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The biggest question Bucs owners should make Tony Dungy answer is: "Would you like to remain our coach?''
By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2002
TAMPA -- Say this much for Tony Dungy: He has made us forget what meaningless means.
And so the Bucs prepare for a football game with no definition. Tonight's glorified practice doesn't have anything to do with playoff seeding for either team. It doesn't have anything to do with division standings for either team. It doesn't have anything to do with home-field advantage or next season's schedule or Pro Bowl selections.
All it means is that finishing 10-6 is better than 9-7.
But not if 9-7 wins the rematch next weekend.
To be honest, we should not act as if such a game is an anomaly. Throughout their history, the Bucs have played tons of meaningless games. For instance, almost every game from 1982 to 1997.
If you are the Bucs, however, there is one way to make tonight's game essential. You can use it to introduce your next coach.
Fellow by the name of Tony Dungy. Maybe you've heard of him.
Isn't it time to end all the nonsense? Isn't it time put an end to the speculation, to the online gossip columns, to the unanswered question in the team's locker room? Isn't it time to give Dungy a return ticket?
Here's an idea: Introduce the defense before tonight's game. Let the public-address system go quiet for a minute, then announce that Dungy will return as coach next season. He should not be allowed to take the field at Raymond James Stadium wondering whether this will be the last time.
Given Steve Spurrier's sudden free agency, given the growing heat of the Bill Parcells rumors, this would not necessarily be the popular thing to do. Only the right thing.
Does anyone else feel they are viewing an episode of the Dating Game with Dungy, Spurrier and Parcells as the contestants? "Coach No. 1, how do you feel about sunsets, puppies and 70-yard touchdown passes?"
Give the Glazers credit for this much: They have not jumped to conclusions. They have stayed in the shadows and maintained silence while this mystifying season played out to its confounding conclusions. They did not talk about this season's coach, and they did not talk about next season's They were not Red McCombs, assuring everyone that Denny Green would have a next season, then making sure he didn't finish this one.
Now it is time to settle this. Very soon, the Glazers no longer will appear patient. They will appear indecisive. No longer will they be judging which way the wind blows. They will be letting a good man twist in it.
Next weekend, the Bucs will enter the playoffs for the third straight season, for the fourth time in five years. And if you dare to want for more, it is because Dungy has allowed it.
For owners, there should be a rule. You never replace a coach in a season in which he has reached the playoffs. History says that it usually doesn't leave an owner looking intelligent. Most teams that have tried it have taken large steps backward before going forward.
Yes, there are impressive options. Remember, however, that you are not talking about changing one man. You are talking about changing an organization.
Take Parcells. You, of course, have heard the Parcells rumors. If you walk slowly down the street, a Parcells rumor might hit you in the eye. And why not? Parcells is, without question, a superb coach.
But think about it. If Parcells comes, which players go?
If Parcells comes, he will bring with him a series of questions. How long will it take? And how long will he stay? And what does all of this do to that shrinking window of opportunity we all have discussed so often?
Take Spurrier. He is there if the Glazers want him. This time, an owner won't have to convince him to leave his beloved Gators; he is gone already.
But would Spurrier take an adjustment period to the pros? Would his with-us-or-against-us mentality work on this level?
Coaches view players differently. Does a new coach see Mike Alstott as a strong running back or a slow one? Does he see Warrick Dunn as quick or as small? Does he like Warren Sapp as much as the current staff? Does he use Derrick Brooks the same way? How about Keyshawn Johnson? Brad Johnson? Ronde Barber?
There is a third choice. Dungy. The Glazers can choose to stay the course. Dungy doesn't have Parcells' legend. His team will never score touchdowns like Spurrier's.
But here's a question to consider: Which of the three men give the Bucs a better chance to win this season?
Surely, the Glazers must realize this by now. Dungy still owns the Bucs locker room. That, in itself, should hint there could be trouble ahead if you change coaches. No, no one is suggesting players get to elect their coaches. Most elections are won because the candidate promises to make things easier. But it should count for something.
It is true Dungy should have some questions to answer between this season and next. The team is built for consistency, but it isn't consistent. It does not develop offensive linemen or wide receivers. There are gaping holes in the offensive coaching staff. As coach, Dungy is responsible for all of it. The Glazers have every right to ask Dungy tough questions about how he would seek to solve the problems.
On the other hand, Dungy is also responsible for that strange feeling you will get as you watch a game without stakes. Around here, we aren't used to that anymore. We're used to playing for something.
This time, nothing is on the line. Dungy's job shouldn't be, either.