Tony Dungy: The Conscience of the NFL

Dungy made history as a Hall of Fame coach and now serves as the respected voice of the entire league.

By Ben Fischer
Dungy at his home in Tampa, which he shares with his wife and eight of their children.Amy Pezzicara / Pezz Photo

It’s a Sunday in early August, and the Cleveland Browns are supposed to be practicing at FirstEnergy Stadium in front of about 30,000 fans. But a pop-up thunderstorm has kept them off the field for an extra hour.

Taking in the scene from a tunnel near the locker room is Tony Dungy, who is in Ohio for the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies 60 miles away in Canton. His presence was requested by head coach Kevin Stefanski, one of countless people around the game who considers Dungy a mentor. 

The line of well-wishers greeting Dungy includes wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., whose wide smile matches his diamond necklace, and quarterback Baker Mayfield, both of whom record a video for Dungy’s son Justin.

Defensive backs coach Jeff Howard pulls out his phone to show Dungy pictures of his young children. A young Black PR staffer, Dom Page, introduces himself to Dungy.

At one point, the man who employs everyone in the stadium stood patiently while an aide introduced him to Dungy. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Dungy spoke quietly for 10 minutes amid the din, with Dungy dispensing the wisdom that has made him what one executive called “the voice of reason in the NFL.”

“I told him that he has to make sure this team is not what fans want, or what the media wants,” Dungy recounts later. “He needs to make sure this is the team he wants.”

The Champions

Here is the schedule for each Champions profile. For video profiles go to SBJTV.com.

April — Jean Afterman
May — Tom Wilson
July — Larry Lucchino
August — Bill Hancock
September — Tony Dungy
October — Harlan Stone

After practice ended, Stefanski turned to Dungy and asked him to make some final remarks.

“They all know him, they grew up watching him, and they know what he’s meant to his teams and the league,” said Stefanski, who met Dungy through his old boss in Minnesota, Leslie Frazier, who himself was an assistant to Dungy in Indianapolis. “I think he brings a huge amount of credibility when he’s standing there talking to your team.” 

More than a decade after Dungy last ran an NFL team, he still commands the respect and attention of the entire league. He spent 28 years on the sidelines in the NFL, including the last 13 as a head coach. He built the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into a consistent contender, coached the Colts to a Super Bowl title and earned enshrinement in Canton in 2016. He’s now in his 13th season as an NBC Sports analyst and an elder statesman of professional football, respected and beloved throughout the sport. 

No matter the subject, football people want to know what Dungy thinks. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asks him to counsel owners in coaching searches. Senior league executives seek out his expertise on leadership. Coaches and players ask for his guidance on their careers. 

Often that advice is not about football. It’s about fatherhood, faith or leadership questions. On Sept. 9, the opening day of the season, Dungy spoke to the Dallas Cowboys’ chapel session in the morning and was on NBC providing analysis of their game in Tampa against the defending champion Buccaneers that night. 

“Tony is a very, very, very special and unusual individual when it comes to leadership,” said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay. “He was born that way, he was raised that way by his parents, he was mentored to be that way by people like [longtime Steelers head coach] Chuck Noll and others. He just has a special component.”

Whether the subject is Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem, concussions, gambling or opportunities for minority coaches, the opinion of the 65-year-old Dungy is always sought and always respected.

“He is the social conscience of the league,” said Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production for NBC Sports. “I think the league office looks to him, and I look to him.”

■ ■ ■ 

Dungy grew up in Jackson, Mich., the son of a mother, Cleomae, who was a high school teacher and a father, Wilbur, who had served in the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II before becoming a college professor. His dad also shaped who Dungy became as a coach. “He loved me, and he showed me that he really cared about me, and that he knew what he was doing and I could trust him,” Dungy once said of the leadership style he inherited. “I didn’t want to let my dad down, and I wanted to do whatever he said. We had that type of relationship, and that’s what I’m going to do with my players.” 

After spending four years as the starting quarterback at Minnesota and leaving as the school’s career leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns, Dungy eagerly awaited the 1977 NFL draft. He sat in his apartment in Minneapolis all day, waiting for a phone call telling him where he’d been picked. Surely it was only a matter of time. He had talked to scouts. He had been a four-year starter in the Big Ten. If nothing else he’d get a look in camp for a backup role.

