What if Dungy had never left Tampa Bay?

by Gary Shelton on February 9, 2016 · 1 comment

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Tuesday, 6 a.m.

If he had stayed here, would he have ended up there?

If the firing had never happened, if the Glazers didn't have their secret little deal with Bill Parcells, a man they swore they had never heard of, if they hadn't later given away the farm to acquire Jon Gruden, who in turn brought in the regrettable Bruce Allen, would Tony Dungy be on his way to Canton today?

And would the Bucs still have their Super Bowl trophy?

Under the category of all-things-working-out, I suppose that

Content beyond this point is for members only.

Already a member? To view the rest of this column, sign in using the handy "Sign In" button located in the upper right corner of the GarySheltonSports.com blog (its at the far right of the navigation bar under Gary's photo)!

Not a member? It's easy to subscribe so you can view the rest of this column and all other premium content on GarySheltonSports.com.

both sides can be happy today. Tampa Bay won its Super Bowl, and Dungy won his, and the Bucs have pretty much returned to same shape that Dungy found them in to begin with. Both sides should be satisfied with the way things turned out. Dungy got to spend some time around a great offense and not much defense, instead of the other way around. The Bucs rode Jon Gruden's energy to a championship before unraveling as a team.

But what if, instead of driving to Dungy's house to fire him that night, Bryan and Joel decide to take a left and buy milkshakes instead.

What if Dungy had never left?

A couple of thoughts: There would have been no signing of Darrell Russell. The team wouldn't have drafted Aqib Talib. Legarrette Blount wouldn't have stopped by. David Boston would have faded away.

Ah, but do you think that, eventually, Dungy would have broken through in the playoffs to the Super Bowl? Were the Bucs a team that was ripe? Certainly, there were enough fans who felt in those days that Dungy lacked something that differentiated champions from just-this-close. But when a team plays a close game in the NFC title game, it's kind of hard to believe he couldn't twice more.

Still, the suspicion is that the woeful offensive staffs of the Bucs continue to weigh down the team until the window closed? Would the Bucs have been pretty good, but never quite good enough? Would the offense have continued to be under construction, leaving it to the defense to try to win with 17 points a game?

Today, it's an interesting question whose answer believes in what you believed back then. Dungy is probably the most admired coach who ever worked in Tampa Bay or in Indianapolis. He's filled with grace and calm and inner peace. He's determined to the point of being stubborn. He's a teacher, a builder. The Bucs reached the playoffs more times in his tenure than they have in the 14 seasons he has been gone.

But the cold evidence suggests that, no, Dungy wouldn't have won it. That doesn't lessen his impact, or the admiration you should have for him. But great chances slipped by in 1999 and 2000 and the Bucs didn't win it.

I'd still argue that, while Jon Gruden had the greatest accomplishment in the history of Tampa Bay Buc coaching, Dungy was the most important coach the team ever had. He salvaged Derrick Brooks' career by moving him to the proper side of the defense; a former assistant had suggested that Brooks was one of the worst prospects he had ever seen as a rookie. He salvaged Warren Sapp's career; Sapp seethed under Sam Wyche's inconsistency. He salvaged John Lynch's career; at one point, Lynch's ceiling was supposed to be as linebacker in the nickel formation. Instead, the three of them defined a decade.

So, yeah, I believe that Dungy would have held off the 5-11 seasons of the 2000s. I think he would have continued to find players to plug in on defense. I think there would have been a lot of playoffs visits, and yes, playoff defeats. But probably not a Super Bowl.

So would you trade? Would you prefer more very good season to the one great one?

It's selling Gruden short to suggest, as some have, that the Super Bowl team was Dungy's. It wasn't. A man who comes in not even sure of the players' names (remember Gruden referring to Mark Alstott?) and who fashions a ball of energy that wins a title has accomplished something. I criticized Gruden in the years that followed, because there were too many players in the out basket and not enough in the in basket. But the guy could coach. His problem was that he too often has six-win talent and nine-win results.

Here's what I fear: If the Bucs had stuck with Dungy, they would have won more regular-season games, and they would have gone to more playoffs. But they would never had have an imaginative enough offensive staff to get them to the big prize.

That's hard for me to say, because there has never been a coach I admired more than Dungy. I covered Don Shula and Bear Bryant and Bobby Bowden, but none of them were quite the man that Dungy was. He stood for something every day, every minute.

