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 r�sum�.
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.