Following a disappointing 6-10 season in 2001, the Indianapolis Colts made a change at head coach. Already four years into the career of Peyton Manning and with just two winning seasons to show for it, team owner Jim Irsay and general manager Bill Polian faced the pressure to get the move right.
Elsewhere in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had fired their head coach for too many playoff failures despite Tony Dungy turning one of the NFL’s biggest losers into a consistent contender. Jim Irsay picked up the phone and called Dungy.
“About six or seven days after I got let go Jim Irsay called and he left a message for me to call him back, we talked for a long while about his vision for the team and it was fantastic,” Dungy said earlier this year. “It was right in line with what I wanted to do, talked about having character players and connecting with the community and building relationships as well as winning. Then Bill [Polian] came down and we sat down and talked about his vision and what he was looking for in building the team and the type of players he wanted, talked about his time in Buffalo with Marv Levy and it was just so in line with what I wanted to do. It seemed like a perfect marriage.”
That turned out to be exactly the case.
In seven years with the Colts, Dungy went 85-27 (.759), becoming the winningest coach in Colts history – a mark that would be tied for the best win percentage in NFL history among coaches who coached at least 100 games (Dungy’s career percentage, at .668, ranks ninth among coaches all-time using the same criteria). The Colts made the playoffs in each of Dungy’s seven seasons, winning five division titles. Indianapolis won at least 12 games in each of Dungy’s final six seasons with the Colts, and the team won the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. In Dungy’s 13 seasons as a head coach in total, his teams made the playoffs eleven times and he averaged 10.7 wins per season – the highest mark in NFL history.
Dungy proved to be the perfect fit for the Colts: a man who prioritized faith and family over football, who was the perfect man to further community relations and service, and who was a very good football coach in his own right. In four of his seven seasons with the Colts, Dungy’s defense ranked in the top seven in the NFL in points allowed. Offensively, Dungy helped convince Peyton Manning to protect the football more and helped Manning understand opposing defenses better. Dungy’s leadership, however, perhaps proved more invaluable than all else.
In 2006, Tony Dungy did his finest coaching job with the Colts. The team started 9-0 before losing a road game to the Dallas Cowboys in week eleven. That’s when everything fell apart. The Colts went on to lose four of six games, including a 44-17 embarrassment in Jacksonville to the Jaguars, who rushed for 375 yards and four touchdowns on the day. Indianapolis wasn’t the hot Super Bowl pick anymore but was instead just crawling into the playoffs, sure to face a first-round exit at the hands of Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson. Dungy kept his team on course, however, and the Colts defeated the Chiefs 23-8 in the wild card round. A week later the defense did it again, leading the Colts to a 13-6 win over the Baltimore Ravens on the road. Then came the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, and before the Colts could even blink the Patriots were up 21-3. New year, same old story? Not for Tony Dungy and the Colts. Dungy never gave up, and his confidence was contagious. The Colts stunned the football world by storming back in the second half to win a thriller, 38-34. Two weeks later, they defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17 to finally hoist that Lombardi Trophy.
Though Tony Dungy coached the Colts for just seven seasons, he left his mark for good. He’s in the team’s Ring of Honor and is a beloved figure in Indianapolis and around the NFL. He’s in the record books as the Colts’ all-time winningest head coach. And most of all, he did things the right way. His players respected him, and he proved to be a better man than football coach – though he excelled at both.
The foundation in Indianapolis was laid well before Tony Dungy arrived. Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian arrived in 1998, and Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison was already in place at that point. And then, of course, in the 1998 NFL Draft came Peyton Manning, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. In 1999 came Edgerrin James and Jeff Saturday, in 2001 came Reggie Wayne, and then in 2002 (Dungy’s first year) came Dwight Freeney. The foundation for success was laid well before Jim Irsay picked up that phone to call Tony Dungy in January of 2002, but it’s for precisely that reason why the hiring of Dungy was so important. The Colts had the pieces in place; they just needed someone to coach them. The Colts had the talent; they just needed someone to lead the team. Because the Colts had the foundation in place they couldn’t afford to miss on their next coaching hire, and Irsay certainly didn’t. He hit a home run with the hire of Tony Dungy, putting the final major piece in place to propel the Colts to the winningest decade in NFL history and a run of success that was unprecedented.