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About Time

June 10, 1996
June 10, 1996

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June 10, 1996

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About Time

On his long road to becoming an NFL head coach, the Buccaneers' Tony Dungy learned hard lessons about race, life and pro football but never lost hope

It lasted only six hours, but in that time the Overland Park, Kans., police took Tony Dungy's picture front and side, took his fingerprints, took his shoelaces, took his money, took his clothes. They tossed him into the lockup with all the thieves and brawlers, all the gabbling drunks. Mostly he stood there, one of the NFL's most valued assistant coaches, quiet and scared in his jail coveralls. Counting time. Watching his back. Six hours of this, which is nothing much until it's you and the door clangs and, as Dungy says, "you realize you can't get out until someone lets you." Finally, he shuffled out in a group for his arraignment, trailing Armed Robbery and Assault-and-Battery. When the judge called Dungy's case and heard the charge—signaling-violation ticket—there was a pause in the proceedings. "Excuse me?" the judge said.

This is an article from the June 10, 1996 issue Original Layout

There's a reason so many blacks believe O.J. Simpson was framed. It has nothing to do with sloppy police procedure or an ill-fitting glove. It has everything to do with a black man like Dungy—by all accounts honest, devout, talented and climbing a path that would lead, five years later, to his ascension to coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—driving home from the Kansas City Chiefs' complex early one Tuesday morning in 1991, changing lanes on an empty street and seeing a flash of lights in the mirror.

Dungy knows Simpson. The two played for the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, and Dungy believes Simpson is far too meticulous about his appearance to have killed at such close quarters, to have risked his fine clothes with such a bloody shower. "That's not O.J.," Dungy says. "If they said he shot her, I'd say, 'Guilty for sure.'" Even more, though, Dungy has a suspicion of police—in Los Angeles and everywhere else—that he can't shake. "Most whites would say, 'Why would the cops ever fabricate things?' Most blacks would say, 'It's totally logical that they fabricated the whole thing,'" he says. "I can see things being fabricated."

The usual response to that is a demand for proof, and Dungy has none. Detecting discrimination can be, like love, a game of feel: tough to document but, to those involved, unmistakable. All Dungy knows is that as the white policeman kept asking questions that night, he began to feel he was being stopped for the infraction referred to by some African-Americans as DWB—Driving While Black. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "You do wonder: Why is this guy stopping me? Why is he giving me a ticket when I'm the only person on the street? Why is he asking me these questions? It's just a reminder that it can happen to you."

Dungy says this quietly, his words giving off no heat. He dissects the episode with as much passion as it takes to gut the fish he so loves to catch. This is something he wrestled with once, hard, but it is now best to keep it at arm's length. With his bespectacled face and soft voice and a disposition one might be tempted to call sweet, Dungy has all the marks of the professor's son that he is. He is open, cheerful; you would never accuse him of carrying a grudge. But Dungy's air of intellectual detachment does much to mask a drive that ensured he would never work at the glass factory in his hometown, an ego that demanded the ball whenever the game got tight. He nearly destroyed his playing career once, decrying a conspiracy he couldn't prove. He is cool, in the way steel is cool. This piece of work once burned red-hot.

When the issue of race bubbles up, as it did each time Dungy tried and failed to land a head coaching job during the last decade—twice in Philadelphia and once in Jacksonville—he doesn't minimize it. For years he had been held up as Exhibit A by those horrified by the NFL's glacial pace in promoting blacks into positions of authority. Here was a defensive coach whose wizardry with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings produced units renowned for a cohesive, brainy toughness, whose own instant recall of plays and tendencies studied years ago amazed fellow coaches. After the '93 season, when his Vikings led the NFL in total defense, seven head coaching jobs opened up. He was invited to interview for only one, with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"The more you looked at Tony, the more you looked at his résumé, you had to ask, Why didn't this guy get hired?" says Bucs general manager Rich McKay. The easy answer? Every time an opening was filled, stories would be written about his skin color. But Dungy knew it wasn't so simple. Prejudice is a feel thing, and his point was always larger: Owners were biased toward the Vince Lombardi types they had seen in their youth—middle-aged white men with military miens—and anyone, white or black, who deviated from the model suffered. "I don't think anybody is going to say, 'This guy's good but he's black, so I can't hire him,'" Dungy says. "But the thought process is, Is this what I really want? This isn't what I perceive the coach to be. And many times the owner may not even know why. So the reason becomes: He's too soft-spoken or too young or too old."

