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Making Bucs competitive Tony Dungy's proudest coaching moment

TAMPA — Tony Dungy was carried off the field on the shoulders of his Colts players, damp from the rain and Gatorade shower after becoming the first African-American coach to win the Lombardi Trophy with a victory over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

Five years earlier, he was escorted out of One Buc Place by a security guard while raindrops danced off the boxes he held after being fired by Tampa Bay following a 31-9 loss to the Eagles in a 2001 NFC wild-card game.

By then, the Bucs were already two weeks into secret negotiations with Bill Parcells to replace Dungy — until the former Giants coach withdrew from consideration amid pushback and an impending divorce.

There's no question Dungy's career is more celebrated for his success during seven years in Indianapolis than the remarkable turnaround under his command for six seasons in Tampa Bay.

Both illustrations are a big part of the triumph and tears in a career that made Dungy worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

What might be a surprise is which place Dungy believes he did a better job.

"I really think getting the Bucs to the point where we were winning consistently was more of an accomplishment, really, than what we did at Indy," Dungy said.

In fact, Dungy believes Colts fans became too spoiled by the team's success in Indianapolis, where they averaged more than 12 wins per season and never missed the playoffs under Dungy.

"People don't know how hard it is to win. Then we got to Indy and they kind of took it for granted," Dungy said. "That's kind of what bothered me. They would say, 'We're going to win 12 or 13. They'll do that. But it doesn't matter until the playoffs.' I thought to myself, 'Do you know how hard it is to win 13 games in this league?' "

To understand what Dungy achieved in Tampa Bay, you have to remember how shipwrecked the Bucs were in 1995. Malcolm Glazer had just taken over control of the team from the trustees of owner Hugh Culverhouse, who died of lung cancer a year earlier. Without a new stadium deal, the team faced certain relocation. The training facilities had a third-world feel with trailers surrounding a small cinder-block building and two practice fields a fair catch from the runway at Tampa International Airport.

"People I trusted told me, 'Don't take the Bucs job. Don't go,' " Dungy said. "People told me, 'You're going to kill your future. Under no circumstances take that job.' "

• • •

In 1995, the Bucs were the worst franchise in pro sports with 13 straight losing seasons, including a dozen with 10 defeats or more.

Dungy had no reason to believe this was the NFL team that finally would hire him as a head coach. His success as a defensive coach with the Steelers, Chiefs and Vikings gained him recognition as the architect of smart, tough units. But the league had a bad track record of promoting African-American assistants to coordinators, let alone head coaches. He was passed over for more than a decade, overlooked twice by the Eagles and once after an interview with the Jaguars. In 1993 Dungy was the coordinator when the Vikings had the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and despite eight head coach openings, he didn't receive so much as a phone call.

So Dungy's confidence wasn't soaring that afternoon in '95 when the 40-year-old pulled into the Westshore Marriott to meet then-Bucs general manager Rich McKay.

Shortly after pulling his rental car into the valet parking area, Dungy fumbled a pair of eye glasses that began to fall off his face when one of the arms became detached.

"I'm with the bellman looking under the car for this little screw. Now I can't find it," Dungy said. "Now I can go in and pull this off and not wear my glasses, but if (Rich) asks me to read something or diagram something, I'm not going to be able to do it. Or I can go in with one thing here, one thing there, crooked glasses and look like a clown. But at least I'm going to be able to see.

"Rich is doing all he can to not laugh. About halfway through he says, 'Can I ask you a question? Why do you have your glasses like that? All tilted?' "

Dungy called his wife, Lauren, and told her, 'Forget this job, this was so bad, the impression I made.' "

Dungy wasn't the Bucs' first choice. They offered the job to Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who vacillated before deciding to remain with the Gators. They courted Jimmy Johnson, who chose to coach the Dolphins. Dungy didn't look like those coaches, and his understated personality didn't match their energy. The confident quietude did not leave a big impression, but the production was always there.

"The more you looked at Tony, the more you looked at his resume, you had to ask, 'Why didn't this guy get hired?' " McKay said.

• • •

Future Hall of Fame players Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp were on the Bucs roster, but they were playing in the wrong position and scheme. In fact, the Bucs were so bad when Dungy took over, he thought he blew the team's chance of remaining in Tampa after losing 34-3 to the Packers in the season opener, two days before a tax referendum that would help construct a new stadium rather than force a move to Baltimore.

"I'm thinking, if I saw this, would I really vote to keep the team here?" he said.

The vote went the Bucs' way, but the bad start continued. Dungy lost his first five games and was 1-8. The usually stoic coach lost it in a meeting after learning two players had failed to fulfill some off-field commitments. Defensive lineman Regan Upshaw failed to show to an elementary school — for the second straight week. Running back Errict Rhett was 45 minutes late to a car dealership.

When players assembled to hear the game plan for the Raiders one Wednesday, Dungy put the notes he received about Upshaw and Rhett on the overhead projector.

" 'You want to know why we're not winning?' " Dungy recalls asking. " 'This is why. We can give you game plans, we can give you tackling drills, we can do all that, but it's not going to change until you guys get this figured out, and I don't know how to do it because I've been trying for three months.' It was the most upset I'd ever been at this team."

The Bucs beat the Raiders 20-17 in overtime and won five of their final seven games. The next week they played at San Diego and fell behind 14-0 before rallying to win 25-17.

By the end of 1997, the Bucs went 10-6 and won a wild-card game over Detroit. By '99, they played in the NFC Championship Game and held the high-powered Rams to five points before losing 11-6 to the eventual Super Bowl champs.

"So much of what we do today as grown men are lessons (Dungy) taught us," Brooks said. "It all boils down to four words: no excuses, no explanations."

Of course, the end came unexpectedly. The Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII the year after Dungy left. "I was surprised to find out everything. In the end, it didn't really matter," he said. "I was very disappointed."

"I always said Tony baked the cake and Jon (Gruden) put the icing on it," Sapp said.

Dungy got his Super Bowl in the 2006 season with the Colts and Peyton Manning. Two years later he retired.

"If you ask me, going from January '96 to December '97 in Tampa was much more of an accomplishment than going from 2001 in Indy to that Super Bowl. That was way easier," Dungy, 60, said.

Making Bucs competitive Tony Dungy's proudest coaching moment 08/03/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 3, 2016 10:21pm]
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