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There's a tear behind that smile. Really.

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

I am worried about Tony Dungy.

I fear he is not coping well with this sudden unemployment.

They say the loss of one's job will elicit emotions similar to the stages of grieving. There is anger and denial. Hopelessness and frustration. Powerful feelings that must be confronted and conquered.

And look at Dungy, brave little soldier that he is, pretending to carry on in the face of this obvious distress.

He is wooed one day by the Panthers. He is courted the next by the Colts. He puts off his anguish to dilly dally with the President at the White House.

Nope, this can't be healthy.

Can you imagine the predicament Dungy is facing? Barely a week after being ousted as the Bucs coach and already weighed down with more job offers.

No time for self-pity. No time to work through feelings of shame. Just an endless jumble of first-class flights, fancy hotels and millionaire owners batting their eyelashes between the swordfish and creme brulee.

If only he were still in charge at One Buc Place, Dungy's life would have had so much more order to it.

It is late January, which means it would have been time for Dungy to sit down and decide how to fire his offensive coordinator.

Sure, it's a nasty business, but it's not like he hasn't any experience. There was the luau firing of Mike Shula in 2000. And the mutiny dismissal of Les Steckel in 2001. (Clyde Christensen, savvy observer that he is, shut his office door and left word that he was not to be disturbed until July.)

All Dungy had to do was figure out which way he wanted to go in 2002. Either put his career in the hands of Christensen for one more season or try his fourth coordinator in four years.

Then there is the question of contracts. Had Dungy been permitted to stay, he would not have to bother with the annoyance of a new deal. No sir. That one year remaining on his old contract would have been plenty good.

Oh, you can say that without an extension he would have made a lame duck look visionary. That the fans, the media and the entire North American Glazer population would have been breathing down his neck all season.

But isn't that a small price to pay in exchange for the honor of trying to exceed the expectations created by your own success?

Alas, Dungy was cast aside and, at last glance, was traveling the countryside with rumors to his left and speculation to his right.

They say he will end up in Indianapolis. They say it could be announced as soon as today. And it makes you wonder if it is not a classic case of clinical avoidance.

Instead of dealing with the emotions of his dismissal from Tampa Bay, Dungy will cover it up with a long-term contract. He will mask his pain by accepting a salary that might double what he made in Tampa Bay.

He will be introduced at a news conference where they will talk with reverence of his character and accomplishments, as if working for a grateful and supportive employer means anything.

He will try to convince himself that he will be content with offensive coordinator Tom Moore -- a longtime friend whom Dungy has tried to hire in the past -- and that he will find happiness with Peyton Manning at quarterback. He will pretend that he can grow to appreciate an offense that outscored every team not led by Kurt Warner in 2002.

Argue, if you wish, that Dungy will be better off with the Colts. That he has a better chance of reviving a weak defense in Indianapolis than, say, Norv Turner would have of reviving a weak offense in Tampa Bay.

So what if the Colts have an easier schedule because of their fourth-place finish. So what if they choose higher in the draft. So what if Indianapolis suddenly looks more like a Super Bowl contender than Tampa Bay.

It's not always about winning, is it?

At least previous Bucs coaches understood the need to come to grips with their dismissals. Ray Perkins went home to Tuscaloosa to chat up some cows. Leeman Bennett made a name for himself in RV sales. Richard Williamson? Did the Bucs really hire him as head coach?

The point is, there is a protocol to this business. Dismissed coaches should act humble and owners should appear decisive.

Which explains why the Glazers have been scurrying all about.

Lose a playoff game on Saturday. Fire the franchise's most successful coach on Monday. Lie to the world on Tuesday. Get publicly humiliated on Friday.

Busy, busy, busy.

Dungy, however, has refused to follow the typical fired-coach script. No visible bitterness. No audible anger.

From here, it looks like Dungy is simply prepared to start over again.

Less than 10 days after being fired, he has packed up his philosophies. He has loaded his sincerity next to his loyalty, and will carry his dedication along with his compassion to another town.

Aren't you little worried?

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