Dungy concedes that the NFL is progressing. The Philadelphia Eagles passed on him last year but hired another African-American, Ray Rhodes, and when Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer made Dungy the fourth black head coach in modern league history last January, he did so in eye-popping fashion: with a reported six-year, $3.6 million contract--an unprecedented commitment to a man with no head coaching experience. Dungy is the first to point out that at 40 he has reached his profession's pinnacle at an age at which gurus such as Bill Walsh were still paying their dues.

But there's a reason that Dungy believes race was a factor in his failure to land a head coaching job sooner. One NFL executive--still working today—told Dungy he would have to shave his beard to get any coaching job; it smacked too much of an angry black radical. In a talk about building a staff, another executive—still in the NFL—asked Dungy how many of his assistants would be black. Dungy couldn't believe what he was hearing. This was the fraternity he wanted so much to join?

And each season he spent as an NFL assistant in Minneapolis, Dungy received a handful of ripe messages. Never mind that he had once starred as a quarterback for the University of Minnesota or that he had honed the Vikings' defense into a unit that would intercept more passes and score more touchdowns than any other NFL defense from 1992 to '95. He still received letters with no return addresses and voice-mail messages from people who didn't identify themselves. He read each letter, listened to each message. You niggers are always complaining.... Look what happens when we put you in charge....

"The experience was good," Dungy says. "It just made me more determined: You've got to be better. You can't lose at all."

Good? That's the thing about Dungy. He never reacts as might be expected. He can shrug off slurs but then dig in his heels when it makes the least sense. He contested that signaling-violation ticket. No, he hadn't signaled when he changed lanes, but it was 2 a.m. and no one was on the road. After the judge heard Dungy's side, he offered him a slap on the wrist: Admit guilt and pay a five-dollar fine. Dungy asked if the conviction would go on his record. Yes, he was told. "I'll appeal," Dungy said.

His appeal date fell while he was at the Chiefs' training camp in River Falls, Wis. When Dungy returned to Kansas City, an arrest warrant was waiting. He was jailed for those six hours. He paid more than $700 in fines and legal fees. He lost. He doesn't regret it. "Maybe it's one of those things you need to experience," he says. Because you can hear all the stories about Rodney King, you can hear about the system's breaking men down, Dungy says, "but you don't know what's taking place. You read newspaper accounts and say, 'That couldn't happen.'" He smiles. "But it could happen."

Here's the weird part: It's almost as if none of it touched him, not where it counts. Dungy has been scarred but not infected; he spews no poison, no bitterness. He can recall the assaults on his pride, but no friend can remember him despairing over slights or fearing that the ways of any fool could hold him back. Part of this springs from his Christian faith, part from knowing that he has done everything to prepare himself. After McKay called Dungy in January to set up a third meeting, Dungy knew he had the job. There were no shouts of joy. It was no surprise.

"I felt God had put me in places that gave me training for this," Dungy says. "I went to school and played offense, went to Pittsburgh and changed over to play defense for Chuck Noll, played for Bill Walsh, played for Ray Perkins, learned all these systems. I just had too many guys that I learned from. I felt that eventually it would come."

But nothing can prepare you for some things. On the night of Jan. 21, before Dungy met with Glazer and was offered the Tampa Bay job, a reporter had staked out the lobby of the hotel at which Tony and his wife, Lauren, were staying. McKay rushed Tony into his car and sped away, the two of them craning their necks and McKay shouting, "I think I lost him!" It was the good kind of chase on the street this time, all adrenaline, no cops, no flashing lights.

They pulled up to a famous Florida steak house, where Glazer was waiting for them, and as night wound down, there was a lot of laughter. Then it was up to the Dessert Room, and now Dungy was tasting the big time. The TV was on. A man was on the screen—from the parking lot!—and as Dungy recalls it, he said, "We're live outside Bern's Steak House. We believe Tony Dungy is meeting here with Malcolm Glazer and Rich McKay. There's a report—unconfirmed—that they're in the Dessert Room." Behind the reporter, there were 200 people, waiting for Dungy. "Then the crowd got bigger and bigger," Dungy says. "It was wild."

Somehow he hadn't thought of this. Tampa Bay hadn't had a winning season in 14 years, and he was a name without a face. Who was going to care about Tony Dungy? But he was watching his own life unfold live and in color, and for the first time he felt what it was to be a head coach. A city waited while he nibbled pie.

