On a sweet, soggy night in South Florida, his team won a championship. For a coach, this is the ultimate moment, and as he lifted a trophy toward the sky, it was easy to share his joy.
That, however, should not be the lasting memory of Tony Dungy.
He coached a lot of games. He influenced a lot of coaches. He turned very good players into great ones, and he allowed great ones to dream about the Hall of Fame. For the franchises he was associated with, he changed expectations.
None of those are the first thing you should remember about Dungy.
As Dungy walks away from a coaching career at age 53, his legacy is less that of a coach than that of a man. And perhaps no finer compliment can be given to anyone. For all of the moments he had as a coach, it was his simple human qualities that set Dungy apart. Those are the moments that will be missed; those are the moments that should be cherished.
His footprints were deep. His shadow was long. And the hole he left in a league was gaping. He was an excellent football coach. He was a better person. Along the way, he touched people.
And that is what you should remember about the career of Dungy.
Dungy, the former Bucs and Colts coach, retired Monday. For those who care about football more than life, and we can all fool ourselves from time to time, it is going to feel as if something important has been lost. Certainly, the NFL would have been better off if he had stayed around longer.
On the other hand, Dungy has talked for years about leaving the sideline for a greater purpose. Ministry. Charity. Family. If you allow yourself a greater perspective — and really, hasn't that always defined Dungy? — then you will see this is a good thing.
True, this is a loss for the NFL and a loss for the Colts, but this is a victory for Tampa Bay. Dungy is coming home to a community that never lost its regard for him.
Even now, the most amazing thing about Dungy is the admiration that Tampa Bay has for him. He has been gone as long as he was here, and his greatest success came with the Colts. Around here, however, Dungy always has been more than a former coach.
We watched his early successes. We were here as he was clumsily fired. When his son Jamie died, we saw his greatest pain and the dignity with which he bore it. And through it all, Dungy somehow managed to remain one of us.
There was always something different about Dungy's approach to football. In a league of screamers, he was quiet. In a profession of trail-drivers, he was a teacher. Unlike many, he did not seem to coach for the power it gave or the paycheck it provided. And if you do not think that will be missed, perhaps you should spend some time around his former players, around those whom he coached with, around those he worked for.
No, Dungy is not coming home to loom over the shadow of the current coaching staff. Even at 53, it is difficult to see him coaching again. Dungy was never Bill Parcells or Marv Levy, still looking for work with an NFL team as they get older. Dungy was more in the mold of Chuck Noll, his old coach with Pittsburgh who went away and stayed away.
If Dungy were going to coach, he would have stayed with the Colts. And you can make the argument that the NFL was a platform that most ministers envy.
Had Dungy hung around a few more years, perhaps his Hall of Fame candidacy would have been a slam dunk. As it is, he will probably make it. He has a Super Bowl title (Bud Grant and Levy are in the Hall without one). He won 139 regular-season games, more than Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh (also in the Hall). And though his career playoff record of 9-10 is disappointing, consider that Don Shula, who won more games than anyone, is only 19-17.
He will be remembered for the Tampa 2, the defense he honed until it became the rage across the league. He will be remembered for his coaching tree; now that Jim Caldwell has replaced him in Indy, Dungy has five former assistants running teams across the league. He will be remembered as the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl. He will be remembered for reaching the playoffs in a record 10 straight seasons, and for winning 12 games or more six times.
Oh, there will be other memories, too. Like it or not, there will be those who talk about the years when his teams fell short. This one, for instance. There were too many one-and-Dungys.
Given the defenses he had in Tampa Bay, given the offenses he had in Indianapolis, there will be critics who say that Dungy should have won more. That's fair. Certainly, the 2005 Colts should have finished stronger. It's easy to wonder if, had the '99 and 2000 Bucs started faster (both were 3-4), they might have eased their playoff paths. Dungy never quite got his offense right in Tampa Bay, and he never quite got his defense right in Indy.
Still, to truly appreciate Dungy, you have to remember what Tampa Bay's football team was like when he arrived. It was a wasteland. It was a punch line. The Bucs had endured 12 consecutive seasons of double-digit losses. Winning seemed impossible.
Dungy changed all of that. And if he failed to live up to expectations at the end, it was because he raised them so high.
Today, those arguments don't feel so important. Today, a game called football doesn't, either.
Today, Dungy walks toward something bigger. That's worth remembering, too. How many coaches are even aware there are bigger things?
Welcome home, Tony.
There is work to do, and frankly, we can use the help.