CANTON, Ohio — Tony Dungy's rise came after a fall. Had he not been cut as a player after three NFL seasons, the business major at Minnesota may never have become a football coach.
"I figured I'd play about 10 years in the league, get a little nest egg, become a businessman," Dungy said. "I ended up getting cut and traded a couple of times and finally cut again, and now I'm 25 years old and not really sure what I'm going to do."
Steelers coach Chuck Noll offered him a chance to become a defensive assistant coach, and after one day at work, he was hooked.
"I remember the first day I went to work, just sitting in there and taking notes and learning, and I couldn't wait to get back the next day," Dungy said. "I didn't know how good I would be at it. But the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, and it ended up being a 28-year career."
On Saturday night, the nice guy finished first again, becoming the first African-American head coach to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When Dungy joined the Steelers' staff, there were only 10 African-American assistant coaches in the NFL, and he paid special tribute to them Saturday: Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Earnel Durden, Bob Ledbetter, Elijah Pitts, Jimmy Raye, Johnny Roland, Al Tabor, Lionel Taylor and Allan Webb.
"Many of them never got the chance to move up the coaching ladder like I did. But they were so important to the progress of this league," Dungy said. "And those guys were like my dad, they didn't complain about the lack of opportunities, they found ways to make the situation better.
"Without those 10 coaches laying the groundwork, the NFL would not have the 200-plus minority assistant coaches it has today. And we would not have had Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith coaching against each other in Super Bowl XLI."
Until the moment he unveiled his bust with presenter and former Steelers teammate Donnie Shell, what Dungy represented off the field always seemed to overshadow what he accomplished on it.
As the head coach of the Bucs and the Colts, he proved that you don't have to yell and scream to be heard. That you can stand for something more than wins. That if you win a championship but don't make the community where you live better, you have lost.
Dungy expressed amazement that he's the 10th Steelers player from the Super Bowl XIII team to make the Hall of Fame.
"You could've won a lot of money in '78 if you'd bet I was going to be one of those 10," Dungy joked.
The fact is that Dungy wouldn't see the glass half empty if you dumped it over his head.
After improving defenses with the Steelers, the Chiefs and the Vikings, Dungy was passed over for an NFL head coaching job year after year after year.
Dungy thanked the Glazer family for finally hiring him to coach the Bucs in '96.
"Nineteen ninety-seven was probably my favorite year in coaching," Dungy said Saturday. "We made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and those fans went crazy."
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But after losing a playoff game to the Eagles in January 2002, Dungy was fired. "Losing my job was another painful disappointment," Dungy said. "But again, God used it to lead me to a blessing. That's when Jim Irsay called and invited me to join him and Bill Polian in Indianapolis."
Dungy entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame more celebrated Saturday for his accomplishments with the Colts than with the Bucs.
But despite averaging more than 12 wins per season in Indianapolis, there was a time when Dungy's failure to win a Super Bowl with once-in-a-generation quarterback Peyton Manning threatened to tarnish his legacy.
For Dungy, it was Super Bowl or no bust.
"The other thing how football is like life is how you finish," Dungy said. "When I talk to kids all the time, I tell them probably our biggest win was the 2006 AFC Championship game. We were only ahead for one minute. We were behind for 59 minutes, but the last minute, we were ahead and that's what counts. So matter where you start or how tough things are, you have time to come back. I think those are the lessons you learn."
Funny thing about joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame: From a professional standpoint, there are only ups and no downs. You can't be released. You can't be fired. You are immortal.
"I feel like I'm representing those 10 men and all the African-American coaches who came before me and paved the way and I thank them very much," he said.