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Mentor and 'mentee' square off

But it's no bitter matchup when Tony Dungy's Colts meet Herm Edwards' Jets on Saturday.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

TAMPA -- They sat there in the office at One Buc Place, a 20-year friendship behind them and no idea what was ahead, certainly not that 61/2 years later they would be on opposing sidelines in a Jets-Colts playoff game.

Herm Edwards had decided years earlier he wasn't going to be a coach anymore, but he was a Bucs assistant for the simplest and sincerest reason, because Tony Dungy asked him to.

They had grown close since meeting on the 1977 college all-star game circuit, tight enough they considered themselves like brothers. They had talked often about the chance to work together, and there they were -- Dungy as a coach for the first time, Edwards as his top aide. "He needed me," Edwards said. "That's what friends are for."

Seemingly, it could not have been better. Realistically, with an 0-5 start to the 1996 season and Tampa Stadium half-empty, it could not have seemed much worse.

So one day, Edwards walked into his friend's office. "Why did you do this to me?" he asked. "We're friends, but we're not that good of friends. You're killing me right now."

"We sat in there and laughed and said, "Hey, we're going to be okay.' " We really believed that," Edwards said this week.

"Obviously, what he did for that franchise, that's amazing. It really is. That was tough when you went in the stadium. Kickoff is at 1 o'clock; at 1:15 they let the people in. It was crazy. Then all of a sudden two years later you're a playoff team; they build a new stadium. Finally took the pirate, walked him off the gangplank, got new uniforms. Go down there now, it's unbelievable.

"Tony was the reason for that. I don't care what anybody says. I know. I was there with him. I know what he had to go through. I know what he did for that community. It was unbelievable what he's done. Now to leave and go to Indianapolis, his first year win 10 games, get his team into the playoffs, that's a heck of a feat by him. That's who he is as a coach."

Edwards should know, because he isn't much different. Dungy has been a big brother, a mentor, a colleague, an inspiration. "Probably the only reason I'm standing here is because of him," Edwards said.

Sure, Edwards is a bit more outspoken than Dungy (who isn't?), a tad more fiery and dramatic, certainly more willing to gamble.

But deep down they have similar styles, similar schemes, similar systems.

"We're both old-school," Dungy said. "We have the same philosophy and believe in the same things that are important. We both believe in fundamental football and winning in a simple kind of way. We both believe in how you do things rather than the end result because things will come if you do things right."

Not surprisingly, they also have had similar success.

Having been unceremoniously dumped after leading the Bucs to the playoffs in four of his last five seasons, Dungy took over an underachieving Colts team and improved it on the run. Edwards, who got his chance to be a coach when the Jets hired him after the 2000 season, has done all right, too, putting the New Yorkers in the playoffs his first two seasons.

Saturday, they meet as head coaches for the first time in an opening-round game draped with social and societal implications. It's friend versus friend. It's teacher against student. (Or, as Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said, "the mentor facing his mentee.") It's the first postseason meeting between two black head coaches, which both say should be a boost to the league's minority hiring efforts.

"It's going to be exciting," Dungy said. "It's going to be fun for me personally. It's like family bragging rights. You don't want to lose that game."

"We both have admiration for each other," Edwards said. "We respect each other tremendously. There's nothing I wouldn't do for this guy. I think he feels the same about me. That's the hard one this week. It's like two brothers playing basketball. You go out in the back yard and you play, and when it's over with you sit around the table and you talk about it."

The two talk often, Dungy helping Edwards turn around a Jets season that started 2-5 by reminding him of their tough times in Tampa, Edwards easing Dungy through the awkward dismissal by the Bucs. ("You don't show a man dignity after he's been there and he's supposed to be your head coach, that bothers me a little bit," Edwards said. "But I'm not the owner, and I'm not the people that make those decisions. I think there is a right way to handle things and a wrong way to handle things.")

Monday night they spoke about 20 minutes, and when they were done Lia Edwards chatted with Lauren Dungy, but that will be it until they meet Saturday.

Not that it would really matter.

"There's not going to be a lot of secrets," Dungy said. "I know Herman, he knows me, and we aren't people that are going to change. We're not going to come up with something totally different just because we're in the playoffs or because we're playing the Jets. I think they win because they do what they do very well and we do what we do."

Because the two are so close and so competitive it's hard to predict what's going to happen. The Bucs' John Lynch and Barber joke that the only sure thing is there will be lots of Cover 2, a defensive coverage scheme both favor.

"Something that Tony used to say, and Herm said many times, is that games like this are what football is supposed to be," Lynch said.

Both Edwards and Dungy say that as much as they want to win, there will be some solace, some satisfaction in knowing the other will be a step closer to a championship. In a way, getting to Saturday's game was the accomplishment.

"Just for us to meet at the 50 -- it will be something," Edwards said. "It will be very important for him and for me. It will be a heck of a day."

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