In the end, I went with my gut. My heart and head, too. In the end, I went with Tony Dungy.
Yes, I’m going to go ahead and declare Dungy the greatest coach in NFC South history. (For background purposes, here's how all this started and some of the ground rules we laid out. And here are some of your opinions on the topic.)
Let me make it clear, I came real close to going with New Orleans’ Sean Payton. I agonized over this one for days and I don’t think going with either one would have been a wrong decision.
But I know going with Dungy is right. I looked at win-loss records, Super Bowl titles and all that stuff. But I’m not really a numbers’ guy. I like to look at the big picture and have some flexibility outside the lines. That’s why, even though I gave some thought to guys like Jon Gruden, John Fox, Dan Reeves, Jim Mora, John McKay and Ray Perkins (well, not really on Perkins), I knew right away they belonged a little further down my list.
This was a two-man race between Dungy and Payton. In a lot of ways, they’re the same guy. Cover your eyes toward times, dates and places and Dungy and Payton did basically the same thing.
They came into franchises that were beyond destitute. They built winning teams, shaped character, pulled communities together and completely changed the way their franchises were viewed from up close and afar.
When it came right down to it, I guess the main reason I’m giving Dungy the slightest of edges over Payton might not even be fair. It’s mainly because Payton is still coaching and Dungy’s legacy in Tampa Bay already has plenty of angle and distance. In fact, there probably is way too much distance and angle between where the Bucs are at right now and where they were under Dungy.
Payton probably can put himself as the undisputed winner of this argument with another Super Bowl title or even a couple more playoff years. But, for the moment at least, I’m going with Dungy.
Yeah, Dungy never won a Super Bowl until he got to Indianapolis (and that factored into my thought process). Dungy did set the table for Gruden, but he did so much more than that. He came into a franchise that hadn’t had a winning season in a generation, was beyond dysfunctional and was on the verge of moving to Cleveland, Sacramento, Orlando or anywhere that would give the Bucs a new stadium.
The Bucs stayed in Tampa Bay. They started winning games with Dungy. They got a sparkling new stadium built and, for the first time in franchise history, made it fashionable for people to go to games on Sundays.
That trend has lasted and the Bucs have sold out every game since the opening of Raymond James Stadium. That streak probably is going to come to an end this season, unless Raheem Morris suddenly becomes the second coming of Dungy.
The Saints and New Orleans are as high as a franchise can be right now and fans should be grateful they’re watching history in the making. That’s why I’m going with Dungy because I see fans in Tampa who remember how it used to be. They remember how it was when Dungy coached the Bucs. They don’t even remember what it was like before him, even though the team is playing like that again.
Beyond Dungy and Payton, my list of the greatest coaches in the history of the NFC South goes like this:
3. John Fox, Carolina Panthers. Yep, I did it. I picked Fox over a guy who won a Super Bowl (Gruden). If I wanted a guy to come in and draw up one offensive play, it would be Gruden. If I wanted a guy to come in and provide consistent excellence for a franchise, well, let's just say I already have three guys ahead of him. I’ll explain what I view as the downside of Gruden in a minute, but, first, let’s talk about the virtues of Fox.
He’s the only head coach who has been with a single NFC South team for the entire existence of the NFC South. If Fox could have put together back-to-back winning seasons once or twice, he might even be higher on my list. But Fox has kept the Panthers at least respectable for the entire time he’s been in Carolina and that’s a pretty big accomplishment these days. Fox cleaned up George Seifert’s 1-15 mess and had Carolina in a Super Bowl two seasons later. When Fox is at the top of his game, he’s as good as any coach in the league.
4. Jim Mora, New Orleans Saints. I’m doing it again. I’m looking at the big picture. Remember what I said about Dungy and Payton about how they changed the climate of their franchises? Well, Mora did the same thing in New Orleans in the 1980s. He came out of the United States Football League and made the Saints respectable -- something they never had been before.
5. Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All right, Gruden won a Super Bowl and you can never take that away from him. He put Tampa Bay over the top after Dungy couldn’t. He won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as his quarterback and no true superstars on offense. I’m not going to say Dungy or defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin deserve the credit for that Super Bowl. Gruden deserves the credit. But what did Gruden really do beyond that? He was supposed to be an offensive guru, but he never could find a franchise quarterback or anyone to truly build his offense around. General manager Bruce Allen made some questionable personnel moves, but Gruden was heavily involved in each one. In the big picture, Gruden deserves credit for the Bucs winning the Super Bowl. He also deserves credit for them being where they are right now.
6. Dan Reeves, Atlanta Falcons. There was a part of me that wanted to put Reeves ahead of Gruden for this simple fact: He reached a Super Bowl with Chris Chandler as his quarterback. What Reeves and the Falcons did in the 1998 season came before the official birth of the NFC South, but they won 14 games and were spectacular. If Reeves could have followed up that season with something better than the 5-11 and 4-12 years that followed, he might have been much higher on this list.