ST. PETERSBURG — It was the summer of 1989. The sky went dark. They were just two young football coaches, tunneled into their jobs, immersed in their mission, trying to get to where and who they wanted to be. One was 36. One was 33.
Except now they were standing in the apartment they shared near the Kansas City Chiefs football stadium, wondering if they would get to 37 and 34. The man on the TV was telling them this was a tornado warning, not a watch, and that anyone who lived in Jackson County should not be listening to his voice. They needed to take cover — now.
Tony Dungy looked at Bruce Arians.
Bruce Arians looked at Tony Dungy.
“What county are we in?”
Thirty years later, Dungy laughed.
“Neither of us had any idea,” he said. “We just rode it out.”
Dungy rode it all the way to the Hall of Fame. Arians now rides into Tampa Bay as the new Bucs head coach, charged with resetting a franchise and changing a culture, in much the same way Dungy did after he arrived as head coach here in 1996.
But back to the Odd Couple.
Everyone assumed Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer had a sense of humor when he teamed Dungy, hired as a defensive backs coach, with Arians, hired as a running backs coach, in an apartment complex in Independence, Mo., until their families arrived.
The choir boy and the life of the party.
Dungy, whose voice rarely carried across and empty room, and Arians, whose vocabulary made paint peel.
Let’s cut to the chase. Dungy didn’t close down any nights with Arians. And Arians didn’t crack open many Bibles with Dungy.
“Not as much as I’d like,” Dungy said.
“We were two different people,” Dungy said. “But we could hang out and have fun together. Bruce was a character. You wanted to be around him. Different personalities, but there’s no wrong way. You have to be yourself. Players respond to that.”
Dungy had come to Kansas City from Pittsburgh, where he had been defensive coordinator under the legendary Chuck Noll. Arians had come from Temple, where he had been the head coach.
“We just got along,” Dungy said. “Bruce is a lot of fun to be around, as down to earth as you could be. He wasn’t offensive coordinator, but he had a lot of ideas. Bruce had ideas on how we needed to move the ball.”
Dungy offered a sneak preview for Bucs players and fans.
“He’s going to be honest with you, he’s going to relate to you, he’s going to get the most out of his guys. It takes a little while to get accustomed to. He’s going to be straightforward. He could blister some people. But Bruce is going to be who he is.”
Schottenheimer let his coaches run their rooms. Dungy and Arians were a study in contrasts.
“Just a different way,” Dungy said. “No wrong way. I would say, ‘Hey, if we want to win, we can’t make mistakes. This is the National Football League.’ Bruce would say, ‘You’re not going to be on the field if you’re making mistakes. You’re a reflection of me. I’m not putting a mistake out there.’”
The Chiefs were very good while Arians and Dungy were there. Arians ran a solid run game, powered by Christian Okoye. Dungy’s all-pro secondary eventually produced four members of the Chiefs’ ring of honor. Dungy left Kansas City after the 1991 season to become defensive coordinator for Minnesota. Arians left after the 1982 season to become offensive coordinator at Mississippi State.
The Odd Couple stayed in touch. Dungy nearly brought Arians to Tampa Bay in 2000, after Mike Shula was dumped as Bucs offensive coordinator. Arians was quarterback coach in Indianapolis at the time, working with Peyton Manning, who’d eventually help Dungy win a Super Bowl. But in 2000, Dungy went with Les Steckel over Arians. Steckel lasted one season in Tampa Bay.
“I try not to look back and second guess,” Dungy said. “I thought Les was a better fit at the time. But Bruce would have been very good. What he has done with quarterbacks since then speaks to that. He would have been very good here.”
It isn’t lost on Dungy that Arians made three minority hires when choosing his coordinators, though he thinks it was lost on Arians.
“Bruce is pretty color blind. He just hires good people. He has a sense of loyalty. A lot of people who have been around him for a long time happen to be minorities. That tells you something about Bruce. That part, it’s definitely not Affirmative Action. That’s just who he is.”
There’s a new coach in town.
“He’ll create a winning culture, a winning attitude,” Dungy said. “He’ll hold people accountable. He’’ll be great for you guys in the media. You won’t have to work at writing a story for the next two years. He’ll lay it out for you.”
Dungy added, “He’ll improve Jameis. He’ll get him going. It’s up to Jameis. Bruce is going to be his way. Bruce is not going to adjust because he has Jameis Winston. That’s not happening. Jameis is going to have to adapt.
“I’m pulling for Bruce. I’m pulling for Jameis. It’s been a long time since it worked here. Bruce is going to get it across. He’s not going to take any excuses. He has to be looking at it short term anyway. He’s not looking at 10 years. If guys don’t toe the line, he’ll moved the needle pretty fast.”
The Bucs need a remake. Dungy did it for them once before. It’s Arians’ turn. The clock is ticking.
“It’s very similar in terms of where the franchise is,” Dungy said. “But in this case, next year is going to be the aid test. If Jameis Winston plays great and they win 19 games, it’s going to be a success. My first year, we went 6-10. That would be a debacle if that happened next year.”
Dungy smiled. He and Arians are a long way from that day in Jackson County.
They didn’t take cover then, either.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly