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Class in Session

Dec. 26, 2005
Dec. 26, 2005

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Dec. 26, 2005

Catching Up With
SI Players: Life On and Off the Field
The Best of 2005
The Year in Sports 2005
Best of the Worst 2005
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Class in Session

The Colts take on the personality of Tony Dungy, their poised and pioneering coach. That means no wasted breath

The nice guy is finishing first.

This is an article from the Dec. 26, 2005 issue Original Layout

Ten years ago the story was different for Tony Dungy. As the respected defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, he interviewed for head coaching jobs--with the Jaguars and the Eagles and the Packers--and failed to get them. Dungy believed he should be up front with his potential bosses, and so he told them: I'm not going to sleep in the office. I'm going to drive my kids to school some mornings. And if you're wondering whether football is the most important thing in my life, the answer is no.

Thanks for your time, Coach. We've decided to go in a different direction.

"I knew that probably cost me jobs," Dungy says now, "but that's who I am."

There is much to like about the 2005 Indianapolis Colts. They have one of the most potent offenses in NFL history, piloted by Peyton Manning, a 29-year-old who's already one of the 10 best quarterbacks ever. They have, for once, a tough, playmaking defense. And despite absorbing their first defeat of the season on Sunday, a 26-17 home loss to the San Diego Chargers, they have the league's best record at 13-1 and have already clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The Colts have something else: a coach who's not volatile or humorless yet still commands respect. In the 35 years since the advent of the wild card, Dungy is the second coach to lead his teams to the postseason at least seven years in a row. (Chuck Noll, whom Dungy played defensive back for and coached under, led the Pittsburgh Steelers to eight straight appearances, starting in 1972.) Dungy took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC playoffs in 1999, 2000 and '01 but was fired in January '02 for failing to reach the Super Bowl. Hired by the Colts eight days later, he has gotten them to the playoffs in each of his four seasons. Dungy's 101 regular-season wins in 10 seasons is three more than Bill Belichick's in 11 years. His .624 winning percentage is better than the career marks of Noll, Paul Brown, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh.

George Allen, Joe Gibbs and Dick Vermeil set a standard for a generation of NFL workaholics. It would be foolish to think that the 50-year-old Dungy is turning today's coaches into PTA cupcake bakers--his successor in Tampa Bay, Jon Gruden, sets his alarm clock for 3:17 a.m.--but he has shown that it's possible to be even tempered and still win. "People mistake his goodness and kindness for meekness," says Colts president Bill Polian. "That's a big, big mistake. Do not think because he isn't bellicose that he cannot control this team."

Players must adjust to Dungy's style. At his first team meeting in Indianapolis, he stood and stared silently at the players. He waited. And waited. When you could hear a pin drop, Dungy announced softly, "O.K. guys, let's get started." The message was clear: I'm the coach, and these meetings are on my terms. You'll learn best when only one person is speaking.

In Dungy's first minicamp with the Colts a skirmish broke out. He gathered all the players at midfield, and when they were quiet, he said in an even voice, "I don't like fighting." He paused. "Three things about fighting. One, it can cause a 15-yard penalty, and that hurts the team. Two, it can cause you to be ejected, and that hurts the team. Three, I'm not going to break it up." He paused again. "I can't control if you fight. But I can control who plays. And I can tell you this: If you fight, you'll face the same fine the commissioner would give you for fighting in a game, and you'll run until practice is over. All right? Let's get back to work."

"A new guy comes," says tackle Tarik Glenn, "and he's told, 'We don't fight here. Tony doesn't allow it.' Now we've had a few scuffles since then, but nothing big. You're going to get more respect from players if you respect them, which is exactly what Tony does."

Dungy's father, Wilbur, once told him, "The things people think are important aren't always that important." That perspective helped Dungy last January. On the return trip to Indianapolis after a second straight playoff loss to the Patriots, the Colts were down--really down. Manning looked like his dog had just died; he was now 0-7 at Foxborough in his seven-year career. But Dungy looked at the loss calmly and realistically. During the flight he told Polian that the team had to get more physical on defense and more mentally tough on both sides of the ball. "We need two or three players," Dungy told Polian, "and we'll be fine."

The next day, before the Colts scattered for the off-season, Dungy met with his players. It's not fashionable in today's NFL to give a don't-worry, be-happy speech after a loss, but that's what Dungy did. "In the next few days," he said, "you're going to hear how we need to rebuild this team, tear it up, because we can't get over the hump. We're not going to do that at all. We've won 24 games in the regular season in the last two years. We're going to make some improvements, but I believe in the team in this room."

Dungy wanted two or three players. He got four on his defense alone. Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders, hampered by a foot injury throughout his rookie year, returned healthy. First-round pick Marlin Jackson from Michigan became a solid nickelback. Middle linebacker Gary Brackett, a third-year man, turned out to be speedier and a surer tackler than his predecessor, Rob Morris. And massive defensive tackle Corey Simon, cut by the Philadelphia Eagles and signed by the Colts at the end of training camp, turned out to be, as Dungy puts it, "a godsend."

On Nov. 7, in the rematch at New England, Sanders forced a fumble late in the second quarter and made five tackles. Brackett led the Colts with nine tackles. Simon's first two tackles of the game were for no gain and minus-two yards. Two outcomes, same stadium, 10 months apart: a dispiriting 17-point loss and an exhilarating 40-21 win.

