In the beginning, back in 1996 at Tampa Bay, Tony Dungy wondered when he would win his first game.
By the time he was finished coaching, after seven defining seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, he had defeated all 32. And he proved he could win the most important game, the last one, when he became the first black head coach to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Colts’ 2007 victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
His 13-year record, which included 11 playoff berths, was 148-79 (.652). Upon learning Saturday he had been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the 60-year-old honoree couldn’t help but think back to how it all began with the Buccaneers.
“It’s pretty hard to believe 20 years ago we lost our first five games,” Dungy said in a press conference after the NFL Honors show in San Francisco. “It didn’t look like we were headed in this direction at all.
“Just some great, wonderful people and great players and such tremendous support from (Rich) McKay and a bunch of guys who are in the Hall of Fame and are going to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Known for his humble, understated nature as much for his core values of faith, family and football, Dungy conceded the Hall of Fame honor is, “Just very, very emotional for me.”
One of just three men to win a Super Bowl ring as a coach and player (Super Bowl XIII), Dungy also reflected on how his brief three-year NFL playing career started. Undrafted as a college quarterback out of Minnesota, he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who converted him into a safety.
“I came into the league in 1977,” he said. “At that time, there were seven or eight African American assistant coaches in the entire league so it wasn’t a situation where you had a lot of role models. I had a lot of people who believed in me and I’m very, very proud to represent those men.”
He cemented his legacy with the Colts, who hired him in 2002. Tampa Bay thought Dungy was too much of a nice guy to win the ultimate game — and the Buccaneers won a Super Bowl the next year with Jon Gruden. Dungy’s Colts didn’t miss the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons, winning at least a dozen games in a league-record six consecutive years, and he finally shed the “can’t win the big one” label when the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
He set another record for making the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons spanning his time with the Buccaneers and Colts. He retired as the Colts winningest coach with a 92-33 record including the playoffs. Dungy will become the third Colts coach to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, after Weeb Ewbank (1978) and Don Shula (1997).
“It was a tremendous honor in my life and some great people and I really have to look at the Lord just kind of guiding me there,” he said. “I got fired in Tampa and you don’t know what’s going to happen and where you’re going to go, if you’re going to go anywhere.
“I have to thank my boss who’s right there in the second row, (Colts owner) Jim Irsay, gave me a call, left a message on my answering machine and he said, ‘We want to build a team the right way in Indianapolis. We want to connect with our fans. We want to have a team that represents our city well.’ He didn’t talk about championships or any of that – he just talked about how he wanted to do it and he said, ‘You’re the man I want to lead this.’ I got there and had that tremendous support from him, from Bill (Polian), and there were some tremendous players there. It was just the spirit of camaraderie, working together, and he set the tone and I just thank him for choosing me and wanting me to be part of it. It was a special, special seven years.”
Prior to getting his first opportunity in Tampa Bay, Dungy was often mentioned as a candidate during his assistant coaching days. He recalled those days, too.
“I would say going to Minnesota was special for me,” he said. “Denny Green called me in 1992 – he had just got the job there. Denny was my special teams coach in San Francisco, so he knew me. He wanted me to run the defense and we had some greatness, Chris Doleman, who is in the Hall of Fame, John Randle – just some perfect guys for what I wanted to do.
“But more than anything Denny said, ‘Hey, I’m going to show you how to be a head coach and what goes into it.’ He mentored me and taught me and showed me the ropes. So yes, I got to get a reputation, but more than anything he showed me things, and I have to say this, when I got the job in Tampa – we’re in the same division, we’re competing against them, and I would call Denny and say, ‘Oh, it’s a Monday Night schedule, how do we do that?’ He would tell me because he wanted me to be successful and that’s the type of guys you guys grew in the 49ers organization.”
Dungy assisted the Colts in becoming the winningest NFL team for a decade as the club produced 115 wins from 2000-09. Indianapolis boasted a top-five ranked offense for five consecutive seasons (2003-07), while the defense ranked in the top five in 2007. From 2002-08, Dungy also mentored one of the most disciplined teams in the league as the Colts committed the third-fewest penalties (622) and held the highest turnover margin (+70).
Irsay inducted Dungy into the Colts Ring of Honor in 2010.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.