. The coach, the leader, the community hero.

For Dungy, it all started with the Steelers, with Art Rooney challenging the young players to stand for more than football. Dungy represented that, and men such as Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn represented the best of the Bucs.

“I would like to think that Coach Dungy was a man who helped players be the best they could be,” Dungy said “That he helped his city be a better place to live. I would like to think that the biggest part of me is make someone better.”

Dungy says he is humbled and amazed to go into the Hall. But, no, he doesn't wish he had added more to his resume.

“There have been no second thoughts at all,” he said. “I played for three years, and I coached for 28.”

Dungy goes into the Hall of Fame at a fragile state of racial relations in his country.

“You always hope that sports can impact our nation and reflect maybe how we should do things,” Dungy said. “It’s been very, very tragic these last couple of weeks. You’re hoping that sports in a small way that it can be helpful and instructive to people about what we can do when we are all working together.”

Now he goes into the Hall, and yes, his bust will be closer than most. You can imagine that it will catch the calm, the stubbornness. You imagine that it  will display the leadership.

"You think about the cream of the cream of the NFL being in there,’’ Dungy said. “To think that you’re going to be in that group is still hard to believe. I’m humbled, but it still doesn’t seem real. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be very special.’’

Even at the worst times, that was there with Dungy. It never left.

 

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