Coaching excellence only a small part of Dungy's lasting legacy
Tony Dungy (139-69) won six division titles and one Super Bowl in 13 seasons
Dungy is the first African-American head coach to claim the Lombardi trophy
There was always more to Tony Dungy than a headset and a whistle.
As much as he loved the National Football League -- and understand that he loved this game hard -- Dungy was more than a master of the Cover 2 and the leader of a 53-man roster.
In his firm but polite manner, Dungy was a coaching pioneer, the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl and a reminder that strength and passion can come in many styles. In an era of coaches with outsized egos, Dungy was the symbol of a man with his feet on the ground. And in a time when the basest aspects of hip-hop culture are glamorized to the point of worship, Dungy showed that there are other meanings of being a black man in America.
Beyond the playoff appearances and the innovations on defense, Dungy came of age in the heat of the civil rights movement. He grew up in Jackson, Mich., with parents who held advanced degrees from Michigan State, parents who themselves were pioneers. Dungy's mother, CleoMae, taught English and public speaking at Jackson High. His father, Wilbur, taught physiology at Jackson Community College.
Wilbur had also been a pilot during World War II as part of the United States Army Air Corps' Tuskegee Airmen. His father never told Dungy about the hardships of the segregated army, how blacks had been banned from flying planes at all until the Tuskegee program was implemented.
"When I was just a kid, I didn't think to ask for more details when he said, 'We taught ourselves to fly,'" Dungy writes in his memoir, Quiet Strength. "It sounded easy. The lesson, which I did not understand clearly until much later, was that you shouldn't allow external issues to be a hindrance, whether those issues are based on race or any other factor. Things will go wrong at times. You can't always control circumstances. However, you can always control your attitude, approach, and response."
When he was old enough to understand, Dungy held fast to these lessons, as a quarterback at the University of Minnesota and as a longtime NFL assistant coach who spent years being passed over for head-coaching jobs. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired him in 1996, a doormat was transformed into a playoff team. When the Indianapolis Colts hired him in 2002, Dungy elevated a talented team to the level of Super Bowl champion.
"People often say that teams reflect their head coach, and that can be said of Tony Dungy's teams, which are consistent winners every single year," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. "Tony has been such a fixture in this league that his absence will take some getting used to. He may be leaving the sideline, but Tony will be remembered fondly for a long time."
Besides Dungy's coaching protégés, who are sprinkled throughout the league, his greater legacy may be his work outside the lines. While coaching in Tampa, he started a program called Mentors for Life, an organization aimed at uplifting area children. He also launched All Pro Dad, a program designed to help fathers interact with their children in lasting ways.
Three years ago, Dungy and his wife, Lauren, suffered a parent's greatest nightmare. Their phone rang at 1:45 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2005. Lauren picked up the phone and handed it to her husband. "I hope one of our guys isn't hurt, I thought as I reached for the receiver," Dungy writes in his book.
A nurse was on the other end. Dungy's 18-year-old son, James, had committed suicide.
Somehow, Dungy mustered the strength to speak at the funeral. He thanked the Colts and Buccaneers organizations and the many people who had been nice to his son.
The following season, when the Colts won the Super Bowl, Dungy stood in the drizzle of a Miami night, clutching the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
"I thought of my mom and dad, how I wished they could have been there," Dungy writes. "I thought of Jamie, too -- the rain on my face mixing with tears. I always tell grieving parents to cherish the good memories they have."
Even in the midst of tragedy, Dungy was able to look outward, providing counsel to other parents who have lost children. He undoubtedly squeezed his three boys and two girls tighter. Later, he returned to the Colts, leading them to the playoffs this season before retiring from the game on Monday.
Tony Dungy was a great football coach. I bet he goes on to bigger and better things.