“It’s getting to be like 10 o’clock at night, and we call the AP and ask them what round it’s in, and they told me it was over,” Dungy recalls. “I said, ‘It can’t be over.’”

Tony Dungy

Birthdate: Oct. 6, 1955

College: University of Minnesota

Playing career: Pittsburgh Steelers (1977-78); San Francisco 49ers (1979)

Head coaching career: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1996-2001); Indianapolis Colts (2002-2008)

Record: 139-69; 6 division titles, 1 conference title; 1 Super Bowl

Current role: Analyst, NBC “Football Night in America” (2009-present)

Family: Wife, Lauren (married 1982); 11 children

But in 1977, for a Black quarterback, it was. One year later, the same thing would happen to future Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who needed to win five consecutive Canadian Football League titles before the NFL gave him a chance. To this day, Dungy doesn’t blame racism directly — he attributes it to a risk-averse culture among owners and coaches who were afraid to look beyond their own preconceptions of what that role looked like, a scenario he would see play out repeatedly decades later when it came to hiring minority coaches.

“It’s kind of the same thing we’re talking about back then — 30 years ago, this is what we thought about quarterbacks,” Dungy said. “And if we still thought that way, we wouldn’t have Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes now. We’re now thinking the same way, that there’s a cookie cutter for the coach, and he’s got to fit in it.”

Dungy expressed the very same viewpoint in a closed-door meeting of top NFL executives and owners at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in 2019.

“Through his historical perspective, through these he’s personally experienced and done, he got everyone in the room — club ownership, Commissioner Goodell, [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee] Chairman [Art] Rooney — to listen,” said Troy Vincent Sr., the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “It really pierces your heart. He challenges you personally — what are you doing to be part of the solution?”

■ ■ ■ 

Stung by the quiet phone on draft day, Dungy entertained an offer from Marv Levy to come play for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. He instead agreed to try different positions for the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent. First wide receiver, then safety.

“I wanted to try to play with the very best,” he said. 

His playing career was brief. As a Steelers rookie in 1977, his most memorable moment came when he was pressed into service at quarterback because of injuries, completing three of eight pass attempts in a loss to the Houston Oilers. The next season he started two games in the defensive backfield, racking up a team-high six interceptions and helping Pittsburgh win its third Super Bowl. He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers before the 1979 season, and then joined the New York Giants before being cut in training camp in 1980. The phone stopped ringing.

Dungy led the 1978 Steelers with six interceptions.getty images

He went back to Minnesota to volunteer as an assistant coach at his alma mater, but a few months later Noll offered him a job as a defensive backs assistant. Dungy was just 25 years old. Today, wunderkind coaches are common. Not then, and certainly not on Noll’s staff.

“That was an outlier, clearly,” said current team president Art Rooney II. “Tony was special, and you could see that from the start. Chuck obviously recognized that pretty quickly.”

Dungy rarely goes long without mentioning Noll’s influence on his life. The Hall of Fame coach’s admonition — “Don’t make football your life’s work; if you do, it’s bound to end in disappointment” — is a bedrock to his approach. So is Noll’s example that you can run a successful team while still leaving the office in time for family dinner, or at least to see your family before bedtime.

Dungy also left his playing days with something more than good advice: an enhanced faith. He joined a Bible study led by teammate Donnie Shell, and when his playing career ended, his faith had grown so much that he was at peace with what for many would be an anxious time. “By that time, my faith had gotten to a point where I didn’t know what was next, but I wasn’t worried or concerned,” he said.

Over the years, Dungy’s Christian faith manifested itself as self-confidence that served him well as a coach. His faith meant he both believed that God had a vision for him, and that his self-worth was not connected to football success, but what he did to influence society with the platform football provided.

Later, it would keep Dungy even-keeled and committed to his leadership philosophy. Coaches have powerful incentives to sleep in the office and yell at their players — it looks like they’re trying harder. But that’s not Dungy’s personality. His intelligence, persistence and confidence more than made up for any lack of histrionics on the sidelines. “Winning is going to solve all that anyway,” he said. “If you win, whatever you do, your personality is going to be seen as a strength. Same thing, when you lose, it’s going to be a weakness and the reason why you didn’t win.” 

