SAN FRANCISCO — Tony Dungy was ready to walk away from the NFL when he was fired as Bucs coach after the 2001 season. A second straight lopsided loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC playoffs hastened his departure, even as the team had been in failed secret discussions with Bill Parcells to succeed him as coach.
Other teams wanted to talk to Dungy about openings, and in his six seasons with Tampa Bay, he already had become its all-time wins leader, reaching the playoffs four times.
But for a few days, Dungy strongly considered a life outside the league, in prison ministry.
"I told the staff I don't know what will happen and hopefully I get another job, but who knows?" Dungy said. "I may stay here in Tampa, and I was looking at other things and trying to decide what the Lord wanted me to do. There were a few days when I was saying I don't know what's next."
Eventually, Colts president Bill Polian persuaded Dungy to accept their head coaching job. Though he still is a man who prays about his next calling, he made a good decision.
When the Colts defeated the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Dungy became the first African-American head coach to lead his team to an NFL championship.
Today, Dungy is a finalist for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Each year, the selection process begins with more than 100 modern-day candidates. That's narrowed to 25, then 15. A maximum of five modern-day finalists are enshrined each year.
It's the third straight year Dungy is among the 15 modern-ear finalists. Last year he made the top 10.
Two of Dungy's former players are Hall finalists — former Bucs and Broncos safety John Lynch and Colts receiver Marvin Harrison.
Lynch is among only three defensive players among the finalists along with linebacker Kevin Greene and safety Steve Atwater. Lynch was the enforcer on a defense that included two first-ballot Hall of Fame teammates: defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks. He made nine Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl with the Bucs and helped the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game.
This is a strong 2016 class, led by Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a virtual lock to be elected in his first year of eligibility. Harrison, Greene and Rams tackle Orlando Pace are all considered strong candidates. Presumably, that would leave at least one spot. There also is heavy support for first-year eligible receiver Terrell Owens and former Broncos running back Terrell Davis.
One thing that hurts Lynch is that safety is a tough position to evaluate; also, he had only 26 career interceptions. Eighty seven players who began their careers after the 1970 NFL-AFL merger have been enshrined. But Ronnie Lott, the former 49er, Raider and Jet, is the only player to spend the majority of his career at safety.
"The case for John Lynch is more compelling," said Jason Cole, an NFL writer for Bleacher Report and a voter. "The number of players to make nine Pro Bowls and not get into the Hall of Fame is very small."
Dungy says he is more nervous about the Hall of Fame announcement today for Lynch and Harrison than himself. "Coach (Chuck) Noll, when I first started working for him, said, 'Your job is to coach and help your players play the best they can,' " Dungy said. "I'm actually more nervous and wanting those guys to get in."
Hurting Dungy's case is the fact that coaches don't fare well when stacked head-to-head against players. Perhaps more important, Dungy has only one Super Bowl win, with the Colts.
Dungy was 148-79 overall and owns the most wins in Colts history (92-33). He set a league record by reaching the postseason 10 straight years, including the last three in Tampa as Tampa Bay.
"I've never seen that type of leadership, the type of head-coaching abilities that Tony brings," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "Obviously, being the first African-American to win a Super Bowl, it speaks for itself. Just like President Obama will always be the first. Tony will always be the first."
Dungy says he takes pride in seeing many of his assistants become NFL head coaches.
"That was something that was important to me and something I wanted to do is get some young guys in the mix and get them started," Dungy said. "Especially 20 years ago, it was the toughest thing to get that first opportunity. To bring Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith and Jim Caldwell and Leslie Frazier and Herm Edwards into the league and have them do what they've done was special. I knew they would take advantage of it, they just needed somebody to open that door and give them a shot."