Sunday, June 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Warren Sapp and Tony Dungy find Fame together

As coaches go, his is a gentle soul, as tranquil as a pond without ripples. He is polite, approachable. His voice rarely rises, and to those who know him and those who don't, his pleasantness never fades.

As players go, he is a burst of volume, as untameable as a force of nature. He is brash, boisterous. He can step on toes, and at a moment's notice, he can turn a chance encounter into a bad day.

There has never been such a difference in mentor and student. Tony Dungy is the peacemaker. Warren Sapp is the troublemaker. Dungy is ice, Sapp is fire. Dungy is quiet, Sapp may be the loudest guy in the room.

Together, however, they meshed. Together, they each found something in the other that instilled trust, loyalty.

Together, they made it to the Hall of Fame.

How does this happen? Isn't it said that players adopt the personalities of their coach? How does an oversized personality such as Sapp complement the humble nature of Dungy?

"I would like to think we complemented each other," Dungy said. "I felt I was there to demonstrate what I felt about being a professional. And I would hope it would rub off. It was never going to be totally that way. He was never going to be absolutely like me. I used to tell him, 'You could definitely be mayor of Tampa, and you could probably be the governor of Florida.'

"But the way he was was his m.o. He was content with being a great player on the field. I tried to show him that off-the-field mattered. But we were similar in ways, too. The desire to win, the desire to be the best. As a coach, I could appreciate that.

"I don't know if it was a defense mechanism to keep people at a distance. He could be so funny and entertaining. But being that way all the time wasn't important to him. I guess I'm still trying to get through to him on the off-the-field stuff."

And so it went, the patient mentor and the student. To the Bucs, and to Sapp, there was a sturdiness to Dungy. He brought stability to an organization that had had none. From the start, he pointed Sapp in the direction toward greatness. Sapp could see that.

"Trust me,'' Sapp said, "his fire for the game burned like mine. I just had to express it. I had to run out and yell and run around like a chicken with his head on fire."

People get that wrong about Sapp. He could be stubborn, and he could be loud. But he was also fiercely loyal once he believed someone was in his corner. With Dungy, he never had a doubt. Speaking out against Dungy would have been like making fun of the preacher at church in the middle of a sermon.

For instance, Dungy hadn't been in town long when he met with Sapp and Derrick Brooks. "You have to be Joe Greene," he said to Sapp, and turning to Brooks, he said, "and you have to be Jack Ham."

It was heady stuff. In their rookie seasons, Brooks had played over the tight end, limiting his ability to run. Sapp had been fat and unhappy, and it had gotten to the point where he was being taken out on third down.

Dungy convinced the two of them that the future would be different. Every year, he would write Sapp a letter, covering his expectations for the coming year.

In '96 and '97, he wrote about how the defense was perfect for Sapp. In '99, he wrote about how Sapp had played too heavy the year before, how he had become consumed with taking on double-teams and, as a result, lost some of his quickness.

"He was really an easy guy to coach," Dungy said. "He wanted to win. He did want things explained to him. He didn't accept everything just because his coach said it. He'd challenge things, come in and ask why. Why is the system set up this way. Why do you have to play the gap this way. As soon as you would explain it, he was totally on board. But to coach him, you had to understand that. After that, he was smart enough to explain the way we did it."

For instance, when the Bucs cut Brad Culpepper, Sapp walked straight to the home of Dungy, his neighbor. He wanted to know why. He wanted to say he disagreed.

"He didn't feel like it was a good move," Dungy remembers. "I explained where we were, that Booger (McFarland) needed to play and grow. Even then, it wasn't like Warren would have done the same thing. But he understood, and we moved forward."

Did Dungy ever get on the wrong side of Sapp's anger?

"Not that I know of," Dungy said, laughing. "Wait. I'll say no, because if he had, I would have known about it."

They were destined, these two. Go back to the '95 draft, where the Vikings picked one spot before the Bucs. The previous day, coach Dennis Green told his staff that if Sapp was there, they were going to take him. But the morning of the draft, something had changed. Instead, the Vikings took Derrick Alexander.

"I was devastated," said Dungy, who was the Vikings' defensive coordinator. "We already had John Randle, and in my mind, we were going to have these two unstoppable guys. Not only that, but (with the Bucs) he's going to torment us twice a year forever. I was disappointed.

"But 12 months later, I became the coach of the Bucs, and Sapp and Brooks fell into my lap."

Oh, Sapp didn't look good on film. He was no longer the dominating player he had been at Miami. He was just another guy in orange on his way to not much.

"I just thought it was wasted talent," Dungy said. "I had seen him play at Miami. I didn't know what happened. They were taking him out on third downs, playing him at fullback on offense. You could see the athleticism, but he wasn't producing. I told him I didn't even want to know what happened. That playing this position in this defense, he should go to a ton of Pro Bowls."

In this quiet coach, Sapp found someone he could trust. The previous coach, Sam Wyche, "ran a three-ring circus with lions and tigers and bears and the trapeze artists and the horses.'' In Dungy's consistent approach, Sapp discovered a foundation.

"There was no b.s.,'' Sapp said. "I owe the man more than you could ever imagine.''

Oh, Sapp paid him back. On the field, he was a force.

"I guess the first word you would use would be disruptive," Dungy said. "He disrupted plans, he disrupted plays. He was a difference maker.

"It was his smarts as much as anything. He understood what was happening. He had a great combination of quickness and strength, and his body didn't look like he would have either one if you just looked at him. He was a naturally strong man with unbelievable quickness and burst.

"What I'll remember is that he brought a swagger to the Bucs at a time it was needed," Dungy said. "We weren't going to take any prisoners."

And, in the end, Sapp did turn into Joe Greene.

"For a stretch there, from '97 until I left, he was as good as I've ever seen," Dungy said. "You know, people forget, but Joe Greene had his moments as a young player. He stuffed a sportswriter in the trash once. He threw a ball out of the stadium in Philadelphia. But he always said the thing about Chuck Noll was that he let him grow up.

"I always tried to keep that in mind. You try to help."

In the end, they were perfect for each other. Can you imagine Sapp playing for a do-it-my-way head coach? Can you imagine the Bucs defense without a force like Sapp in the middle? Together, with Brooks and John Lynch and a lot of others, they found the way for this franchise.

Understand this: Sapp's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is big for Dungy, too. This is part of the satisfaction of coaching, of watching one of your players be honored with the greats.

In the end, you figure the only difference will be that Dungy will celebrate just a little quieter than Sapp.

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