Dungy's father, Wilbur, once told him, "The things people think are important aren't always that important." That perspective helped Dungy last January. On the return trip to Indianapolis after a second straight playoff loss to the Patriots, the Colts were down--really down. Manning looked like his dog had just died; he was now 0-7 at Foxborough in his seven-year career. But Dungy looked at the loss calmly and realistically. During the flight he told Polian that the team had to get more physical on defense and more mentally tough on both sides of the ball. "We need two or three players," Dungy told Polian, "and we'll be fine."
The next day, before the Colts scattered for the off-season, Dungy met with his players. It's not fashionable in today's NFL to give a don't-worry, be-happy speech after a loss, but that's what Dungy did. "In the next few days," he said, "you're going to hear how we need to rebuild this team, tear it up, because we can't get over the hump. We're not going to do that at all. We've won 24 games in the regular season in the last two years. We're going to make some improvements, but I believe in the team in this room."
Dungy wanted two or three players. He got four on his defense alone. Hard-hitting safety Bob Sanders, hampered by a foot injury throughout his rookie year, returned healthy. First-round pick Marlin Jackson from Michigan became a solid nickelback. Middle linebacker Gary Brackett, a third-year man, turned out to be speedier and a surer tackler than his predecessor, Rob Morris. And massive defensive tackle Corey Simon, cut by the Philadelphia Eagles and signed by the Colts at the end of training camp, turned out to be, as Dungy puts it, "a godsend."
On Nov. 7, in the rematch at New England, Sanders forced a fumble late in the second quarter and made five tackles. Brackett led the Colts with nine tackles. Simon's first two tackles of the game were for no gain and minus-two yards. Two outcomes, same stadium, 10 months apart: a dispiriting 17-point loss and an exhilarating 40-21 win.
It would have been natural to hear a few We've slain the dragon quotes in the Indianapolis locker room afterward. None were uttered. Dungy had made clear to his troops that beating New England earned them nothing other than some contented sighs on the way home. Focus on the future, he told them, or the victory would mean nothing. "That's the best thing Tony's done all year," Glenn says. "It doesn't sound like a big thing, but he's kept us concentrating on one thing--the game that week. He doesn't let the media dictate what's important, or let the media change our focus. Tony decides that."
After that the Colts won five straight, including four against playoff contenders Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. "If there's one thing I'm proud of this year, it's how we handled the New England thing," Dungy said. "This team is such a nice story. Such good guys to be around."
It's a team in his own image. The week of that New England game Dungy phoned a former Vikings acquaintance who was in trouble. "Tony called when things were the rockiest," says Minnesota coach Mike Tice, whose team was 2-5 at the time and plagued by scandal. "He said hang in there and he knew it'd turn around. I've learned a lot of lessons from Tony in my life."
In its 45-37 victory over the 7-2 Bengals, Indianapolis showed the kind of mental discipline Dungy preaches. He sets a goal of no more than five penalties per game (two on offense, two on defense and one on special teams), with none of those concentration penalties: offside, false start, delay of game, anything on special teams. At Cincinnati the Colts had one special teams penalty on 33 kicking plays and just one concentration infraction--a Dwight Freeney offside call--in 136 plays from scrimmage. In fact, Dungy's Colts have been one of the least penalized teams in the league during his tenure..
The other cause for satisfaction that week was the coach on the opposite sideline: Marvin Lewis. Two black coaches in the NFL's game of the week, neither having to prove anything. Progress. "The road is paved for many of us because of what Tony has done and is doing," says San Francisco 49ers assistant head coach Mike Singletary. "Tony is a role model for me."
"I relish the opportunity to do what I do," Dungy says. "I remember when Doug Williams won the Super Bowl for Washington, how great it was for African-American people, how symbolic it was that an African-American played quarterback at the highest level. Now Jacksonville has three African-American quarterbacks. That's progress. If I'm fortunate to be standing up after the Super Bowl with the Lombardi Trophy in my hands, I'll think of Lionel Taylor and Jimmy Raye and all the great African-American coaches who came before me but didn't have the chance to do what I'm doing. It would mean a lot to me."