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They Had a History Before They Made It

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

LAKE FOREST, Ill., Jan. 22 -- In all the years he waited to become a head coach, silently seething through the failed and token interviews with racial overtones, Tony Dungy knew exactly how he would run a football team. He would not scream. He would not swear. He would not throw clipboards to the ground.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally gave him the chance to be a head coach in 1996, he welcomed a promising young college assistant named Lovie Smith into his office and declared, "I want teachers."

They would come to make magic together.

Perhaps it is ironic they both stood on interview stages in auditoriums 188 miles apart Monday -- Dungy in Indianapolis, Smith here outside Chicago -- as the first two African American head coaches to lead their teams to a Super Bowl. Because if the Bucs had not taken that chance on Dungy 11 years ago and, consequently, had Dungy not chosen Smith as his linebackers coach, despite the fact they had never met, who knows if either would have had this day?

"How much do you owe Tony for being in this position?" someone asked Smith.

"Quite a bit," Smith, 48, replied. "I acknowledge that."

But back then, when Dungy, 51, told Smith he wanted teachers and Smith, in his only season as a defensive backs coach at Ohio State, couldn't wait to join Dungy, they probably never realized just how precariously close to failure they came. The Buccaneers were awful then, a consistent last-place finisher in a half-empty stadium with apricot-colored uniforms that were the joke of the NFL. They hadn't had a winning record since 1982, a year when only nine games were played because of a strike.

It was not a situation that held much promise.

Still Dungy set about building a staff of teachers that would come to have some of the biggest names in the league -- Kansas City Chiefs Coach Herman Edwards, Detroit Lions Coach Rod Marinelli, former Alabama coach Mike Shula, Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Smith. They told the players they were going to change the culture of the Buccaneers. They showed them a system, built not so much on wizardry but on solid football free of mistakes.

And then they lost.

And lost.

And lost.

Tampa Bay lost its first five games before going into a bye week in which Dungy -- desperate for a first victory -- had his players practice in full pads during what is a traditionally a lazy week. This finally brought a win over Minnesota before just 32,175 in Tampa. Then the Buccaneers lost some more until they were 1-8, and Dungy did something that most on that staff will never forget.

He walked into the locker room, stood before the team and said: "I apologize to the people in this room who have bought into what we are doing, because there are guys in here who have not. I'm not going anywhere. I will see if we have the guys who can believe in what we are going to do."

"It was like a light clicked on," said Baltimore Ravens assistant head coach Chris Foerster, who came with Dungy from Minnesota to coach the Bucs' offensive line. "They realized it wasn't going to change, that he was in charge."

Tampa Bay won five of its last seven games that season, building toward a series of winning seasons that instantly changed the image of one of the league's worst teams.

Edwards said recently that he remembered standing on the sideline that first dreadful year as the losses piled up, wondering what he had done in letting Dungy talk him into coaching the defensive backs. And yet at one very low point, the ever-optimistic Dungy walked by, patted him on the back and told him not to worry. Things would get better.

On Monday, Smith smiled as the questions about Dungy kept coming.

"I heard a lot about him and his reputation, what he stood for," Smith said. "But as much as anything though, I had heard as much about Tony Dungy's reputation as a defensive genius-type guy. That's what I was able to see. I learned a lot from Tony. We talked about how you do it, being a teacher instead of screaming and yelling and all that stuff. In the end, though, where you're judged is to win. And he has always won."

It sounded a lot like what Dungy had to say about Smith on Sunday night right after the Colts clinched their place in the Super Bowl.

"I'm so happy that Lovie got there because he does things the right way," Dungy said. "He's going to get there with a lot of class -- no profanity, no intimidation, but just helping his guys play the best they can. That's the way I try to do it."

Ultimately, they became a close staff that year in Tampa. Probably in part because so many of the assistants were new and unproven in the pros, no one was angling to get better jobs. Friendships were born. Smith, for instance, lived in a motel room with Marinelli for several months before their families were able to move down.

Smith and Marinelli became known around the group as the "Fit Doctors" because of their obsession with seeing how certain defensive formations fit into the natural gaps created when everyone lined up. Since both had been only college assistants, they were unfamiliar with many of the NFL schemes Dungy and Kiffin had. They wanted to see it work for themselves.

"Can we fit it up?" Foerster remembered them asking.

So every few days the Fit Doctors would leave their offices, grab a handful of defensive assistants, locker room attendants and strength coaches and head to the field. Smith might line up at middle linebacker, Kiffin would be the quarterback, the others would position themselves along the line and Marinelli played the running back bulling through the hole.

"It would be 100 degrees and they'd be out there on the field, we'd crack up," Foerster said. "We'd look and they'd be out there fitting up runs from the Green Bay game the previous year."

And now one of the Fit Doctors and his mentor are in the Super Bowl, where they will stand on opposite sides of the field: two men who believe winning comes easier with a pat on the back than a slap on the helmet. Dungy, once considered a branch on the Bill Walsh tree, has his own root system now.

"Obviously, a lot of it is from Denny Green [who hired Dungy in Minnesota] and Bill Walsh and he has welded it to Pittsburgh" and Chuck Noll, who coached Dungy as a player in the 1970s, Foerster said. "I'd be surprised if Lovie didn't say he took a lot from Tony."

He did.

Only, who could have known in those first dreadful weeks in Tampa that from the ashes of a lost season would grow the next great football family?

Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this report from Washington.

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