AFM RSS Feed Follow Us on Twitter       

   User Name    Password 
      Password Help

Article Categories

AFM Magazine

AFM Magazine

NFL Coach of the Year

Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy
by: Scott Smith
AFM Staff Writer
© More from this issue

Click for Printer Friendly Version          

Picture Sir Edmund Hillary, circa 1953. How might he have felt, standing atop Mount Everest for the first time, if some anonymous Sherpa guide suddenly tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Nice job on this Everest thing and all but, uh, have you seen the really big one behind you?"

Tony Dungy might know that feeling.

Having just scaled his own Everest in '96 as he finally landed the NFL head coaching job that had eluded him for 10 years, Dungy was presented with this Tibetan-sized task: take the least successful team in modern league history, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and turn them into a Super Bowl contender.

Dungy had a new six-year contract and no unrealistic time constraints for this turnaround, but it was the kind of task that could loom over a man, mountainously. It is a measure of his coaching abilities that he conquered this challenge in just two short years, and it is the main reason he is the 1997 Schutt Sports and American Football Monthly NFL Coach of the Year. It is a measure of the man that it was not even his most difficult task.

"Being patient and waiting for the right situation to come along may have been the toughest part," said Dungy of an odyssey that began with an interview for the Philadelphia Eagles' top job in 1986 (it went to Buddy Ryan) and lasted through the filling of 60 NFL vacancies by other men. "When we actually got here and things got started, it just seemed like so many things were in place. We had a lot of young players, our drafts worked out well, the staff, the front office and on down... it didn't seem like much of a job once we got here."

Not much of a job? Forget making the playoffs; no Buccaneer team had won more than seven games since 1981. Four other head coaches had tilted at the NFL windmills since the 1984 retirement of founding coach John McKay. Yet in 1997, Tony Dungy's Buccaneers went 10-6, made the playoffs as the top Wild Card entrant, won a post-season game for just the second time in franchise history and generally gave the Green Bay Packers an uncomfortable warmth on the back of their necks for the rest of the millennium.

Still, Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay says, "I'm not underestimating what a difficult job that was, turning a losing attitude into a winning attitude, but I think it was probably more difficult for him than it was for a lot of people in this league to get a head coaching opportunity. They are very, very hard jobs to get. It's hard to become recognized, and even when recognized it's hard to procure that job based on the political agenda that sometimes exists in the rewarding of those jobs."

You've surely heard it before, but one more time for posterity, here's the reason most often given for Dungy's decade of waiting: as a calm, nearly imperturbable man who almost never raises his voice, Dungy was considered too low-key to motivate NFL players. Even McKay admits to feeling this prejudice at one point.

"Initially, in my first interview with Tony," said McKay, "I thought his demeanor was a negative. But, the more I thought about it and the more time I spent with him in that first meeting and on the phone, I realized that, in reality, for Tony, that demeanor is not a weakness but a strength.

"I came to that conclusion because, in this era of big money and free agency, his consistency and the requirements that he places upon players really sells well. In the fifties and sixties, coaches had a lot of overachievers who loved the game of football and they coached them very hard and with a lot of vigor. I think today's player is a different athlete and Tony's demeanor is a positive in dealing with that attitude."

McKay wasn't the only one convinced. Despite a tenuous stadium situation that made the team's future in Tampa uncomfortably uncertain, new team owner Malcolm Glazer thought enough of Dungy to give him a surprisingly-long six-year contract. For all that Dungy was and has proven to be, he was not yet a name that would instantly sell tickets or sway the balance of a stadium debate. "I give a lot of credit to the owners," said McKay, "for allowing us to be driven by organizational philosophies...the type of player we're going to draft, the type of person we want to come into the building, the way we're going to build a team. Then they allowed us to hire the best coach possible to operate the team."

The man they decided on was considered a defensive mastermind, after very successful stints as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh (1984-88) and Minnesota (1992-95), and a strong teacher. He has studied at the side of such NFL standouts as Chuck Noll, Marty Schottenheimer and Dennis Green, though Noll remains his strongest influence. Noll is also an admirer.

"Tony was always a great learner," said the legendary Steeler coach. "He became a great teacher. He was very studious. He always wanted to make himself better. To see him doing so well makes me proud."

Two years later, the leadership abilities of this "low-key" man are no longer questioned in any Tampa Bay or NFL circles. Besides the Buccaneers' astounding success, other examples of the gjunerip he has on this team abound. Driven to pay attention to the little things, Buccaneer players were the least penalized in the NFL last year, drawing just 77 flags. "Tony's not a disciplinarian," says McKay, "but yet I would say that we are as well-disciplined a team as there is in the National Football League."

