It is easy to romanticize someone after they are gone. We forget the warts, the flaws and some of the things that perhaps drove us a little crazy. As a football coach, Tony Dungy wasn’t perfect.
And as a man, he would be the first to say, he isn’t perfect.
And while the last perfect man last walked this earth a little over 2,000 years ago – depending on your beliefs – Anthony Kevin Dungy ranks pretty high in my book.
I began watching Buccaneers football in 1977 on a late Sunday afternoon with my dad, Larry Cook. These creamsicle-clad, bumbling losers of 26 straight games beat the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome for their first win in franchise history. The next day, the Saints fired Hank Stram. A week later the Bucs won their second ever game, a home win over the St. Louis Cardinals, and the fans tore down the goal posts at Tampa Stadium. The next day, the Cardinals fired Don Coryell.
I was hooked.
Football became my lifeblood. I wanted anything and everything orange and white. I remember the day we went to Sears Town in Lakeland and picked up my Buccaneers footie pajamas and matching robe ordered from the Sears Wishbook. It is hot in Florida. Almost year round. Needing footie pajamas and a robe was rarely necessary. But it didn’t matter to me. Winter, spring, summer and fall, I was in my pajamas and robe. That’s why man made fans and air conditioning, right?
Kids made fun of me. No one I knew liked the Buccaneers. They were mostly Dolphins or Cowboys fans. I had a few good years as a Bucs fan – 1979, 1981 and 1982. All playoff years. I could brag a little and wasn’t ridiculed when we played backyard football after school when I was Doug Williams on offense and Mark Cotney on defense.
Then Williams left. John McKay retired after the 1984 season. The team drafted Bo Jackson. The Bucs picked up Steve Young, who they traded to draft Vinny Testaverde. The team hired Ray Perkins and had three-a-day practices at the University of Tampa.
The losses mounted; the ridicule was back. Once again, the Buccaneers were the laughing stock of all of sports. One step forward and a half a mile back seemed to be the ways things went from 1983 until 1996 – this team shortened my life, I am quite convinced. I am still considering starting a class action lawsuit for myself and Tampa Bay fans during that period.
But I digress.
Following the 1995 season, the Bucs, who started the season “5-dash-2” but ended up “7-dash-9”, fired their carnival barker head coach Sam Wyche.
The rumors started. Florida head coach Steve Spurrier was going to bring his high-potent style of offense from Gainesville to Tampa Bay; he turned them down. Next it was former Cowboys Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson who would bring his finely manicured insurance salesman-styled pompadour to the Bucs; he turned them down. The Buccaneers, despite new ownership with Malcolm Glazer, were snakebitten and were destined to keep being the “Yuccaneers” it seemed.
Then Glazer found a non-household name from Minnesota. Tony Dungy, a soft-spoken African-American, former Pittsburgh Steeler player-turned-football coach, was named the new head coach of Tampa Bay.
There were no rah-rah inspiring statements when he was introduced. There were no run-through-the-walls type of demeanors from Dungy at his introductory press conference. How was this guy going to turn around a floundering franchise that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs since before I sprouted my first chest hair?
Here we go again – hey, at least Wyche was humorous from time to time.
The 1996 season came and there was less buzz about the Buccaneers than the announcement of a new season of Murder She Wrote.
Speaking of murder, the beginning of the Dungy era was ugly. The season started with a 34-3 whipping at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. The team’s “New Day In Tampa Bay” marketing slogan should have been called “Nothing New In Tampa Bay” it seemed. After Week 5, the team was 0-5 after getting shutout by the Detroit Lions 27-0. Where was this new and improved defensive brand of football we were promised?
Nine games in, the Buccaneers were 1-8. Would Dungy even survive one season? Heck, can we bring back “7-dash-9” Sam Wyche? Then came the team’s first win – over Dungy’s former team, the Minnesota Vikings. Then an overtime win over the Raiders. Next a road win in San Diego. That was followed up with home win against the Saints. When it was all said and done, the Bucs and Dungy were 6-10. There was hope again. With Hardy Nickerson, John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Paul Gruber and Mike Alstott the building blocks were there, especially on the defensive side of the football.
