NEW YORK — Tony Dungy has so much going for him as a Hall of Fame candidate, it’s easy to overlook the fact he is one of the most successful head coaches in NFL history.
Dungy’s coaching tree is lush, and he has been a powerful advocate for diversity in the NFL coaching ranks. Five years after Dungy left the sideline, owners and executives call him often for advice regarding their next hire.
“Tony Dungy’s impact on this league is lasting and forever,” Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said. “The respect he has cannot be overstated. The influence he has had on the NFL, on and off the field, is enormous. The NFL is a powerful platform to do good, and Tony Dungy has taken advantage.”
First, however, he had to win.
One year after Dungy arrived in Tampa Bay, he guided the 1997 Bucs to the playoffs, ending a 15-year postseason drought. Building the Tampa 2 defense around the skills of defensive tackle Warren Sapp, outside linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch, Dungy forged a scheme that remains prevalent in today’s game.
Playing for the Steelers under coach Chuck Noll, Dungy learned the principles of the Cover 2 scheme and he adapted them to his personnel in Tampa.
“Tony was always a student of the game,” Hall of Fame coach John Madden said. “He was preparing to be a head coach even before he was an assistant coach. When he got his opportunity in Tampa, he was ready to go. He really knew what he wanted.”
Heading into 1997, what the organization wanted most was respect after 14 consecutive losing seasons.
No NFL franchise before or since can match that streak of futility.
“Coach Dungy stayed consistent,” Brooks said in explaining the startling Tampa turnaround. “He didn’t waver, yet he made adjustments. There’s a fine line with that. His message was easy to buy into. It wasn’t like he would say one thing and do another. I think there’s too much of that today.”
That doesn’t mean Dungy was immune to self-doubt.
“We had a lot of pieces in place in 1996, so I really couldn’t believe we started off 1-8,” Dungy said. “It was like, how are we losing these games? The doubts are there a little, but you know what you’re preaching is the right thing. Coach Noll would say stubbornness is a virtue ... if you’re right.”
Dungy stuck to his tenets, and the Bucs responded with 54 wins in his six seasons. After his dismissal, Dungy finished his career with seven years on the Indianapolis sideline, averaging 12 wins per season and leading the 2006 Colts to a Super Bowl victory against the Bears and new Bucs coach Lovie Smith.
In becoming the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl, Dungy embraced his status as a role model for a new generation.
“Tony Dungy was a blueprint for me in terms of what I wanted to be and how I wanted to get there,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a Tampa Bay assistant for five seasons. “Coach Dungy understood his platform and utilized it for good. He never abused it. Looking back, I worked in a defensive mecca during my years in Tampa. I was around the guy, and all those other key guys.”
With his arms folded and his emotions under wraps, Dungy’s demeanor offered a stark contrast to his more histrionic contemporaries.
“Too often, we hear that ‘nice guys’ lack the necessary edge to achieve at the highest levels,” Falcons president and former Bucs GM Rich McKay said. “Tony Dungy puts this myth to rest.
“Tony is a gentleman and a true class act. His leadership, football acumen and passion for the game do not get the credit they deserve because of his unassuming personality and lack of self-promotion.”
In 13 seasons, Dungy was historically successful.
Dungy’s career winning percentage (.668) ranks sixth all-time among NFL coaches with at least 100 regular-season victories. The five men ahead of him — Madden, George Allen, George Halas, Don Shula and Paul Brown — are in the Hall.
Dungy’s teams made the playoffs in each of his final 10 seasons, an NFL-record streak for head coaches, and his career average of 10.7 wins per season is the best in league history for coaches with at least four years of experience.
“First, I always think about Tony Dungy the man,” Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs said. “As a person, he is awesome. Second, he had a way about him. His teams looked a certain way and they played a certain way.
“You knew on defense they were going to be solid. He worked his way up and when he got there, he handled everything with such class. It’s hard to think of someone who had a better command of the game.”
Editor’s note: Tribune staff writer Ira Kaufman is the Tampa Bay representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.