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A Tribute to Indianapolis Head Coach Tony Dungy: One of the greatest coaches in NFL history

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Contrary to what many Colts fans are feeling today, this is not a sad day. Yes, the greatest coach (arguably) of his generation is retiring after 27 years of coaching, 13 years as a head coach. But, as is typical when discussing the life and career of Anthony Kevin Dungy, no one thing defines who he is. Rather, the man that is Tony Dungy is more than just a great coach, more than just a symbol of dignity, respect, and accomplishment. He is a man who has left a profound impact not just on the NFL, but American society in general. So, when someone like this finally decides to retire because they wish to pursue work helping poor minority kids and families get a better chance at life, one should not be sad.

This is a great man going on to do even greater things. There is nothing to be sad about there. The only sadness is we, as NFL fans, have likely seen the last coaching days of this truly great and innovative man.

The numbers for Tony Dungy speak for themselves. As a head coach he compiled a staggering 139 wins to just 69 loses. He coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts to six division championships. While some actually bemoan his 9-10 playoff record, it is actually on par with some of the great coaches of all time. Dungy is also the only head coach in modern NFL history to led his teams to the playoffs for ten straight years. He coached in three conference championship games, including arguably the greatest one ever played: The 2006 AFC Championship against the Bill Belichick-coached New England Patriots.

Dungy will likely be most remembered by NFL fans as the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl. He coached a surprisingly stout 2006 Colts team to a win in Super Bowl 41 in a torrential rainstorm in Miami against the Chicago Bears. His coaching counterpart in that Super Bowl was longtime friend and on-time assistant coach, Lovie Smith.

Tony Dungy got his head coaching start with a team and franchise that, at the time, no one wanted to work for: The woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Spurned by supposedly better coaching prospects like Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier, Tampa Bay "settled" on Dungy, the respected defensive coordinator for the Minneosta Vikings. At Minnesota, Dungy pioneered (along with his assistant and friend Monte Kiffin) the revitalization of the old Cover 2 scheme of defense he'd learned in Pittsburgh as a player and assistant coach under Chuck Noll. In a league increasingly trending towards more complex 3-4 defensive alignments focused on blitzing linebackers and "shutdown" corners, Dungy's scheme was brilliant in its simplicity. It focused on using linemen to get pressure on the QB, linebackers in coverage, and cornerbacks who could tackle. Rather than needing large, strong players to play his system, he focused on quicker, faster players at the expense of height and size. Dungy took his Cover 2 scheme to Tampa Bay, and within just one year, he had the once dismal Bucs in the playoffs. In 1997, he won NFL Coach of the Year for coaching Tampa Bay to 10 wins and a playoff win over the Detroit Lions. Dungy's only losing season in Tampa was his rookie year as a coach in 1996.

Defense and toughness became the trademarks of the Dungy-coached Bucs. That trademark still lasts today, as Dungy's Cover 2 scheme is used by pro and amateur football teams all over the country. In fact, it isn't even called Cover 2 anymore. It's called Tampa 2.

In 2001, Dungy was fired from the Bucs after losing in the playoffs to the Philadelphia Eagles. The sentiment at the time (both ignorant and incorrect by whoever uttered it) was that Dungy was too "mild-mannered" to be a successful playoff coach. He was replaced by the "fiery"Jon Gruden, and in Gruden's first year as Bucs coach, he led them to a Super Bowl victory over the Oakland Raiders in 2003. However, since that Super Bowl win, the Bucs have posted three losing seasons, made the playoffs only twice, and have not won a single post-season game.

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Tony Dungy is still the best coach the Bucs have every had

 

After Dungy was fired by Tampa Bay, he didn't stay unemployed long. He was fiercely pursued by Colts owner Jim Irsay, who made it clear from the outset that he wanted Dungy, and only Dungy, to coach his team. From Joe Wikert (who references Dungy's book Quiet Strength):

It was immediately after Tampa let Dungy go and Irsay presented a vision for the team that reminded me of the old Art Rooney days in Pittsburgh. Irsay even went on to tell Dungy that money wouldn't be an issue and to make sure "your agent doesn't screw up the deal"!

Dungy was hired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts in January 2002. He inherited a team and a defense that won only 6 games the previous season and surrendered an astounding 30 points a game. In Dungy's first year, he reversed the defensive trend. Indianapolis surrendered only 19 points per game in 2002, won 10 games, and made the playoffs. 

But it was not just Dungy's knowledge of defense that helped turn around the manically inconsistent Colts. It was under Dungy's guiding hand as an offensive coach that helped Peyton Manning develop into arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation. Dungy's philosophy of protecting the football and minimizing turnovers aided Manning as he marched his way to three NFL Most Valuable Player awards and a Super Bowl MVP award. Indeed, Dungy's development of players, and the personal relationships he forged with them, are just was powerful an impact on the game as his Tampa 2 defensive scheme was.