The patience and success that Dungy had preached about was coming to fruition. But even more importantly what we were seeing on the football field was mild compared to what was going on inside the small compound called One Buc Place.
The calm, quiet demeanor of Dungy was the exact opposite of his predecessor. When Dungy said something, he meant it. There were no ulterior motives, no hypocrisy and no playing favorites. He expected each player to be a professional and do their job to the best of their ability and to be good representatives of the organization. These things weren’t requests. They were simply expected and few players wanted to disappoint their head coach.
For some Bucs players Dungy became a father figure. He became a guiding force for many like running back Warrick Dunn, the team’s first-round pick in 1997, who grew up in single parent homes. He inspired Dunn and several other Buccaneers to give back to their community, and many, including Dunn, Alstott and Brooks are still entrenched in community service in the Tampa Bay area long after their playing careers ended.
The success on the football field came, and in 1997 the Buccaneers returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. They even hosted a wild card game to close out the Big Sombrero in style. Tampa was on fire and Dungy could have easily have been elected governor of the state of Florida it seemed. In four of six seasons as coach of the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay made the playoffs. The team was built on defense, and had Dungy’s fingerprints all over it.
Things weren’t perfect, however. In Dungy’s last three seasons in Tampa Bay the Bucs had three different offensive coordinators, trying to find an offense that could provide balance for one of the league’s best defenses. It didn’t pan out. And after the second straight season of losing to the Eagles in the the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Glazers parted ways with Dungy after the 2001 season. At the time, Dungy easily the franchise’s winningest coach.
The image of Dungy carrying his possessions out to his car alone the evening of January 14, 2002, was one of the saddest in team history. It still stings to think about. Jon Gruden was brought in and the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII the following year. You can’t say it was the wrong decision. Even if it hurt.
Life has a way of evening things out. The Bucs got their Super Bowl and Dungy ended up getting his with the Indianapolis Colts a few years later. It was a happy ending for both teams. And fortunately for Tampa Bay, Dungy continued to make his home in the Bay Area.
While his accomplishments on the football field as a head coach earned him a spot in Canton as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his accomplishments in life, including being the driving force behind All-Pro Dads among other charitable endeavors, have earned him far more important accolades, if you ask those who know him. A devout Christian, not many have talked the talk and walked the walk the way Dungy has. Genuine, compassionate and loving are only a few of the words to describe Coach Dungy. From his prison ministry to his work with local civic clubs, Dungy has lived the words of the Bible he reads.
When his son James committed suicide in 2005, the sports world cried for Dungy and his family. Yet there was Dungy a few days later at the funeral comforting others. How you put one foot in front of the other after losing a child is beyond me, but Dungy’s faith sustained him and astonished those who witnessed him in the days after.
I was fortunate to have been working part time with PewterReport.com (called Buccaneer Magazine at the time) during the Dungy years. And while I was nothing more than a glorified quote transcriber, Dungy treated me with the same respect he did former Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen and and former St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell. No one was bigger than anyone else. From the receptionist at the front door of One Buc, to Mr. Glazer himself, Dungy respected everyone the same. He was a breath of fresh air in the ego-driven, multi-billion dollar sports industry. What you saw on TV was what you saw interacting with Dungy on a personal level.
While the Bucs Ring of Honor is used to celebrate the accomplishments on the gridiron, Tony Dungy deserves the Ring of Honor in life. And it is about time Dungy will get the recognition from the organization he deserves.
I have been blessed with a great father and men in my life who have helped me make it these first 47 years. But if there is another man on this planet I would love to be like other than my own dad, it would be Coach Dungy. I haven’t, and never will measure up to his standards. That’s okay though. Not many of us will.
Thank you, Coach, for helping turn this franchise around. But more importantly, thanks for the lives you have positively impacted and helped to turn around even more. While you don’t like the limelight, and will spend most of your speech that upcoming evening deflecting praise and crediting others, soak it in. Accept the pats on the back and the hugs and the love from your former players and the Tampa Bay community.
You have earned it.
And don’t be alarmed to see a 47-year old man in footie pajamas and a Bucco Bruce orange robe standing off in the distance wiping a tear or two from his eyes.