tampabay.com

Finally, Dungy in big game

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
Published January 22, 2007


INDIANAPOLIS - Turns out, Tony Dungy looks kind of nice wearing confetti.

Who knew?

Dungy moved around the field of the RCA Dome, a champion at last, and the bits of paper swirled around him like shredded bits of criticism. He moved aimlessly, hugging players and coaches and anyone else available as if the firmer he embraced the people around him, the firmer he embraced the moment.

Tony Dungy is going to the Super Bowl.

Finally.

Dungy kept smiling, and he kept talking, and people kept spinning him around to share his joy. The Coach Who Couldn't Win the Big One finally won a giant one, and you could feel the warmth of the moment all the way back to Tampa Bay.

This was Dungy's finest moment, not only for the size of the victory but for the way it occurred. It was a game to answer his critics, a game to slay his demons, a game to redefine his reputation.

Four times, his Indianapolis Colts came from behind to beat the New England Patriots, the closest thing to a dynasty the NFL has seen lately, 38-34 on Sunday in the AFC title game. That was coach Bill Belichick on the other sideline. That was quarterback Tom Brady in the other huddle.

And Dungy changed everything.

His Colts were 18 points behind, and Dungy calmed his team. His quarterback, Peyton Manning, spent most of the first half doing a Trent Dilfer impersonation, and Dungy redirected his star. His defense seemed on its heels for most of the day, and Dungy found a way to slow the Patriots just enough.

This is what a big-game coach does. He finds a way to lift his team to accomplish the improbable. He instills it with stubbornness, with resolve, with belief. He guides his team through the turbulence and, somehow, he finds a smooth place to land.

Dungy managed all of that Sunday. If you are keeping score, yeah, this was a big game. And yeah, Dungy won it.

Any questions?

"What an awesome feeling," Dungy said in the dressing room. "It was a great feeling, especially the way it happened."

If you have spent any time at all around Dungy, how could you not feel good for the guy at a moment such as this? If you have answered a thousand e-mails suggesting that Dungy was lacking something that great coaches have, that he was too soft or too passive or just too darned nice, how could you not smile at the sight?

"A nation rejoiced over this," said Clyde Christensen, Dungy's longtime assistant. "Who could have written a script like this? It was a win for the good guys."

Oh, there for a while, you could hear the critics sharpening their knives. The Colts fell behind 21-3, and it looked as if the Patriots were to play name-that-score. Even Dungy's friends were going to have a hard time explaining another silent, somber walk from the field.

But if Dungy has said it once, he has said it a thousand times. You keep calm. You maintain your composure. You believe in what you are doing.

He has been gone from Tampa Bay's sideline for five years, and he was only there for six. Still, he is as highly regarded in the neighborhood where he used to live as the one where he lives now.

So what did you think as you watched Dungy in the glow of the moment?

Did you think about his heritage? Yes, that matters today. In two weeks, Dungy and Bears coach Lovie Smith, his former assistant with the Bucs, will be the first African-American head coaches in Super Bowl history. It is as important now as it was 20 years ago when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback in the game.

Did you think about compassion? After all, it was only 13 months ago that Dungy buried his son, Jamie, and the wounds have not completely healed. Perhaps they never will. But you get the feeling that Jamie would have enjoyed the view on Sunday afternoon. You also got the feeling Dungy thought about that, too.

"I thought about my mom and dad and my son before the game," Dungy said quietly. "I know they were watching, and I know they're proud."

Did you think about character? For years, Dungy's critics have been harsh after a January loss, as if it were Dungy's flaws that doomed his Colts. If only he kicked a few more sideline markers, if only he snarled for the cameras a little more often, perhaps they would have been kinder. Instead, the amateur psychologists of the world made it sound as if Dungy was the kid in fifth grade who never fought back when you took his lunch money.

There was a moment after Sunday's game when Dungy was asked about whether Manning had answered his own critics. Dungy's answer seemed to speak for his quarterback and himself.

"It probably won't shut anyone up until we win the Super Bowl," he said. "It would be, 'He can't win the Super Bowl.' "

Did you think about conviction? Most of all, that is who Dungy is. He is a man who believes, even when his friends wanted him to do something else, to try something else, to be something else. If you wonder, no, he never thought about changing.

"I've seen it so often," Dungy said. "It's just a matter of doing what you should do. You don't have to elevate what you do because it's the playoffs. You just have to play the way you play in a pressurized situation."

That explains Dungy, his arms folded, his face passive. Perhaps you recognized the sight. The closest thing Dungy came to histrionics was during the second quarter when he moved down the sideline telling each player, "It's still our time."

Turns out, it was.

Dungy's, too.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.