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Dungy got his start coaching under Steelers legend Chuck Noll (center)

(NOTE: Yes, that is current Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore on the right)

 

Dungy's coaching tree will also serve as one of his many lasting impacts on the NFL. Not since former-49ers great Bill Walsh has a coach filled the ranks of the NFL with such a degree of quality assistant and head coaches. They include Chicago's head coach Lovie Smith; Pittsburgh's head coach Mike Tomlin; long-time Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin; Kansas City head coach Herman Edwards; former-Detroit Lions head coach and current Bears assistant head coach Rod Marinelli; and current Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. 

Dungy's coaching tree had also helped the NFL better improve the ratio of black head coaches. Prior to Dungy accepting the Tampa Bay head coaching job in 1996, there was only one black head coach working in the NFL: Then-Vikings head coach Dennis Green, who was Dungy's former boss when Dungy was defensive coordinator in Minnesota. Now, of the six currently active black head coaches, four got their start in the NFL because of Dungy. And Dungy's tree will likely grow bigger in 2009, breaking down even more color barriers. Hot head coaching prospects like Frazier and Bucs assistant Raheem Morris are in line for several potential head coaching jobs. In addition, Dungy's successor in Indianapolis is another well-respected black assistant coach, Jim Caldwell. 

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Dungy's coaching tree is rivaled only by the late, great Bill Walsh

 

But it is not just Dungy's coaching record or his impressive coaching tree that solely define who he is and how he has impacted the sports world. Dungy the person has often out-shined Dungy the coach. His best selling book Quiet Strength summed up the character and class that Dungy has preached since he first started coaching in the NFL as an assistant under Chuck Noll in 1981. From Noll, Dungy learned how to conduct himself both on gameday and after. This poise, this dignity, is often what people cite as Dungy's greatest strength, not just his coaching ability.

Dungy's personal live and family have also captivated people everywhere. The country collectively wept for Dungy and his family when his son James committed suicide in January 2006. One of the greatest moments in RCA Dome history (and Colts history, in general) was during a meaningless regular season finale against the Arizona Cardinals, coached at that time by Dennis Green. This was the first game Dungy came back to coach after taking several weeks off to bury his son and grieve. In the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, with Arizona looking to score the go ahead touchdown and win the game, the Colts defense stuffed the Arizona ball carrier on the goal-line and forced a fumble. Indianapolis recovered the fumble, and when the game whistle sounded then-Colts safety Mike Doss immediately ran over to the Colts sideline with the football. He placed the ball in Dungy's hands and said, This is for you. Dungy, standing on the sideline, smiled and held the ball up into the air. The crowd immediately roared with cheers and applause. The Colts won, and they won it for their beloved and grieving head coach.

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Coach Dungy jogging off the field with the game ball after defeating Arizona in 2005

 

Dungy's off-the-field work in communities in Indy and Tampa Bay also define the man that often outshines the great coach. He often pushed his players and assistants to get involved in local communities.

Like with golf's Tiger Woods and President-Elect Barrak Obama, Tony Dungy is seen as a man who transcends his minority status as a black man in American society. His victory in Super Bowl 41 over another black head coach lifted a veil over the collective consciousness of Americans. Just like prior to Washington QB Doug Williams winning the Super Bowl in 1987, there were often many foolish and ignorant statements made by foolish and ignorant people claiming, "Black head coaches can't win championships." When the Gatorade rained down on Coach Dungy as the final seconds ticked away in Miami in February 2007, those ignorant statements and sentiments fell silent (or, returned from the dark hole from whence they came, never welcome again).

As with all great men, there is a flawed side to Tony Dungy. For all his speeches on tolerance and acceptance, all his work in preaching teamwork and love of your brother and sisters, it was his 2007 speech at the Indiana Family Institute that showed us that even great men have chinks in their armor. Dungy railed against homosexuality in that speech, claiming it was not the will of god to be gay, and therefore wrong. Many Colts fans (who just so happened to be gay) expressed outrage, along with gay activists in general. In the end, the incident did not diminish Dungy's popularity or his credibility. What it did show is that even the best of us are human: Flawed, imperfect, and always in need of further enlightenment.

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Dungy and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the 2006 AFC Championship Game

 

After Tony Dungy gives his farewell speech today at the Colts complex at 7001 West 56th Street, after he shakes hands with Bill Polian, hugs Jimmy Irsay, and hands the keys over to Jim Caldwell, he will take his first step towards a new and better life. He will focus more on helping poor, underprivileged black men in prison, using his power and influence to champion their causes and lead them to a better life. It's doubtful he will return to coaching again, as he has often maintained he is not a "coaching lifer." As he steps into his car and drives away from West 56th, Dungy the man will continue his journey while Dungy the coach closes the book on one of the greatest coaching careers in NFL history.

From all of us at Stampede Blue, we wish you well coach, and we love ya. You touched all our lives and showed us what class, dignity, and respect truly are. You showed us how to win the right way. You showed us that even the meek, mild mannered, "quiet types" can also be champions. But, most importantly, you taught us that living life is far more important than any game could ever be. And because of that, there is no sadness in your retirement. Only profound appreciation.

Go Tony Dungy! And Go Colts!

 

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Coach Dungy now has time for more important things, like reading Stampede Blue on a daily basis