Dungy Retires a Champion of Decency

Tony Dungy, with his son Jordan earlier this month, retires as an NFL trailblazer but will be remembered for his virtue. More coverage, E4.
Tony Dungy, with his son Jordan earlier this month, retires as an NFL trailblazer but will be remembered for his virtue. More coverage, E4. (By Michael Conroy -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Sally Jenkins
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tony Dungy made winning seem like a good deed. That's his real achievement as an NFL coach, the one he's proudest of, as opposed to any claim to being the first this or that. His bequest to the league includes his Super Bowl-victor's role in prodding a bunch of reluctant owners toward social justice, but mainly he'll be known for plain decency, the fact he paired the words "champion" and "good guy" in the same sentence.

It sounds like a small thing, but it's not. The qualities that make great coaches are often negative: They tend to be obsessive workaholics with controlling natures, whose dictatorial traits get stronger as pressure mounts, and the worst are snap-jawed tyrants.

Dungy has his imperfections, and he's as intense a gamesman as anyone, but he always fought that magnetized pull called loss of perspective. He coached from a place of basic kindness, treating every opponent as a friend, and the game as a game, even under duress.

"No excuses, no explanations," was his mantra. Even in the midst of the Colts' Super Bowl run in 2006-07, his outward disposition was that of a neighbor chatting over his back fence.

"I really wanted to show people you can win all kinds of ways," Dungy said then. "I always coached the way I've wanted to be coached. . . . For guys to have success where it maybe goes against the grain, against the culture."

How often do you see an NFL owner in tears? Yet there was the Colts' Jim Irsay, a middle-aged mogul weeping openly as he talked about how Dungy "pushed me as a man and made me a better person."

"Certainly in our business winning is critical, but when you win, how will you be remembered?" Irsay asked rhetorically.

Among other things, Dungy will be remembered as the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, but more than that, as a man of immense patience -- and persistence. He was the youngest assistant coach in league history when Chuck Noll hired him in 1981 at age 25 to work for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But it would take him 15 years to become a head coach, an injustice he somehow dealt with charitably.

Once he got his chance at Tampa Bay in 1996, he did nothing but win. Between Tampa and Indianapolis he set the modern NFL record for consecutive playoff appearances, with 10, and only twice in his 13-year career did his teams fail to make the postseason. He's the first NFL head coach to defeat all 32 teams in the league. And he's the only coach to amass six straight seasons of 12 wins or more. His regular season winning percentage of .759 with the Colts is higher than that of Vince Lombardi or Don Shula.

His personal breakthrough wasn't enough for Dungy; along the way he tried to uplift other coaches as well. He pushed for the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview minority coaches for jobs, and he grew a significant coaching tree, helping Herman Edwards, Lovie Smith and Mike Tomlin ascend to head positions alongside him.

There was a fundamental generosity to everything Dungy did in football. He made no secret of the fact he was a devoted evangelical who viewed NFL coaching as something of a pulpit and a ministry. But he wasn't a holier-than-thou proselytizer or a do-right; he just lived his words, working with a prison ministry and mentoring program in the offseason.

With his players, he always approached the job as an educator, like the schoolteacher's son he is. Dungy also is the son of a soldier -- his late father flew with the Tuskegee Airmen.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company