Colts’ Dungy overcomes tragedy, seeks first ring


MIAMI (AP) – After his brother died in an auto accident last September, Reggie Wayne returned to the Indianapolis Colts to find Tony Dungy waiting to console him – as only a man who has been through his own personal tragedies can do.

“I was at the lowest point,” Wayne recalled last week. “Just to hear it from someone who has been through it helps you a lot. Coach Dungy is a strong man – a strong soul. It was huge for me.”

Dungy’s tragedy came 13 months ago – the suicide of his 18-year-old son James.

A season later, he’s coaching in the Super Bowl, using the strength that sustained him through his terrible loss to try to get the Colts their first NFL title in 36 years. A victory on Sunday at Dolphin Stadium would validate his career and his quarterback’s, Peyton Manning, two men who have been tagged with the line “can’t win the big one.”

In both cases, the label is unfair, as most labels can be.

Dungy’s teams have made the playoffs for eight straight seasons and in nine of the 11 years he’s coached. The eight straight appearances ties for second in that category with his mentor, Chuck Noll, and puts him behind Tom Landry, the only coach to do it nine consecutive times. His winning percentage of .635, including playoffs, is the highest among active coaches, a fraction of a percentage point higher than the mark for Joe Gibbs.

But Gibbs has won three Super Bowls. Dungy is celebrated in his first as much for the color of his skin as his abilities – he and Chicago coach Lovie Smith, a protege and good friend, are the first black head coaches to make it there.

The knock has usually been that Dungy lacks what a championship coach needs: the killer instinct to push everything else aside.

The television cameras never catch him shouting at an official or cursing under his breath. His priorities are his family and his faith. He’s also worked hard to advance minority hiring in the NFL, a cause that is clearly in the spotlight this week and was last week, too.

“What happened in New York on Monday, what happened in Indianapolis and Chicago on Sunday and what happened in Pittsburgh the next Monday may make it the most significant week ever for African-Americans in football,” said Doug Williams, who 19 years ago became the first black quarterback in a Super Bowl.

He was referring to Jerry Reese’s appointment as general manager of the New York Giants, the conference championship wins, and Mike Tomlin’s hiring as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dungy is hardly the prototypical coach – he’s usually stoic on the sideline, as he had been in dealing with his son’s death. After the Colts beat New England to win the AFC championship, he pointedly noted that coaches don’t have to encourage profanity and trash-talking to succeed.

His boss agrees.

“There are disciplinarians without being disciplinarians,” says Bill Polian, the Colts’ general manager. “If they bench you, or punish you in some other way, they let you know that it can be rectified, that if what you did wrong is corrected, there are rewards down the line.”

Manning describes his coach in a similar vein.

“He doesn’t yell. Or at least he doesn’t yell very often,” he said. “But I’ve seen him get angry. And like anyone who is so even-tempered, it really has an effect. When he’s angry, you know there’s a reason. And we listen.”

Dungy earned a Super Bowl ring as a player with the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a spare defensive back and emergency quarterback. He played two seasons in Pittsburgh, one in San Francisco (where he came under the influence of Bill Walsh), and finally was cut by the Giants after he was traded there for another future head coach, Ray Rhodes.

So he began coaching, first at his alma mater, Minnesota. At 25, he became the NFL’s youngest assistant when he returned to the Steelers to work for Noll. By 28, he was the team’s defensive coordinator, instantly becoming the focus for those seeking to hire the first black head coach in a league that was becoming increasingly black on the field.

In hindsight, he recalled a few years ago, it all came much too early. “At that age, I wasn’t ready,” he said.

Still, he kept getting interviews and kept getting turned down until owners and general managers started to wonder, “What’s wrong with him?”

Finally, in 1996, he interviewed in Tampa, perhaps the fourth choice for the job on a team that had 13 straight losing seasons, 12 of them in double digits.

He got the job.

By his second year, the Bucs were in the playoffs, thanks to a defense now called the “Tampa Two,” a two-deep zone that’s been emulated throughout the league. Dungy, who had Smith on his staff there, often gets the credit for it.

“Chuck Noll, always Chuck Noll,” he said. “That’s where I learned it. That’s where it will always be from.”

Dungy’s teams have missed the playoffs only once since then, in 1998. In Indy, he went from a defensive powerhouse to a strong offense and succeeded with Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.

But in the NFL, winning can get stale if all you do is get to the playoffs every season and never make the Super Bowl.

In 2000 and 2001, the Bucs lost their opening playoff games in Philadelphia, and Dungy was fired.

He went to Indy, but the postseason results were the same; the Colts were blown out 41-0 by the Jets in their first postseason game. Where his predecessor, Jim Mora, might have blown-up after a horrible game like that one, Dungy put it aside. Shortly after his postgame news conference, he was talking about minority hiring, suggesting that Marvin Lewis should take the coaching opening in Cincinnati.

That is Dungy, whose many interests beyond pro football can help reduce the sting of a crushing playoff defeat. A deeply religious man, but one who refrains from using his position to push his beliefs, he acknowledges: “I am certainly aware that there is life outside of football.”

That was made abundantly clear on Dec. 22, 2005, when James Dungy was found dead in his Tampa apartment.

Two weeks later, Dungy was back coaching, graciously thanking the millions of well-wishers, getting himself involved in an effort to prevent teenage suicide and suggesting that it was harder on his wife, Lauren, because he had football as an outlet.

Even his oldest friends were amazed at his calm.

“He stood above his son’s casket with so much control that I told him after the funeral, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ ” recalled Peter May, who has known him since the seventh grade. “He was the best athlete, the smartest kid and the person with the most manners when we were growing up. But in my whole life, I’ve never been more impressed with him than I was on that sad day.”

As friends would expect, he made something of the tragedy. He donated his son’s eyes to the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant and Research in Tampa, where they were used to save the sight of two people.

“Tony is a saint,” said Jason Woody, executive director of the institute. “I don’t know anyone in the public eye who is so caring and so giving.”

Dungy doesn’t talk about how tragedy has changed him. Or at least not often.

“I think God gives you tests to see if you’re going to stay true to what you believe and stay faithful,” he said last week. “For me, that’s what it was, having to continue to believe. Sometimes when you have disappointments it makes that final destination that much sweeter.”

AP-ES-01-29-07 1803EST