Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist
Sideline View

A Nice Guy Will Finish First

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 2, 2007; 12:02 AM

MIAMI -- For years, we have seen the famous clips of the great Vince Lombardi on the Green Bay Packers sidelines back in the 1960s railing at his team and wondering very much out loud "what the hell is going on out here?"

For years ever since, nosy NFL Films crews have always aimed their cameras and their microphones toward the game's more volatile head coaches on game days, almost always with the results they were hoping for. Mike Ditka, Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, among many others, have provided classic visual and verbal highlights, and in recent years the networks predictably have followed the same script. Producers and directors like to think of it as "great television."

But when CBS hones in on the sidelines of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts Sunday in Super Bowl XLI, millions of viewers will see two head coaches acting like grown men in full control of their emotions, the anti-Lombardi if you will. There won't be any bellowing or bullying from the Bears' Lovie Smith or the Colts' Tony Dungy, and that can only be a good thing for everyone concerned, save the guys in the TV production truck looking for eruptions that aren't going to happen.

Never mind the historic implications of the first two African-Americans leading their respective teams into the NFL's so-called ultimate game.

There's been another wonderful trend in play here this week in the build-up to the game--the rise of the nice-guy coach who treats his players like adults, acts like a teacher instead of a torturer and seems to enjoy dealing with the media, always offering honest, direct answers to questions without worrying about the consequences.

Certainly the players seem to appreciate the approach. Listen to Dallas Clark, the Colts productive tight end, on the subject of playing for Tony Dungy.

"It's great to see that his style has gotten us to the Super Bowl,"

Clark said this week. "When you think of coaching, you think of yelling, you think of cursing, you think of belittling people and breaking players down and building them up, that type of mentality. Coach Dungy is the total opposite, and it's great to see him succeed with his methods and his teachings and not give in and not to think that he needs to change. He stayed strong and great. When he talks, you listen because one, he's not wasting your time and two, he knows what he's talking about. I can't imagine playing for anyone else."

How about Bears quarterback Rex Grossman on Smith, the man who kept the faith in him despite some dreadful performances that had the critics calling for Grossman's benching so many times this past season.

"His confidence in me as a player helped," Grossman said. "He brings me into his office and he talks to me when I'm not playing well. He gives me confidence by telling me how good I am and how much he believes in me and how much he's excited about what I'm about to do. His calm demeanor, that's just him as a person. He's not trying to be someone that he's not. He's a player's coach who demands your respect and treats you like a man. We all respond to that."

That is not to say players also will not respond to the Lombardi Way, The Bob Knight School or the Bill Parcells Method, all grounded in the Middle Ages. Parcells, just as an example, also begat a number of head coaches now in the league who followed his lead on many fronts. That would include the hoodie sweatshirted genius, himself, Bill Belichick, who had won three of the last five Super Bowls with his cold-blooded, ruthless and media-unfriendly approach until being replaced in the Supe spotlight by the kinder, gentler Smith and Dungy, who have wildly succeeded trying a different way.

"The head coach of a successful team to many people looked like Vince Lombardi, a white, middle-aged coach who screamed fire and brimstone," Dungy said earlier this week. "I happened to grow up under Bud Grant, and he was just as successful in a completely different way¿I think over the years, with two guys coming to the Super Bowl with maybe different personalities than most people perceive in an NFL head coach, a different value system maybe, a different way of expressing themselves, people may say 'you know what, anything can work if you get the right person.'"

Said Smith, who worked for Dungy in Tampa Bay and considers him a mentor and great friend, "as a young coach, it was good to see someone at the top level handle themselves (the way Dungy did). Hopefully, guys out there who aren't screamers and yellers will realize that players want you to teach them as much as anything. They want you to help them with their trade. They will not turn you off as much if you reason with them as a real man.

"Once you are upset, I think guys know it and if they don't know, you tell them. I just don't think you have to yell and scream at them. They are real men. They understand. I had great coaches coming up that set a perfect example for me. A lot of what I do now is based on what I saw from them. I think you have to be successful when you have this type of approach because if you don't win, people will say they would have won if he had yelled and screamed and kicked the guys in the butt a little bit more. But I've never bought into that."

It's also been a delight that both Smith and Dungy have also not bought into the Belichick-Parcells-Nick Saban school of us-against-them media distrust.

Isn't it amazing they have both gotten this far without turning their press conferences into constant wars of words? Isn't it refreshing to see two head coaches confident enough in their own abilities and the good sense of the people around them not to prohibit their assistant coaches from speaking with reporters?

Isn't it wonderful to look at a transcript of an interview session with Dungy and Smith this week and not see five-word sentences followed by "next question"?

The world will see two African American coaches on the sidelines this week. But maybe we're also witnessing a sea change in the way NFL head coaches go about their business. No vitriol. No paranoia. No anger. And certainly nothing resembling the great George Allen telling us back in the 1970s that "losing is like death."

Instead, you hear Tony Dungy say out loud this week "it isn't life or death. It's our job, but there are a lot more things that make a difference in the universe than who wins the Super Bowl."

Good for him. Good for us.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company