Moreover, a team-record eight players went to the Pro Bowl last year; two were Associated Press All-Pros; one was the league's offensive rookie of the year. None claimed to have been pursuing individual goals. "Everything you do as a player is derived from your head coach," said DT Warren Sapp. "He's a coach who is always looking forward. We all feed off him."

The Tony Dungy File1973-76 Minnesota, player
1977-78 Pittsburgh (NFL), player
1979 San Francisco (NFL), player
1980 Minnesota, DB Coach
1981 Pittsburgh (NFL), Defensive Asst.
1982-83 Pittsburgh (NFL), DB Coach
1984-88 Pittsburgh (NFL), Defensive Coord.
1989-91 Kansas City (NFL), DB Coach
1992-95 Minnesota (NFL), Defensive Coord.
1996- Tampa Bay (NFL), Head Coach

LB Hardy Nickerson, a former Steeler like Dungy, joined the team as an unrestricted free agent in 1993 and chose to re-sign after the 1995 season despite the team's continued struggles at that point. Dungy's arrival at nearly the same time played no small part in Nickerson's decision. "In the past, just being a .500 team was what we strived for," said Nickerson. "Tony talks about being a championship team doing things on a championship level. He's a real football coach, not a salesperson or a rah-rah guy. Players see that and respect it. It makes you go out and lay it on the line."

All of which reveals that Tony is a strong leader, but how does "low-key" equal "follow-me"? Assistant head coach/defensive backs coach Herman Edwards, who has known Dungy for 25 years, has no problem explaining it.

"You see some coach on TV and he's arguing with players and being boisterous," said Edwards. "That might be his style and he might get through to players that way. But there's also that old teacher that, when the class is rowdy and talking loud, begins to talk softly. All of a sudden, if you want to hear him, guess what? You have to be quiet.

"When Tony speaks, people generally listen. He's not going to say a lot, but when he says something, people are going to pay attention. Usually, when he says something, you have an intuition that it's probably going to happen. Players understand that."

And they believe what they hear. "The basis of his leadership," said wide receivers coach Charlie Williams, "is that he tells it to you exactly like it is. He's not going to yell and scream and rant and rave. Tony puts it up on the board: this is what we're going to do, this is how we're going to do it. He laid the plan out from Day One and each week, he told us what we had to do to win. Nine times out of ten, when we didn't get those things done, it caused us to get beat. You see, all 53 players knew what they had to do, and they knew why."

"I think I'm very clear to players when I'm trying to make a point," said Dungy. "They definitely know what's important to our program and they know that we're going to be intense. We're going to practice intensely and we're going to meet and go about our business at a fast pace. There is an intensity in our attention to detail. We have things that we expect from our players and we ask a lot of them. We ask maybe more than other people do in terms of what they have to do, how they have to practice and how they have to play. They know there is a standard and they have to meet it, but that standard is pretty high."

The Buccaneers' playoff run in 1997 began with a league-best 5-0 burst out of the gate, but, ironically, it was a reversed opening in 1996 that is now considered a crucial point in the team's development under Dungy. Tampa Bay started out 0-5 in '96 in Dungy's first campaign. For a first-year coach of a team that wanted to build expectations, such a debut could have been a direct route to panic.

Not so for the Buccaneer staff, which, as is now famously told, changed neither their approach nor their expectations. It seems hard to believe, particularly since a majority of Dungy's staff was coaching their first NFL campaign, but all involved swear by Dungy's consistency. "Unless you were in the meetings with the players and on the practice field every day with Tony, you might not think that," said Edwards. "You might think they're just saying that because it's good press. But it was that way. Tony never panicked. He made everyone understand that it was their job to pay attention to details. Tony said, we're not going to change. This is how we run the offense, this is how we run the defense. We're not going to practice 10 minutes longer; we're not going to cut practice 10 minutes short."

Dungy "stayed the course," said Nickerson. "Same guy."

Nickerson and the rest thus maintained their belief in Dungy's systems and kept their effort level high, helping the team go 6-5 down the stretch in '96 and win their last five home games. That built expectations for 1997.

The contrasting stories of success and failure and how they were handled really says all about Dungy that you need to know to understand what he means to the franchise. In a word, stability. "The one thing he did," said McKay, "was exactly what he was hired to do: he stabilized the environment. He brought calmness to what was otherwise a very unstable situation."

"I had a coach one time," said Dungy, "who used to talk about leadership a lot. He used to say that a good leader gets people to go places and they don't know they're going. They don't think they're following anybody, they think they're going there by themselves. That's the ideal situation."


AFM Videos Streaming Memberships Now Available Digital Download - 304 Pages of Football Forms for the Winning Coach


Copyright 2024,
All Rights Reserved