I first met Tony Dungy in 1977.
He was a college free agent in his first NFL training camp at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. I was a guy just out of college, in my first newspaper job and trying to figure out how to get out of my hometown and climb the ladder. Hanging around the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed like a good ticket to escape.
Now, I’m not going to blow smoke and say Tony and I bonded that summer or that year when he made the team. But we talked several times because he was such an approachable young player. He always had a smile on his face and there was a serene quality about him even then. Dungy would laugh about this, but he seemed to be in control of his life and his career even as a unproven rookie.
Dungy was taking the hardest road possible into the NFL: he was undrafted and trying to make an established team. On top of that, he was changing positions; he was a quarterback at the University of Minnesota, but he first went to the Steelers as a wide receiver.Â His lack of speed and injuries on defense moved him to the secondary. He made the Steelers roster as a safety, the only rookie free agent to make the team in three years.
And for two seasons he was part of the team, including the ’78 squad that won Super Bowl XIII. Dungy led that championship team with six interceptions, all the more remarkable because he was the nickel back and started just two games. One of those was in the end zone on the final play of the game to seal a victory against arch-rival Cleveland. Dungy was a guy that made things happen with his brain; he was a student of the game and he learned very quickly that what he lacked in speed he could make up by getting to the ball first.
I will always remember him for a day in Houston against the Oilers in that rookie season where Dungy became a great trivia question answer: name the last NFL player to throw and make an interception in the same game. The date was October 9th and when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek left the game with injuries and with third quarterback Cliff Stoudt inactive, Dungy took over in the fourth quarter. He ended up throwing a pair of interceptions, after getting one himself earlier in the game against Houston’s Dan Pastorini.
Dungy went to camp with the Steelers in 1979, but couldn’t make the squad and he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, then one of the worst teams in the league. He ended up playing that season under Bill Walsh. He went to training camp in the summer of 1980 with the New York Giants, but was released and his playing career came to an end.
But there was so much more, an amazing 28 years in NFL coaching. Our paths crossed again when he came to Kansas City to be part of Marty Schottenheimer’s first coaching staff in 1989. Dungy was coming to the Chiefs after he was basically fired by the man he respected most, Chuck Noll.
For nine seasons he had been on Noll’s staff, the last five years as defensive coordinator. After a 5-11 record in ’88, where the Steelers defense was trampled by opponents, Noll made changes. He brought in Rod Rust to run the defense. Rust had just been fired as part of Frank Gansz staff with the Chiefs after the ’88 season. Noll asked Dungy to go back to coaching the defensive backs. That wasn’t something Dungy wanted to do so he resigned. The 49ers wanted to hire him to work under George Seifert, who was replacing Walsh. Bill Parcells wanted to hire him with the New York Giants. And, Schottenheimer wanted to bring him to Kansas City.
Largely for family reasons – he and Lauren had two small children – they picked Kansas City and the Chiefs and Dungy coached the defensive backs for three seasons and did a very good job with a veteran group led by Albert Lewis, Kevin Ross, Deron Cherry and Lloyd Burruss. He also got the chance to reconnect with Herm Edwards, who was working for the Chiefs first as a coaching intern, then as a scout. They became friends when they were on the college all-star game circuit after their final seasons in 1976.
We talked frequently in those days and I know he struggled at times with the pace of work on Schottenheimer’s staff.Â With the Steelers, Noll seldom kept his coaching staff late into the night. He liked to have dinner at home with his wife and son, and thus the assistants had the same chances. With Schottenheimer, the work often went well into the night on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes even Thursday.Â Tony joked that Marty never slept, that he was a machine.
He was also troubled by being pulled over on his way home one late night by police in Johnson County. It was a rather obvious case of a D.W.B., driving while black, and it bothered Dungy, maybe more than he ever let on.
But he’s told me that his three seasons working with the Chiefs DBs was the most fun he had in coaching. A couple years ago Dungy said of that time at Arrowhead: “They were such a talented group and they worked so hard at preparation. They approached the game the way I did as a player, but they had a lot more talent. It was just a joy. They were such an interesting group of guys.”
After the 1991 season, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bill Cowher left to become head coach of the Steelers, replacing Noll. Schottenheimer decided to bring in Dave Adolph as his defensive coordinator, a move that forced Dungy to re-evaluate his future. At the same time, Dennis Green got the head coaching job in Minnesota and wanted to hire him as defensive coordinator.
So Dungy left for Minnesota, where he spent four seasons. Then he got the opportunity to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he spent six seasons. He was fired there by the Bucs, but was almost immediately hired by Indianapolis where for six seasons he led the Colts to double-digit victories, the playoffs and a Super Bowl championship.
A long the way, we often bumped into each other at NFL functions.Â He always had a smile and time to talk.Â It’s not often that the coach of one of the participating teams attends parties at the Super Bowl. But there was Dungy in Miami, walking out of the league’s Friday night party carrying one of his youngest children who had fallen asleep on his shoulder. Two days later he was holding the Super Bowl trophy.
A couple months later, Dungy was in town for the annual 101 Banquet in the spring of 2006 and talked at length about Edwards and what he would bring to the Chiefs. I remember walking away from that conversation thinking that he hadn’t changed a bit. Over 30 years, he was the same Tony Dungy. So many things had happened in his life over three decades, but he handled them all with the class he learned from his parents back in Jackson, Michigan.
I’m willing to wager this: 30 years from now he will be remembered for many things, including those he has not yet done. He’ll soon begin his life’s work and it won’t have anything to do with football.
But like he’s done in the game that’s been so much a part of his life, Tony Dungy will be memorable.