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About Time
S.L. Price
June 10, 1996
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
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June 10, 1996

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

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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.

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