It would have been natural to hear a few We've slain the dragon quotes in the Indianapolis locker room afterward. None were uttered. Dungy had made clear to his troops that beating New England earned them nothing other than some contented sighs on the way home. Focus on the future, he told them, or the victory would mean nothing. "That's the best thing Tony's done all year," Glenn says. "It doesn't sound like a big thing, but he's kept us concentrating on one thing--the game that week. He doesn't let the media dictate what's important, or let the media change our focus. Tony decides that."

After that the Colts won five straight, including four against playoff contenders Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. "If there's one thing I'm proud of this year, it's how we handled the New England thing," Dungy said. "This team is such a nice story. Such good guys to be around."

It's a team in his own image. The week of that New England game Dungy phoned a former Vikings acquaintance who was in trouble. "Tony called when things were the rockiest," says Minnesota coach Mike Tice, whose team was 2-5 at the time and plagued by scandal. "He said hang in there and he knew it'd turn around. I've learned a lot of lessons from Tony in my life."

In its 45-37 victory over the 7-2 Bengals, Indianapolis showed the kind of mental discipline Dungy preaches. He sets a goal of no more than five penalties per game (two on offense, two on defense and one on special teams), with none of those concentration penalties: offside, false start, delay of game, anything on special teams. At Cincinnati the Colts had one special teams penalty on 33 kicking plays and just one concentration infraction--a Dwight Freeney offside call--in 136 plays from scrimmage. In fact, Dungy's Colts have been one of the least penalized teams in the league during his tenure..

The other cause for satisfaction that week was the coach on the opposite sideline: Marvin Lewis. Two black coaches in the NFL's game of the week, neither having to prove anything. Progress. "The road is paved for many of us because of what Tony has done and is doing," says San Francisco 49ers assistant head coach Mike Singletary. "Tony is a role model for me."

"I relish the opportunity to do what I do," Dungy says. "I remember when Doug Williams won the Super Bowl for Washington, how great it was for African-American people, how symbolic it was that an African-American played quarterback at the highest level. Now Jacksonville has three African-American quarterbacks. That's progress. If I'm fortunate to be standing up after the Super Bowl with the Lombardi Trophy in my hands, I'll think of Lionel Taylor and Jimmy Raye and all the great African-American coaches who came before me but didn't have the chance to do what I'm doing. It would mean a lot to me."

The big picture. For Tony Dungy, it's always in view.

THE BEST ...

Career turnaround
Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, highly flawed with the Cardinals, went two months without an interception and has an NFL-low six picks after 14 games.

THE BEST ...

Display of fiscal insanity
The Raiders gave cornerback Charles Woodson, who had six interceptions in his last four seasons, a one-year, $10.5 million contract.

THE BEST ...

Line you might have been able to see coming
From St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jim Thomas, after Rams guard Richie Incognito ended a two-month holdout and signed a four-year contract: "Richie is no longer Incognito."

THE BEST ...

Vow of fidelity
When his Packers were struggling earlier in the season, iconic quarterback Brett Favre steadfastly asserted, "I will never play anywhere else."

THE BEST ...

Expression of adoration for a teammate
Patriots tight end Christian Fauria, said of star quarterback Tom Brady, "I love that guy. I wish he didn't have a girlfriend."

THE BEST ...

Return from injury
Panthers receiver Steve Smith, coming back from a grotesquely broken leg in the 2004 opener, leads the NFL in catches and receiving yards.

THE BEST ...

Promise keeper
At Wellington Mara's bedside the day before the Giants' owner died, running back Tiki Barber vowed to play for his memory the following Sunday. Barber rushed for 206 yards (then a career high) in a 36-0 Oct. 30 rout of the Redskins.

THE BEST ...

John Wayne imitation
Playing with a pulled hamstring, Eagles kicker David Akers booted the winning field goal on Sept. 25 and then collapsed in pain.

THE BEST ...

Description of his life after football
When embattled former Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich was arrested in May after being found with drug paraphernalia in California, he listed his occupation as "unemployed artist."

THE BEST ...

Clutch quarterback who still gets carded
The Giants' dynamic quarterback Eli Manning could barely pass for 16--years of age, that is, not touchdowns.

THE BEST ...

Example of going from the toast of the town to persona non grata
Reviled Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. By a landslide.

THE BEST ...

Example of leaving with dignity
Steelers longtime radio analyst Myron Cope, perhaps football's most colorful color man ever, retired at age 76 after a friend gently informed him that he was slipping.

"People mistake his kindness for meekness," Polian says of Dungy. "That's a big, big mistake. Don't think that because he's NOT BELLICOSE he can't control his team."
PHOTOPhotograph by John BieverCOOL RUNNINGS Dungy makes clear his intolerance of mental lapses without ever raising his voice.PHOTOBOB ROSATO (COLTS)COLTS OF PERSONALITY The easy rapport between Manning and his coach factors heavily in Indianapolis's league-leading record. THREE PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYER (PLUMMER); KIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (WOODSON); KEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (FAVRE) THREE PHOTOSCRAIG MELVIN/US PRESSWIRE (FAURIA); ROBERT SKEOCH/WIREIMAGE.COM (SMITH); DREW HALLOWELL/WIREIMAGE.COM (AKERS)THREE PHOTOSJIM ROGASH/WIREIMAGE.COM (ELI MANNING); SIMON BRUTY (OWENS); KEITH SRAKOCIC/AP (COPE)