A story: It was during one of the Bucs' draft days, and Chris Berman was, of course, prattling on about something. (Suggested Geico commercial: “Berman prattles, it's what he does.”) The Bucs were on the clock, and he kept chattering on about nonsense. Finally, I blurted out an obscenity. “Just give us the bleeping pick!” And over my should stood Dungy.

I immediately felt about a quarter of an inch tall, a little boy who had sworn in front of the priest. No coach working could have made me feel so small. (Normally, you saved your swearing for after the Bucs drafted.)

That was one of the great things about Dungy: He wanted you to feel like a better guy. Lynch told me that, one of the years he was up for Man of the Year. So was Warrick Dunn. No coincidence there.

Another story: I remember Dungy's first season. I remember telling him after their comeback win over San Diego, the game that turned the franchise around. “I'm scared of what I'm thinking,” I told him. “I think it, too,” he said.

That team finished 6-10, and they gave Dungy a Gatorade shower. The absurdity of a 6-10 coach getting Gatorade dumped on him didn't escape him. He would never be 6-10 again.

Another story: I was yelled at by a celebrity because of Dungy.

One season, the Bucs had won a couple of games the hard way. I asked Dungy about it. He asked me to give him until the end of practice, which he would occasionally do. Then he'd come up with a great line.

This time, Dungy said that in earlier seasons, the team had been like Tom Cruise. They had won and looked cool doing it. That season, Dungy said the Bucs were like Robert Conrad of the Wild, Wild West. They were winning, but it was in the final 10 minutes of the show.

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later there was a message on my phone. Believe it or not, it was Conrad. “James West didn't win in the last 10 minutes!” he yelled. “James West dominated from the start!”

Another story: The Bucs were struggling one year, and I had been harsh in my evaluation of them. Then they won a big game. “They were upset over some of the things that had been written, so they responded that way,” he said. “I should win a game ball,” I said. He grinned. “You got some votes.”

Another story: On Dec. 31, 1999, the day before the chaos was supposed to begin, Dungy was in my room in Chicago. He had come down to help me with a story I wanted to do, comparing the great Bucs' defenses to the old Steelers' defense. It wasn't as one-sided as you would think. But it was sharp, and analytical, stripped of legend and mythology.

Another story: Going into his final game, I wrote a piece that carried the headline “Glazers: Don't do it.” But Dungy was fired anyway. I approached him on the backporch. “Congratulations,” I said. He looked at me questioningly: “You're going to go somewhere else, and you're gong to win the Super Bowl, and you're going to be happy,” I said. And he did. And he was.

A last story: When Dungy's son, Jamie, committed suicide, most of us were shredded. The entire town shared Tony's pain. But at the funeral, Dungy was making the rest of us feel better. That was his gift. His faith was so strong that it carried him, and us, through the day. I have never seen a stronger day by a coach.

In the end, it was the way it was supposed to be. Dungy was supposed to turn this franchise around. He was supposed to win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis. His legacy would not be complete without both places.

It's funny. I've read a lot of comments the last couple of days that refer to Dungy as “the one-time Super Bowl coach” as if it's a slam. But you know what? It's not the Super Bowl Hall of Fame, although the Super Bowls have become a large measuring stick. But Johnny Unitas won one Super Bowl. Joe Namath won one. Steve Young won one. Joe Theisman. Doug Williams. Drew Brees.

Bud Grant didn't win any. Marv Levy didn't, either.

I'll be honest. I tagged along behind Dungy for years. I dubbed him “Spock.” I praised his overall work, but I criticized his offenses. I'd like to think I was fair.

And Dungy? He was very, very good.

Yes, he's in my Hall of Fame.

Share with:Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cecil DeBald February 9, 2016 at 7:31 am

I agree with you, more wins, better teams, teams with people who would make us proud – but no Super Bowl win. Maybe a loss or two. Truly not sure which I’d take. I would get so upset with Dungy, we’d be playing lousy and he’d be standing on the sideline with that placid look on his face, and no matter how determined he was inside, I wanted to see him channel The Ol’ Football Coach just a bit, with his visor flung to the ground, clipboard flying, some of the anger and angst I was feeling displayed. Never did. But Tony was the best we had. Ever. God bless him.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: