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.
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....