In addition, Dungy’s faith allowed him to worry less about appearances and more about how his leadership would affect his own family, his players, their families and his ability to influence minds.

Vincent never played for Dungy other than at the Pro Bowl, but he says dozens of players have shared stories of Dungy giving them time off for family matters without guilt. Dungy’s offseason practice regimen — a “less is more” concept — was so popular with players that the NFLPA later negotiated to implement it in the union contract, then-Colts President Bill Polian said.

“He taught me that you can be demanding without being demeaning,” said retired Colts center Jeff Saturday. “I learned a ton from that. To be encouraging and try to raise and elevate other people, without having to yell or intimidate, for the NFL at the time, that was kind of the opposite of what most coaches were doing.”

■ ■ ■ 

Dungy’s style cost him a head coaching job on at least one occasion; an owner he declined to name said he wanted more passion. In the early 1990s, it was becoming conspicuous that he hadn’t been offered a head coaching position despite his success for four years as a defensive coordinator in Minnesota under Dennis Green, leading the NFL in total defense in 1993 and helping the Vikings reach the playoffs three times.

By age 25, Dungy had started his NFL coaching career.getty images

In January 1996, Dungy interviewed for the head coaching spot in Tampa Bay (see sidebar). His understated personality failed to impress general manager Rich McKay, who remembers that Dungy “had absolutely no sales pitch. He had a plan. He had a vision. It was pretty clear and it was well-stated. But it wasn’t enthusiastic.”

Still, Dungy’s résumé was too much for McKay and owner Malcolm Glazer to ignore. Tampa Bay announced Dungy as its new head coach that month, and it wasn’t long before his faith and confidence in the team was infecting the entire organization. 

Five weeks into Dungy’s debut season, the long-suffering Bucs were winless and looking more hopeless with each passing week. Senior club leaders gathered after the Detroit Lions handed them a 27-0 indignity. “There was a sense that we may never win a game, and the general tone of the meeting was: We gotta shake it up,” McKay says.

But then Dungy took the floor. “Tony gave a very rare, very passionate speech,” McKay remembers. “He said: ‘We’re just going to stay the course, we’re going to stick with the way we set it up, keep teaching it, and I don’t want to hear about it doing anything different.’”

The Bucs won the next week, beating the Vikings. And though they then lost three more games in a row, they closed the year by going 5-2. Suddenly, everybody in the building couldn’t wait for 1997. “We left that year absolutely knowing what was coming,” said McKay.

What came next were four playoff berths in the next five seasons, a foundation that resulted in the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy in 2003, the year after Dungy’s departure.

■ ■ ■ 

Despite taking over a franchise that had only been to the playoffs three times in its first 20 seasons of existence and topping that total in his six years in charge, Dungy was fired by the Glazer family after the 2001 season ended with a third straight playoff loss. Dungy says he’ll always be grateful to the Glazers for giving him the opportunity, but admits some lingering frustration. He promised consistent winning and a franchise to be proud of, which he felt he had delivered; also, Glazer wouldn’t release his defensive assistants from their contracts to follow Dungy.

He was unemployed for eight days.

Within hours of his dismissal, Irsay and Dungy talked by phone. Polian recalls Dungy filling a football need — the simple Tampa-2 defensive scheme was perfect for a team that had made the offensive talent a financial priority, and his teams played disciplined, low-penalty games.

But Irsay and Dungy bonded philosophically too, sharing a goal of using football as a platform to change the community. “And the bigger we win, the more we could affect the world for good,” Irsay said.

“He said, and I quote, ‘I can fix it,’” Irsay remembers. “And I had no doubts. You knew that not only was he saying it, he believed it. Not only that, but he had a plan to execute it and he would execute it.”

Two years after making history as the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl in 2007, Dungy joined NBC Sports as an analyst (below).getty images

Dungy guided the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three years, and they opened the 2005 season as the best team in the league. With quarterback Peyton Manning in his prime, Indianapolis started 14-0, winning by an average of 15 points. Dungy still calls it the best team he ever coached.

Even after a loss on Dec. 18, Indianapolis remained a heavy favorite to reach the Super Bowl. Dungy’s life seemed to be full of optimism. Four days later, however, everything changed — his oldest son, James, was found dead at age 18 from suicide in his apartment near Tampa.

