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Dungy's Tampa ties still strong

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002


WASHINGTON -- After an invigorating 4-1 start as Colts coach, Tony Dungy has lost two straight, to Bill Cowher's Steelers in Pittsburgh and Steve Spurrier's Redskins in Washington.

Quite respected, widely beloved during six seasons as Tampa Bay coach with a 54-42 record and four playoff appearances, Dungy is now in a challenging, somewhat lonely transition to his new opportunity in Indiana while his family continues to live in Florida.

Home is an Indy apartment.

"It's not great being away from my wife and children so much," he said, "but Lauren and I wanted as little disruption as possible for our oldest, Tiara, who is 17 and will graduate from Berkeley (Prep) next spring.

"Our sons, James and Eric, were close to many Bucs players and coaches, having done a lot of growing up around One Buccaneer Place, but now they can't wait to move on, getting settled in Indianapolis and finding new friends among the Colts.

"In our family, we work at understanding it is part of the (NFL) business when a coach has to move on. We love Tampa Bay. Someday, we'll be back. That is where Lauren and I want to wind up. What happened (with the Bucs) wasn't much fun for me, as I was dismissed, but unquestionably it is tougher on your loved ones."

For a few moments, as 2002 dawned, Dungy thought about retiring. Staying in Tampa. Doing charity work. "If an NFL offer that I felt totally comfortable with had not come along," he said, "I could have found a lot of satisfaction in working with an organization called Family First and also a prison ministry."

Indy soon called.

Tony talked for 35 minutes the evening before his Colts lost 26-21 to Washington. Not much pure football chatter, although Dungy spoke of continuing relationships with some Tampa Bay players. Mostly it was about a dedicated, gentle, 47-year-old man searching for new joys in Indiana.

Dungy's professional energies are now poured into the Colts, but during games he "will glance at stadium scoreboards" to see how his former Bucs are doing.

"You can't climb through what we did in six years and not have lasting attachments," Dungy said, a proud little grin emerging. "I saved a video from our first Tampa Bay season, playing before 26,000 at old Tampa Stadium. A reminder from where we came. I'm now in the AFC, they're NFC, so most weeks it's pretty easy for me to root for the Buccaneers.

"I still have a lot of their cell phone numbers. I talk with several of the Bucs, but not during the season since that wouldn't seem totally right."

Early every summer, Dungy writes a personal, motivating letter to Warren Sapp, a sometimes controversial All-Pro. Even in June after Tony had moved on, the special delivery showed up at the defensive tackle's house, which happens to be next door to the Dungy home.

"Warren always sets high goals, but I would push them even higher," Dungy said. "I would tell Sapp what I expected of him and how I see the next season playing out. This year, I pushed the thought that Warren should be thinking about the Pro Football Hall of Fame and what he needs to get there.

"From what I've seen from afar, Sapp appears to be on a great track. But there are other, non-football things about this really smart fellow that I would like to also see evolve. Warren is always a work in progress."

It is, however, at the Dungy house, even in today's disjointed state, where Tony's personal pushes are most evident. The tone is optimum when it's his wife and children.

"Lauren and I have talked a lot, including our kids in the conversations, about dealing with the many highs and a few lows that can be associated with being a football coach," Dungy said, wearing a blue Colts sweat shirt. "Eric, James and Tiara are understanding better all the time. Lauren is a champ.

"When we left Minnesota (in 1996) after four years with the Vikings (as defensive coordinator), even though I was going to Florida to become a head coach, Eric, age 4 at the time, cried his eyes out over having to leave (wide receivers) Cris Carter and Jake Reed behind.

"Sure, it hurt them a lot this year when I had to leave the Bucs, but they are adjusting well. This is my 23rd year in coaching (in six cities). All the Dungys understand how it can work. It will be wonderful when, next summer, we go house hunting in Indy and get closer to really being reunited."

Their home at Avila Country Club north of Tampa has not been put on the market. The only neighbors the Dungys have on a short street of sports mansions are Sapp and Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli. I suggested that Tony and Lauren might already have their retirement place. "Not a bad idea," he said with a smile.

Lauren flies to Indy for visits on weekends with Eric and James. They go to most Colts games but did skip the Redskins trip since playing a Monday night game in Pittsburgh was followed by a late Sunday game in Washington. "To attend both would have cost Eric and James too much school time," Dungy said. "They stayed in Tampa and were not happy campers."

They talk daily by phone, often more than once. "Parenting becomes a different challenge when it's a long-distance thing," Dungy said, "but it's my wife who is doing seven-eighths of it. Worst of all for my family has been the separation."

What a rare, bittersweet 2002 it has been for Dungy, son of Michigan educators, part of a family deep in academic achievements. Dungy has often said he is least endowed, with a mere bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota.

His mom died in January as Bucs ownership was deciding to fire him. "Being a Christian, it is always my belief that the Lord has a great plan," he said. "There have been some really strong family benefits due to being in Indianapolis. Like my dad being able to come down often, with his home in Jackson, Mich., not far away."

Wil Dungy, 76, is a retired zoology/biology teacher. He comes to all Colts home games and makes some trips with the team. "It helps so much, both him and me," Dungy said. "Dad and Mom were great partners for so long."

Tony's sister, also named Lauren, is a gynecologist. She was practicing in Kalamazoo, Mich., but accepted a position in Indianapolis four months before Dungy was named Colts coach.

"It helps to visit Lauren and her husband, Wesley, who is an academic counselor," Dungy said. Home-cooked meals are a part of that. Dungy never fires the stove at his apartment, opting to eat mostly at the nearby Colts complex.

Back in Tampa, there are now five Dungy children. Two are adopted infants, Jade and Jordan. "My wife especially was not ready to have a home without little guys around," said the coach. "It's more to love. We have so much for which to be thankful."

Indy has a gem.

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