TAMPA — When Tony Dungy was hired as Bucs coach in 1996, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch were playing out of position.
Brooks had been lining up over the tight end until switching to weakside linebacker, where he would be uncovered in order use his speed and instincts. Lynch was playing in a hybrid linebacker position before he was moved to strong safety.
Now it could be only a matter of time before they take their spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
On Thursday night, Brooks and Lynch — two pillars of a Bucs defense that was dominant over parts of two decades — and Dungy, the architect of that unit, were among the 15 finalists for the HOF Class of 2014.
Almost certain to be fitted for a gold jacket this year is Brooks, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection who started 221 of 224 games for Tampa Bay over 14 seasons and finished as the team's all-time leading tackler. The former Florida State standout was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2002, when the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.
A year ago, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp was elected to the Hall on the first ballot.
"I think that might be the reason why I'm up there," Dungy, 58, said Thursday. "These guys did all the hard work. But I remember coming to Tampa in 1996. These guys were young players here. I thought this (system) is set up for you perfectly. Strong safety, weakside linebacker, defensive tackle. You guys can be Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Donnie Shell, and that's exactly what they did."
Lynch, 42, who was a nine-time Pro Bowl player with the Bucs and Broncos, made it to the semifinal list of 25 a year ago in his first year of eligibility. There only are nine safeties enshrined at Canton, Ohio, and no pure safety who has entered the league since 1975 has made it. Ronnie Lott played much of his career at cornerback.
Dungy coached 13 years for the Bucs (1996-2001) and Colts (2002-08). He won six division titles and became the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl (Colts, 2006 season). He averaged 10 regular-season wins.
With the Colts, Dungy coached receiver Marvin Harrison, who is a finalist his first time on the ballot. Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., a Tampa resident, is a finalist for the third straight year.
Brooks, known for his poise under pressure, admitted he is nervous about the process. "It's hard not to at this point," Brooks, 40, said. "You try to really keep it in perspective. I really think I'm a level-headed guy but must admit the closer you get to it, you become a lot more nervous. I'm really grateful for Coach Dungy and thank God the Glazers did hire him and implement this system for all of us to go and have not only individual success but be a part of a franchise turnaround."
Dungy's 139 regular-season wins rank only 21st all-time, but his contribution to the league is immeasurable. His success was responsible for the hiring of other African-American head coaches in the NFL. His coaching tree includes Lovie Smith, Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Leslie Frazier and Rod Marinelli.
"It would be great to get into the Hall of Fame and know you had something to do in opening doors for other coaches and that you helped some guys develop into Hall of Fame players," Dungy said. "To me, that's kind of your reward as a coach and one of the things I'm most proud of."
With Sapp, Brooks and Lynch providing strength up the middle and leadership, the Bucs had the NFL's top-ranked defense in 2002 and led the league in fewest points allowed (196) and most interceptions (31). Although Dungy was fired the year before they won the Super Bowl under Jon Gruden, that Bucs defense rivaled the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens.
"For the four guys I coached it's amazing, and I know I would vote for them," Dungy said. "I'm hoping Derrick and John and Marvin end up joining Warren Sapp. That would be a thrill for me."
On Feb. 1, the committee will discuss each finalist, vote and whittle the list to 10. Another vote reduces the nominees to five and two senior candidates, which are announced. Those candidates are voted on individually and must be approved by 80 percent of the committee to be elected.