Second-year defensive tackle Warren Sapp, sitting before his locker in a sweat, points to the hallway leading to the Buccaneers' offices. "I'll tell you the difference. Tony can walk through that door and not say a word, and everybody would know he's walked through," he says. "Sam [Wyche] would walk through that door and make sure everybody knew. With Tony, you just know. It's the strangest thing."

For many, that's the strongest thing about Dungy: his quietude, his lack of look-at-me! in a profession that so often rewards the charisma boys. Wyche was fired by Tampa Bay last December after four seasons. The Buccaneers wooed Jimmy Johnson, who now coaches the Miami Dolphins, and Florida's Steve Spurrier before both shook their neatly coiffed heads no, and when those two egos left the room, there sat Dungy, trying to overwhelm no one. That lack of self-promotion, more than his race, McKay says, is why Dungy didn't get a top job for so long. "The first time you interview Tony, you can see why the owners wouldn't have hired him," he says. "After you interview him for an hour, you don't say, 'Wow. That was impressive.' He doesn't try to come across as overly charismatic. But every time you talk to him, you get more impressed."

Tampa Bay linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who played for Dungy for two years in Pittsburgh, became disgusted last season with what he describes as "the mind games" between Wyche and the Bucs' players. A free agent, Nickerson had little interest in re-signing. Dungy's hiring changed that. "I thought he had the best football mind of all the candidates," Nickerson says. "He's a man of integrity, he has a great deal of character. He has that aura. You want to do your best because of the type guy he is."

Even though Dungy has rarely screamed at his players in the time-honored fashion of other NFL coaches, his control isn't questioned. His staffs are known for seamlessness. "In the three years I was in Minnesota, I don't know that we ever had an argument," says Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who coached the inside linebackers under Dungy while both were with the Vikings. "There were five guys in that room, and Tony hadn't worked with any of us, but he really can bring a staff together. If there was going to be a confrontation, he'd squelch it."

Used to be, he'd cause it. Growing up in Jackson, Mich., Dungy would fight constantly. Finally, after being tossed from a basketball game as a ninth-grader, he sat in the locker room while play went on without him. "I realized that because I got out of control, I satisfied a little anger but I was out of the game," Dungy says. "Now I wasn't playing, and what good did it do?" That lesson has stuck with him. Lose your temper, give in to emotion, rail against life's unfairness—that just gives someone a reason to take you out. All he had to do was look at his father.

He had heard the stories. Wilbur Dungy taught biology at an all-black high school in Alexandria, Va., in the 1950s, back when the government was pathetically attempting to keep the races separate but equal; it built a football field to match the one at the school for whites—even though there was no football team at the black school.

It was all so absurd, but Tony never saw his father lose control. Wilbur got his Ph.D. in physiology and became a college professor. His wife, Cleomae, taught high school. Two of Wilbur's brothers became ministers, another an assistant police chief in Detroit. Tony's older sister became a nurse, his brother a dentist, his younger sister an obstetrician who last year made medical history by delivering a baby to a woman who had received liver and kidney transplants. All four Dungy kids grew up knowing how prejudice can destroy dreams but seeing how it can be quietly beaten.

"Don't use it as an excuse, don't let it beat you, don't give up," Tony says, describing the family's approach to overcoming discrimination. "My sister went through the same thing I did. You want to be a doctor, and female doctors aren't in vogue? You have to get better grades, work harder, work at being credible. The first time she came in to help another doctor's patient, the lady screamed, 'No! I want a doctor. I want a doctor!' You know you have to deal with that and be better than anyone else. Not as good. Better."

Sometimes, though, that didn't seem like enough. When Tony played football as one of only two sophomores on the varsity at integrated Parkside High in Jackson, he entered an atmosphere that his coach, Dave Driscoll, describes as "the worst experience I ever had as far as black-white relations. I almost quit. The whites didn't like the blacks, and the blacks didn't like the whites."

The tension didn't boil over for Dungy until after his junior season, when he was elected as a co-captain and his best friend—Bob Burton, an African-American who was the only other projected three-year starter—wasn't. Dungy, the quarterback, stood up at the team's banquet that November and turned down the captaincy. Then, along with almost a dozen other black starters, he quit. "The school had never had two black captains," Dungy says. "I just didn't think they'd counted the votes honestly, or maybe somebody had said, 'You can't have two black captains.'"

The impasse lasted for months, until an assistant principal persuaded Dungy to rejoin the team. Neither Burton nor Dungy was captain, but Parkside finished 8–1 and recruiters flocked to see Dungy run the option. "He's extremely special," Driscoll says. "I coached for 30 years, and he's the only young man I took a picture of, in uniform, in front of the Parkside Eagle. I still have that picture. I'm looking at it now."

