Tony Dungy’s playing career came to a screeching halt one morning in the summer of 1980 when New York Giants coach Ray Perkins summoned him into his makeshift office at Pace University and told him he was being released.
Perkins, in his second training camp as Giants coach at the time, spent a few minutes talking with Dungy about life, football and his plans for the future, and he told the young defensive back that he had a good mind for the game and quite possibly a future as a coach.
Dungy had long considered coaching as a post-playing career option. He talked about that possibility with his roommate, Donnie Shell, in his first training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he wasn’t sure what to make of Perkins’ parting words.
“I’m thinking this is just him talking to me, going out the door,” Dungy told the Free Press earlier this year. “After the season was over, he tracked me down and called me and said, ‘I do think you’ll be a good coach. I want you to come in for an interview.’ ”
Dungy, a Jackson native, spent the fall of 1980 as a graduate assistant at his alma matter, Minnesota, and was all set to interview for a job on Perkins’ staff when his old boss with the Steelers, Chuck Noll, got wind of his plans.
Perkins said Giants owner Wellington Mara mentioned Dungy’s name to Steelers owner Art Rooney over lunch one day. Dungy played the 1977-78 seasons in Pittsburgh.
Rooney told Noll, who called Dungy and said if he was serious about coaching then he should come work for him.
“Somebody came up there and stole my coach,” Perkins recalled this week. “But it was great. It was great to see him get that opportunity.”
In truth, Perkins and the Giants never stood a chance once Noll, a coach Dungy revered, got involved.
“My dream, I was going to play 10 years and retire a wealthy man and all that and go on,” Dungy said. “So now I’m 25, I’ve played three years and don’t know what I’m going to do. And (Noll) said, ‘We’ll put you to work and you know the system.’ I said, ‘What am I supposed to do? What do you want me to do?’ And he said something that stuck with me the rest of my life: ‘Just help your players play better. That’s what you do.’ And that’s what he was all about.”
Dungy did that on and off the field as well as anyone, first as an assistant with the Steelers, then in stops with the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings before becoming a head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts.
On Saturday, Dungy will become the 24th coach enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a group so selective the accomplishment still feels surreal to Dungy today.
“They took us to the Hall for kind of our tour and orientation and walk-through,” Dungy said on a conference call last month. “To see the coaches that are in there, my two NFL coaches, Bill Walsh and Chuck Noll, inducted in the same class. … I saw their busts and their exhibit. And then you think of the great coaches in there and it’s hard to believe that you’re included in that fraternity.
“I’d always known about my teammates who were in and some of the guys that I coached, and you think of the cream of the cream of the NFL being in there. And to think that you’re going to be in that group is still hard to believe.”
Dungy was selected to the Hall in his third year of eligibility, and his candidacy was about much more than his 148-79 career record.
As an assistant, Dungy worked his way up from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator before taking over a Buccaneers team that had suffered double-digit losses in 12 of the previous 13 seasons.
In his six years in Tampa Bay, Dungy reached the playoffs four times. He was fired after going 9-7 and making the playoffs in 2001, and quickly found a job with the Indianapolis Colts.
In seven seasons with the Colts, Dungy won 12 or more games six times (and 10 the other year).
He led the Colts to five division titles and became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl when Indianapolis beat the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI in 2007.
“He has this unbelievable knack, Tony, of being able to reduce concepts down to understanding what a team’s trying to do and why,” said Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who worked under Dungy as an assistant with the Bucs and Colts. “And understanding the breadth and depth of a team from an offense and defensive standpoint. And he could do it so quickly.
“I think that came from because he played quarterback, but then he also played defensive back. So he was on both sides of the ball. And he could relate it to you so easily, ‘Hey, this is what they’re trying to do. This is why.’ And make it really simple, like maybe three words in a paragraph. And he could do that on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game, which is impressive.”
Caldwell, who played defensive back at Iowa, and Dungy, a quarterback at Minnesota, played against each other in college and got to know each other through former Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green.
When Caldwell was fired by Wake Forest after the 2000 season, he reached out to Dungy in an effort to get one of his assistants a job.
Dungy inquired about Caldwell’s availability for a different position during the course of their conversation and soon after Caldwell joined Dungy’s staff as quarterbacks coach.
In 2002, Caldwell followed Dungy to Indianapolis, and a few years later Caldwell became the coach-in-waiting as Dungy’s associate head coach.
“You never know, but I kind of doubt (I’d be here today without Dungy), to be honest with you,” Caldwell said after practice Wednesday. “He gave me some great opportunities, and not only that, but when he gave me the first associate head coaching job, he would allow me to come in to every one of his meetings, meetings that he had with players, meetings that he had with people within the building. Into the draft meeting. I’d sit back there and watch how everything worked.
“So by the time I took over I knew the job extremely well, which was absolutely invaluable. So, yeah, I can’t thank him enough for all of those things that he did.”
More than nine years after Dungy’s Super Bowl victory, just three other African-American head coaches have reached the big game: Caldwell, who took the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV in 2010; Mike Tomlin, who has won one Super Bowl with the Steelers and lost another; and Lovie Smith, whose Chicago Bears lost to Dungy’s Colts in February 2007.
All three worked under Dungy as an assistant.
“His tree keeps going on, keeps growing,” said Shell, the former Steeler who will present his old teammate in Canton, Ohio, this week. “But I’m real proud of him, first of all for being the dad to his children and husband to Lauren. I knew them before they got married, so I’m very proud of him for what he’s accomplished. And also to reach out and reach a greater sphere of people that I never could reach, especially having a great positive influence upon young people.”
Caldwell said Dungy’s influence on him and all the coaches he worked with was profound.
One day, when the two were in Indianapolis, Caldwell stuck his head in Dungy’s office and saw him bottle-feeding his newborn baby with one hand and running the film clicker with the other, all while two of his other children played in the back.
“His kids were always around the facility,” Caldwell said. “And I think that was comforting, too. That’s why we have, you see, we have kids out here on the practice field. We take family and kids on away trips with their dads so they can get a sense of what their dad does and keep them a part of it. It’s a real family atmosphere and a lot of that … I think most of us that work for him certainly got that from him.”
Dungy’s calming influence and steady leadership earned him universal praise from players, and his .652 winning percentage is better than fellow Hall-of-Famers like Bill Parcells, Tom Landry and his former coaches Noll and Walsh.
For all those reasons and more, Perkins said Dungy’s induction Saturday is long overdue.
“That’s the pinnacle,” Perkins said. “That’s what he did all that work for. And I’m sure he didn’t even think about being in the Hall of Fame at the end of his career and all that stuff.
“He was just out there because he loved it. He loved the game and he loved the players. He loved coaching the players and doing whatever it took to get the players, to get the most out of what they had. That’s a coach.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our free Lions Xtra app on your Apple and Android devices.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, Ohio.
TV: NFL Network.
Inductees: Edward DeBartolo Jr., Tony Dungy, Brett Favre, Kevin Greene, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler and Dick Stanfel