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Dungy's fingerprints remain on team he sculpted

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Forget about arguing. It is no longer necessary.

By now we know the dumping of Tony Dungy was among the best moves the Glazers have made. Second only, perhaps, to the hiring of Tony Dungy.

Even on this day, that point should not be overlooked. Even with the Bucs in the Super Bowl and Dungy at home, thousands of miles away.

In the story of this Super Bowl season, Jon Gruden is destiny's hero. The fair-haired boy who came home to deliver everyone's fondest wish.

It is only natural to celebrate Gruden's work and applaud his genius. But to fixate on his accomplishments is like skipping to the final chapter of a great novel. It cannot be fully appreciated without the rest of the story. And it was Dungy, of course, who wrote the first dozen chapters.

"Is it important not to forget Tony Dungy?" Warren Sapp repeats the question as it is asked. "It's important for you people not to forget him. Because these players are never going to forget him or the things he did.

"What was this team before he came here? Twelve out of 13 seasons with double-digit losses? Thirteen losing seasons in a row? He's the one who got it started. He's the one who built this from the ground up. Nobody around here is going to forget that. From Malcolm Glazer to the Glazer sons to Jon Gruden. They all know what Tony Dungy meant, and they've all talked about it."

You may argue it is an indictment of Dungy's faults to see the Bucs reach the Super Bowl so soon after his firing. You would be right about that.

You might also argue it is a validation of his work to see the Bucs reach the Super Bowl using so many of the pieces he put in place.

That, too, would be correct.

Dungy changed this franchise's identity. He gave it direction and introduced dignity to a locker room that, for too long, had gone without.

In the 20 years before his arrival the Bucs had three winning seasons. In his six seasons in Tampa Bay there were five seasons at .500 or above.

Dungy brought something special to the team and the community, as well. It wasn't so much schemes or plans, although that was a part of it.

No, Dungy's greatest gift was his sincerity. He got the players to believe in him. And, soon after, they began to believe in themselves.

"Tony did a tremendous job in the time he was with us," general manager Rich McKay said. "He was the right coach at the right time for this franchise. He gave us stability and helped build what we started in 1995."

The Bucs are in the Super Bowl because their defense was better than any other in the NFL. This is the unit Dungy built.

In retrospect, the defense Dungy created has much in common with his personality. Basic more than flashy. Conservative more than daring. It stressed speed and fundamentals. And Dungy, along with McKay, set out to acquire the type of players that would make it work.

Ten of the 11 starters on defense in the NFC Championship Game were brought in during Dungy's tenure. So too were all the defensive coaches.

It is not difficult to see a loyalty in the locker room that goes beyond a normal player-coach or boss-employee relationship. Dungy used to hand-write letters to players, both praising and prodding them. Months after his dismissal, months after he had been hired by the Colts, Dungy mailed a letter to Derrick Brooks on the eve of training camp.

"So much of what we do, so much of who we are is because of Tony," safety John Lynch said. "A lot of people would be bitter with the way things turned out, but Tony's not that type of person. I know he's got the biggest smile on his face right now. He taught all of us about football and he taught us about life."

Dungy took the Bucs a great distance in a short time. But he could not, and some might say would not, deliver them any further.

His conservative tendencies had overwhelmed the offense. The offense feared failure instead of embracing success. To complicate matters, Dungy was too loyal to offensive assistants who clearly were in over their heads.

You cannot dispute there was at least cause for Dungy's dismissal. The Glazers had invested too much in the franchise to let this window of opportunity close without exploring every option.

You can, however, argue with the way it was handled. For all Dungy had done, he was owed the courtesy of knowing his job was on the line. He deserved better than the backroom deals brokered by Bill Parcells. During his final months on the job Dungy got calls from friends who told him Parcells was putting a staff together to bring to Tampa Bay.

By the time the Parcells deal fell through, it was too late to save Dungy. So the Bucs had a playoff contender and no one to call the shots. As it turns out, it was the best thing that could have happened.

Gruden was pried away from the Raiders and has delivered everything Dungy could not. He reinvented the offense and came up with an attack that has been serviceable, if not sensational. Gruden also created a sense of urgency among players who might have grown too comfortable in years past.

But the first thing Gruden did? That may have been the most important.

From the start he wanted players to understand he was not in Tampa to denigrate their past but to chart their future. So in one of his early team meetings Gruden paid homage to the work done by Dungy before him. And he has continued to offer Dungy credit every step along the way.

This is no longer Tony Dungy's team.

But it is his legacy.

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