Minnesota had a tradition of black quarterbacks, and Dungy extended it, finishing his career ranked fourth in Big Ten history in total offense. However, what then Gophers coach Cal Stoll remembers most about Dungy is finding him waiting on the football office steps at 6 a.m. every day. "I finally gave him a key so he could watch film whenever he wanted," says Stoll.

Be better. It became a Dungy hallmark. When he signed with the Steelers as a free agent in 1977, Dungy took one look at Terry Bradshaw and understood why no team had drafted some option quarterback from Minnesota: Bradshaw was 6'4" with a gun for an arm. At the time, Dungy didn't think there was prejudice against black quarterbacks. Only 6'1" and not known for his arm strength, he agreed with Pittsburgh's decision to move him first to receiver and then to defensive back. He knew he had plenty to learn, and at rookie camp he hit the film hard. After meetings Pittsburgh running back Rocky Bleier would lie on his bed, watching TV, when he would notice his reception going haywire. "I couldn't figure out what it was," Bleier says. "Finally I realized someone in the meeting room next door was running the projector, running it and stopping it, running it and stopping it. Tony Dungy. He was by himself. Other rookies would hit the bars. Tony would sit there watching film, watching film, watching film."

He played two years with the cerebral brutes of the Steel Curtain, soaking up Noll's strategies and philosophies. In 1978 he tied for second in the AFC in interceptions. As time went on, he began to notice that most white quarterbacks were no taller or stronger than he was. "I'd stand next to Bob Griese and look him right in the eye, and stand next to Fran Tarkenton and look him right in the eye," Dungy says. "I'd watch some of the backups throw and say, 'These guys are not very good.' It wasn't until I played a couple years that I started thinking that maybe there was something to this."

Two years later, upon seeing little future for himself as a player, he retired. After a season as an assistant at his alma mater, he joined the Steelers as a defensive assistant in 1981. His players quickly learned: Dungy may be quiet, but he carries real strength. "When someone's easygoing, people think he's soft," says Donnie Shell, a former teammate of Dungy's in Pittsburgh who also played for him there. "But you respect the man. He's smart. And he will put people in their place."

The Buccaneers' players found that out on April 27, a broiling Saturday when they and 12,000 fans met at Tampa Stadium for a day of introductions and mingling. During an hour-long autograph session Dungy, standing on a makeshift stage, noticed that some 15 players were hiding from the sun and the fans. "I want those guys to get out here right now and start signing autographs," Dungy said into a microphone. "If you don't get out here, the players who don't–we're going to have a problem at practice today." A murmur ran through the crowd.

"And like roaches when you turn the light on, all those guys sprinted from behind the stage," recalls Bucs spokesman Chip Namias. Afterward Dungy called a meeting and quietly lit into his players. "When you walked out of the room, you knew who was in charge," says Kiffin. "From then on, the players knew Tony was for real."

He was eight when he first saw a pro football game. His father and an uncle took him to Tiger Stadium one Sunday to see the Cleveland Browns, who had the great Jim Brown and a young wideout named Paul Warfield, play the Lions of Alex Karras and Dick (Night Train) Lane. "The atmosphere seemed bigger than life," Dungy says. "I don't remember who won, just that everybody was coming out to watch these guys play."

The atmosphere in Tampa Bay carries none of that electricity. The Buccaneers have been a running gag in the NFL for years. When Dungy's four-year-old son, Eric, was told the family would be moving to Tampa, he refused to accept it. "No, Dad, no," he said.

And Eric didn't even know how unsettled the Bucs' future is. On Sept. 3, Hillsborough County voters will decide the fate of a referendum for a new stadium. Support is tepid, season-ticket sales are down from last year, and the Bucs are talking with officials in central Florida about moving there. Cleveland, Houston and Los Angeles are in the market for an NFL team. In two years the Bucs could be playing far, far away.

As Dungy sees it, however, the situation couldn't be better. The Bucs have no tradition to speak of, so he has no ghosts to battle. "And if we do end up moving, we've got to do the job in the place we go to," Dungy says. "But this year we're going to be here—and we've got to win."

The season is still months off, however. On this June weekend Dungy's father, mother and an uncle have come to Florida for a two-day fishing jaunt. Tony has worked saltwater only once. There's a boat to charter and tarpon to chase and a blazing sun like you never see in Jackson, Mich. Two days of lazing. Time enough to think about the ones that got away. Time enough to celebrate the big one that Tony Dungy finally reeled in.