Monday, January 12, 2009 Updated: January 13, 9:40 AM ET
Dungy proved quiet inspiration wins, too
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
The most revealing story I ever heard about Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy occurred shortly after his son James committed suicide in December 2005.
Dungy was preparing for his first practice with his team after taking a weeklong break, and none of the players knew what to expect from him. But when Dungy showed up for a morning meeting, he didn't talk about sorrow or offer an inspirational speech for a team favored to win that year's Super Bowl. He just did what he always did each morning: He sat down with his breakfast and waited for the film to roll.
I like that story because it defines the essence of Dungy, a man who announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday. He had several strengths as a head coach, but his most valuable asset was that understated, resolute nature. For Dungy, even the loss of a child wasn't enough to keep him from displaying the same deep faith that is his life's foundation. What he seemed to be conveying that day was that conviction, regardless of the circumstances, should never be lost.
This is why it's so important to remember Dungy as both a head coach and a man as he ends his 13-year head-coaching career. Most people in his position ultimately are evaluated merely by wins and losses. Numbers don't summarize Dungy's time in the NFL. His impact went far beyond his achievements, which include becoming the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl. Hell, his struggles alone made him one of the most respected leaders this league has ever seen.
Now that he's leaving the game, it's easy to forget how hard it was for Dungy to get a head-coaching job in the first place. He was one of the league's most qualified candidates when he was the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s, but far too often owners passed him over when jobs came available. The easy explanation at the time was that those teams liked other candidates better. The more discouraging possibility was that a black man with a stoic demeanor was considered the wrong guy for those opportunities.
To his credit, Dungy always talked about his experience with the league's minority hiring practices with measured yet candid tones. He just seemed to understand that the classy way he handled his own disappointments ultimately would help those who followed him. After all, he was a soft-spoken, low-key teacher out to prove that shouting and intimidating weren't the only ways to motivate players. And when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers eventually hired Dungy in 1996, they soon realized how much he had to offer.
Dungy taught a hapless franchise plenty about what it takes to win. He earned the respect of players with his consistent approach, and he produced results, as well. Three years after joining the Bucs, Dungy had them playing in the 1999 NFC Championship Game. Even when Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer fired him after a disappointing loss in the 2001 playoffs -- and gave his successor, Jon Gruden, a team that would win the Super Bowl the next season -- nobody could deny that Dungy was one of the most talented coaches working.
That's why the Colts were so quick to scoop him up after the Bucs gave up on him. Team owner Jim Irsay saw what Dungy did for a lousy Tampa Bay franchise, and Irsay knew he had far more talent to offer his new head coach in Indianapolis. There was an explosive young offense led by Peyton Manning and an unreliable defense just looking for a little direction and improved personnel. With all that potential and a proven coach in Dungy, it was only a matter of time before the Colts had their own Lombardi Trophy.
It's actually fitting that Dungy had to fight through his share of ups and downs in Indianapolis before that championship eventually arrived. There were all those frustrating playoff losses to the New England Patriots. There were all those whispers about how a nice-guy coach and a nice-guy quarterback couldn't muster the necessary toughness to take a title. Through all those times -- just as with the hiring process, the firing from Tampa Bay and the death of his son -- Dungy pressed on quietly. He never stopped believing his style would lead to a championship.
Of course, Dungy eventually earned that title after the 2006 season, when the Colts beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. And now that he's retiring and preparing for a life focused on community service, there will be all sorts of debates about his credentials for the Hall of Fame. Some skeptics will claim Dungy is a borderline candidate, probably because he has only one Super Bowl appearance. I'd argue that more rational people should see beyond that flaw in his résumé.
Along with his Super Bowl victory, Dungy led his teams to 11 playoff appearances in 13 seasons, including a league-record 10 straight showings. He had 148 career victories (19th all time) and his Colts teams won 12 games in six consecutive seasons (another league mark).
We also can't forget Dungy's coaching tree. He has created plenty of opportunities for his assistants to earn head-coaching jobs in the NFL, including fellow African-Americans such as Chicago's Lovie Smith, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Kansas City's Herm Edwards and Dungy's successor in Indianapolis, Jim Caldwell. The man left a mark on the game.
But if the Hall of Fame voters discount those facts, we shouldn't let that tarnish the way we remember Dungy's career. When we look back at his tenure, we'll see a guy who taught us plenty about faith and resolve and how soft-spoken men can be just as strong as boisterous ones. Sure, those things might not have made him the greatest coach in league history. But they certainly did something far more impressive: They made Tony Dungy one of the most inspirational figures this league has ever known.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.