Jon Gruden or Tony Dungy? Why the debate rages on

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden speaks during a news conference Aug. 2 in Tampa. Gruden will be inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor during their game against the Atlanta Falcons Monday, Dec. 18 in Tampa. (Chris Urso, Times)
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden speaks during a news conference Aug. 2 in Tampa. Gruden will be inducted into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor during their game against the Atlanta Falcons Monday, Dec. 18 in Tampa. (Chris Urso, Times)
Published Dec. 16, 2017

TAMPA — Bucs coach Jon Gruden did not win the Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's team. Don't believe me? Ask Dungy.

"It wasn't. They did a great job. They took it and tweaked it," Dungy said. "The same way I got a great (Colts) team from Jim Mora and we made some changes and tweaked it.

"(Gruden) put his stamp on it and they won. I was excited for them. I was disappointed for me, but I was excited for them and so many of those guys who had suffered through that to get there."

Dungy is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, having compiled a 148-79 record that includes a .668 winning percentage in the regular season (139-69). He was the NFL's Coach of the Year in 1997 and 2005, winning Super Bowl XLI while becoming the first African-American coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

His credentials speak for themselves. But why do so many people still want to debate whether Gruden won Super Bowl XXXVII with Dungy's team?

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp may have provided a good analogy when he said, "Tony baked the cake and Jon put the icing on it."

The fact is both Dungy and Gruden faced difficult and uniquely different challenges to build a team and coaching staff to put the Bucs in position to win a Super Bowl. Only Gruden got it done.

The debate is really over which head coach had a tougher job. And it's clear that the Glazer family, which owns the team, believed Gruden was more worthy to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor at halftime of Monday night's game vs. Atlanta ahead of Dungy. That, too, was a debate at One Buc Place.

It would have been easy to go in chronological order. John McKay, the first coach in franchise history, already is in the ROH. It would have made sense for Dungy to be next, especially since he was responsible for changing the entire culture of the franchise.

But the Bucs owners, who were committed to electing their late father, owner Malcolm Glazer, into the ROH this year, wanted to make it about the Super Bowl 15 years after the team beat the Raiders 48-21 in San Diego. Only one coach ever won a Super Bowl with the Bucs — and his statue resides in the lobby of the team's headquarters.

The Dungy challenge

To understand how big the job was Dungy inherited when he was hired after the '95 season, remember that the Bucs had suffered 12 double-digit losing seasons in the previous 13 years. Losing was all the franchise had done for more than a decade. You had to overpay a free agent to play here.

In fact, for all that Dungy accomplished during seven seasons in Indianapolis, he said he did his best coaching job in Tampa Bay.

"I coached longer there, I ended up there," Dungy said of his stint in Indy. "I still think the greater accomplishment was with the Bucs."

Dungy had some talent on his roster, including Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. All of them were playing out of position, and who knows if Sapp and Brooks would've been first ballot Hall of Fame players had Glazer not hired Dungy, his third choice after Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier turned him down.

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"Once I got here it seemed bigger than I thought," Dungy said.

Dungy hired a great coaching staff that included Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith and later Mike Tomlin. He installed the Cover 2 defense that would come to be known as the Tampa 2. Arms folded, he added calm to where there was chaos.

The Bucs' first draft netted two foundational players — fullback Mike Alstott (second round) and cornerback Donnie Abraham (third round). They also secured two defensive linemen — Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones — with a pair of first-round picks.

The Bucs opened the season 1-8. "As soon as something would go wrong, it was, 'That's it. Here we go again.' " Dungy said. "That's what was tougher to overcome, really."

But they beat a decent Oakland Raiders team 20-17 in overtime at Houlihan's Stadium. The next Sunday, they trailed 14-0 at San Diego in the first quarter. The Bucs hadn't won on the West Coast in more than a decade, but they rallied to win 25-17. The Bucs won five of their next seven games to finish 6-10, the only losing season under Dungy.

In 1997, the Bucs went 10-6 and won their first home playoff game in 18 years, beating the Lions in the NFC wildcard. Warrick Dunn was Rookie of the Year. NFC Central rival Packers, however, beat them at Lambeau Field 21-7 in the divisional game.

After a fallback to 8-8 and narrowly missing the playoffs on the final day of the season in 1998, the Bucs reached the postseason the next two years under Dungy. In 1999, Tampa Bay lost to the Rams in the NFC Championship game behind the league's best defense and rookie Shaun King, who replaced an injured Trent Dilfer late in the season.

The next two years ended in wildcard losses at Philadelphia, even after King was replaced by Redskins free agent Brad Johnson in 2001.

Even before Dungy coached his final game with Tampa Bay, the Glazers had entered a secret contract with Bill Parcells to replace Dungy as head coach. The deal blew up after the Tampa Bay Times revealed the plan two days before the playoff game in Philadelphia. Parcells, who was going through a divorce at the time, got cold feet and push back from the coaching community who thought he undercut Dungy.

"I was very disappointed," Dungy said. "I knew we had a good team. That's what we talked about. We're going to be good every year. We're not going to make the moves just to be great one year and then fall off the table and be 7-9, and eventually we'll do it. Everybody is on board with that, and then you find out they're not all on board with that."

The Gruden challenge

The Glazers embarked on a 30-day coaching search.

First, it looked as if Marvin Lewis would be their choice. Then Steve Mariucci as coach/GM. Finally they pulled the trigger on an enormous trade with the Raiders for Gruden. Owner Al Davis got two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million.

"We had an unbelievable defense, and we were just missing the other side of the ball," Bryan Glazer said.

Imagine the pressure Gruden felt when he learned what the Bucs had given up for him. "Warren Sapp told me, 'If you don't deliver a Super Bowl, we will kill you,' " Gruden said.

Gruden inherited Rich McKay as the general manager. He was unable to bring any coaches with him. The Bucs' entire defensive staff remained intact. Offensive line coach Bill Muir already had been hired by the Bucs at the direction of Parcells before he backed out. Muir was given the title of offensive coordinator by Gruden, who still devised game plans and called plays.

"That was a challenge," Gruden said. "Then putting in the system. This is what we're calling this defense, this is what we're calling this route. Nobody knew. So we would spend night after night at the old One Buccaneer Place saying get up there and draw. Teach it to me."

Johnson preferred to be in the shotgun, but it was never an element of Gruden's West Coast offense. Gruden knew he needed veteran players who were quick studies, so he added receivers Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius, tight end Ken Dilger and running back Michael Pittman. Much to his disappointment, Dunn signed with the Falcons.

"What we were able to do with Brad and Keenan and Keyshawn and Jurevicius was we could call a lot of plays," Gruden said. "We could call two in the huddle at the same time. And Brad was able to use a dummy count and recognize exactly the play was that we wanted."

Dungy was beloved and Gruden convinced players such as Brooks to buy in. He challenged the defense to become greater, setting a goal for it to score nine touchdowns, which was accomplished.

Whereas Dungy had three offensive coordinators in as many years with Mike Shula, Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen, Gruden's offensive mind was the secret sauce.

He turned every practice into a heated competition with the Bucs defense and finally the whole team had accountability.

"Every day they tried to kick our butt and it made me better, it made Brad better," Gruden said. "And sooner or later, I just knew if we kept pounding that rock, we would have a breakthrough on offense, and that's just what happened."

Gruden's game plan to isolate his receivers against the Eagle linebackers helped the Bucs upset Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. He played the role of Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon in practice a few days before the game in San Diego and the Bucs had five interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns to win Super Bowl XXVII.

Dungy had mixed emotions as he watched the game.

"That was tough," Dungy said. "I really felt like we could've done it.

"To them, it validated their decision."