Irsay led the team’s contingent south to mourn with the Dungys, and then they tried to put the season back together. In their first round of the playoffs, the shell-shocked Colts lost a nail-biter to the Steelers.

Few knew at the time that Dungy had considered retirement before the season. But his son’s death, rather than push him closer to retirement, made him want to prove a point to the world.

“As Christians, we talk about your Christian faith and putting your trust in the Lord, not getting too high or too low,” Dungy said. “And that’s great when you’re winning, and winning playoff games, but now there’s a major death in the family. This is a down time. I just didn’t want to have anyone think my faith is cheap. So that was part of the driving force: That you face tough times as well as the great times, and you face them the same way.”

A year later, the Colts again won the AFC South and reached the conference championship game. Down 21-3 to the Patriots in the second quarter, Indianapolis roared back to tie the score, then overcame three more New England leads to win 38-34 in the biggest comeback ever in a conference title game.

The most memorable part of the day for Dungy came after it ended, when he and his large contingent of supporters went to dinner at Palamino in downtown Indianapolis and stayed late into the night.

“There were probably 30 of us,” he said. “It was my relatives, our family, a couple close friends and they kept it open for us, and staff stayed the whole time. … We just talked about all the disappointments and the near misses over the last 10 years, and how we were behind by three scores and had to come back, and now we’re going to the Super Bowl. It was just incredible.”

getty images

Two weeks later, the Colts pulled away from the Bears in the second half to win Super Bowl XLI, the franchise’s first title in 36 years. More significantly, that win made Dungy the first Black head coach to win the Super Bowl, a deeply meaningful place in history for the man who couldn’t believe he wasn’t drafted 30 years earlier.

Irsay said that season validated Dungy’s decision to stay on the job amid the tragedy of the prior year. “Intuitively he knew that the best way to heal himself and his family was to keep coaching, to do what God gave him the talents to do.”  

■ ■ ■ 

After two more seasons, both of which included trips to the playoffs, Dungy retired, looking forward to spending time with his large family, which includes three biological children with his wife of 39 years, Lauren, and eight children they’ve adopted since 2000. He planned church activities and more work with his nonprofit, All Pro Dad, a Family First initiative that he helped found in 1997.

But NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol pursued him for an analyst position on “Football Night in America.” Dungy demurred, pointing out his near-total lack of charisma. (“He could put you to sleep in a pregame speech,” says Saturday.)

That’s the point, Flood told him.

“There was not one compelling sound bite from him in all the year of coaching, because he was being smart and making sure everything he said didn’t come back to cause chaos and discord in the locker room,” Flood said. “That’s who we wanted: Tony Dungy, a leader of men.”

Some early tests went badly. Dungy was nervous. He told Flood he was accustomed to having a clicker in his hand when he went over game tape. So Flood called the Colts and asked for the actual clicker to make him feel more like a coach. It all came together. Dungy soon bonded with Rodney Harrison and then-host Dan Patrick, knowing the importance of synchronicity in a team environment. 

Dungy has evolved into a reliable cog in NBC’s dominant Sunday Night Football team, though like a coach, he knows his weaknesses. He still needs to work on being concise. “Sam says make your point and get out — land your punch,” Dungy says 12 years later.

Dungy joined NBC colleagues Chris Simms (left) and Mike Tirico for some preseason shop talk at Foster’s, a Tampa haircutter.Amy Pezzicara / Pezz Photo

The turn toward broadcasting was unexpected, but it’s worked out perfectly for Dungy. It’s kept him in the public eye, allowing him to leverage his celebrity gravitas for his religious, parenting and coaching work, while leaving more time for his family than coaching ever could. 

After leaving Cleveland’s practice, Dungy called Justin. He couldn’t wait to tell his teenage son that he had gotten him some cool stuff from his favorite team. Another crowd of well-wishers awaited in Canton, where he would see his longtime quarterback from Indianapolis, Peyton Manning, get his own bust in Canton, before Dungy could return home to Tampa and the people who give him his greatest joy.

Inside their spacious house, Dungy is just dad. Outside those walls, he is something like the NFL’s coach emeritus, a leader whose wisdom is sought at all positions of the league’s hierarchy. As Flood says, “Most of all, Tony Dungy makes you want to be a better person.”   

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