January 29, 1996

I have come to praise the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for hiring Tony
Dungy, the former Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, as
their coach on Monday. And after this paragraph, I'm not going
to mention his skin color again. That will please Dungy because
over the years he has grown tired of being considered a black
head-coaching candidate instead of simply a head-coaching
candidate. There's a temptation to say that being an
African-American has kept Dungy from his dream job. But I can't
say with certainty that, in the three years since he emerged as
a serious candidate, he was overlooked for any NFL head-coaching
job because of his race.

What I can say is that Dungy was held back by three knocks that
are more fiction than fact and that the Bucs, who have made
their share of pea-brained decisions over the years, did well to
look past this conventional ignorance. Here are the bad raps and
the facts that dispute them.

Knock No. 1: He has never been a head coach at any level, and
you must be a head coach somewhere before you can do the top job
in the NFL. This subject came up whenever Dungy was being
considered, and he thought about pursuing a college job that he
didn't want, with the University of Minnesota, just for the sake
of enhancing his resume.

Fact: Pro football's three alltime winningest coaches--in order,
Don Shula, George Halas and Tom Landry--got their first
head-coaching jobs in the NFL. The winningest active coach, Dan
Reeves, also had never been a head coach until the Denver
Broncos hired him.

Knock No. 2: He's not very good at yelling at people, and you
have to be loud and confrontational to be a successful NFL
coach. Exasperated after coming in second for the Jacksonville
Jaguars' job--to some degree because the Jags' brass figured he
couldn't give an inspiring pregame speech--Dungy vigorously tried
to show the Bucs that he could get in a player's face if need be
by citing examples of how he has handled players in the past.

Fact: Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll won 209 games,
yet most of his players can't recall him ever screaming at them.
"If players can't get themselves mentally ready to play," Noll
would often say, "then I don't want them." Mike Holmgren coaxed
a spunky bunch of Green Bay Packers into the NFC Championship
Game this year, and he's not a screamer either.

Knock No. 3: He lacks charisma and coaching genius.

Fact: When you talk to Dungy, he looks you right in the eye,
tells you exactly what he's going to do and then does it. "He's
the most straightforward guy you could have as a coach," says
Vikings defensive tackle John Randle. Also, look at what the
Minnesota defense did in Dungy's four seasons as coordinator.
Even though the Vikes lost three All-Pro defenders--tackle Keith
Millard before the 1992 season, end Chris Doleman after the '93
season and tackle Henry Thomas after '94--their average finish in
the defensive rankings was ninth during Dungy's tenure.
Minnesota had the top-rated defense in 1993 and the next year
allowed fewer rushing yards a game than any defense in the
previous 30 years. "Every time we play the Vikings," Green Bay
quarterback Brett Favre said last fall, "I see some things I'm
sure we can take advantage of. Then the game starts, and they do
something unexpected. Tony's schemes are the toughest I face."

So much for the X's and O's. Now for a dose of 1990s reality:
The most important three months for an NFL coach are not
October, November and December; they're February, March and
April. That's when he determines which of his own free agents
he's going to try to re-sign, which of the other teams' free
agents he's going to pursue, which college players he's going to
draft, what coaching-staff changes he's going to make and what
new pages will be added to his playbook. And that's also when he
teaches his system to his new players. What traditionally had
been football's dead time is now a coach's critical period.

The Bucs don't know how good they'll have it this winter and
early spring. Here they are with upwards of $14 million to spend
on free agents, and they've hired a coach whom players want to
play for. If you're a free agent and you want to play in
Florida--which many players do--you first cross the Miami Dolphins
off the list because they have no room under the salary cap.
That leaves Jacksonville and Tampa. One day you sit across the
desk from the militaristic Tom Coughlin of the Jaguars. The next
day you sit across from the conversational Dungy. Opportunity's
the same. Money's the same. It's no contest. You pick Tampa Bay.

Dungy has been blessed by the football gods. In getting the
Bucs' job, he has been given a good young team, extra draft
picks in the first and second rounds and room under the cap.
After everything he has been through, justice was served.

COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MUZIK The football gods finally smiled on Dungy. [Tony Dungy]

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