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Travels with Tony

Times sports columnist Gary Shelton shares highlights of six seasons trailing one of the NFL's most honorable men.

By GARY SHELTON
Published January 25, 2007


Dec. 31, 1999: For me, the memories of a bygone era begin on a cold night late in the last century.

It was the night of Y2K, and the forecast was chaos. The Bucs had traveled to Chicago a day early for their game against the Bears, and in a few hours, we would find out if the computers were all going to explode.

This probably won't surprise you, but Tony Dungy seemed fairly calm about that, too. Dungy and I sat in my hotel room, talking about the past and the present. I was working on a story comparing the Bucs defense to that of the old Steelers. Dungy was there to weigh the merits of Derrick Brooks vs. Jack Ham, of Warren Sapp vs. Joe Greene, of Mel Blount vs. John Lynch. Frankly, it was a story most coaches wouldn't get near, especially not with the playoffs approaching.

Yet, for almost an hour, Dungy compared players. He was thoughtful. He was reasoned. He was honest. In other words, he was Dungy.

This is what the jobs do, his and mine. It turns you into traveling companions of a sort. For a half-dozen years, I trailed him from stadium to stadium. I wrote about wins and losses. I praised his defense and criticized his offense. All in all, I'm sure the association was more fun for me than it was for him.

That's the best part about seeing an old friend do well, isn't it? It stirs up the memories of other good days, too. For those of us in Tampa Bay, Dungy's success with the Colts has opened the photo album. We had ourselves some times, didn't we? We shared a few snapshots.

Sept. 29, 1996: Dungy's back was to the wall. Back then, you wouldn't have expected to find a Bucs coach anywhere else. He had been a coach for five games, and the Bucs had lost them all. In three games, they had not scored a touchdown. In two, they lost on fourth-quarter scores.

This was probably my first real insight into Dungy's demeanor. He and I were outside his office at old Houlihan's Stadium, moments after a 27-0 loss to Detroit. His voice was calm. His chin was high.

He had expected success from the start. In his first five games, he said, he thought he would be 3-2, maybe 4-1. Yes, he said, he second-guessed himself. Yes, he was concerned that if the defeats continued, the doubts might set in. Yes, he said, he believed things would change.

Eventually, the Bucs would believe, too.

Nov. 18, 1996: The Bucs were a long way from home on the day everything changed.

Tampa Bay was limping along with a 2-8 record, and it was in San Diego, where it always lost, and it was behind 14-0. Just another day, you might have thought. And then it wasn't.

The Bucs scored 25 of the next 28 to win, and suddenly, their young defensive players seemed to have arrived.

After the game, I told Dungy I was almost afraid to say it, but the Bucs looked like a team that had turned the corner.

"That's what I told the team," he said. "That when we look back on this years from now, we may say this was the game that turned things around."

More than a decade later, it still seems that way.

Dec. 29, 1997: The night the fireworks went off, Tony Dungy was a spectator.

It was the last night of the old Tampa Stadium, and the lights were exploding in the sky, and Brad Culpepper was running around the field with a flag. For the first time in 15 years, the Bucs had won a playoff game.

This was Dungy's sweetest win with the Bucs, that first playoff victory. Winning was so new, so unexpected, in those days. Only a year before, Dungy's players had poured Gatorade on him after finishing 6-10.

Still, Dungy stayed at arm's length, enjoying the moment without getting in the middle of it. This was for the players, he said. This was for the fans.

Dec. 27, 1998: In one of those life-as-metaphor moments, a season was down the drain, and Tony was in the toilet.

The Bucs had just finished an 8-8 season, short of the playoffs, and Dungy was trying to dissect the disappointment. When we moved through the door from the interview room for a few more questions, we found ourselves in a large bathroom. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

I'm not sure a coach was ever more disappointed after a 35-0 victory. That Bucs team lacked focus, and Dungy took the blame. I asked him to grade himself. A C-minus, he said. Maybe a D-plus.

Here's an observation: Dungy hasn't missed the playoffs since.

Jan. 23, 2000: If ever there was a game to challenge a coach's calm, it came in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Rams following the 1999 season.

The Bucs were on the verge of upsetting a heavily favored Rams team in St. Louis, and then it happened. The most controversial call in team history led to the most disappointing defeat.

And still, Dungy kept his composure.

Yes, Dungy thought Bert Emanuel caught the ball. Yes, he was a bit miffed at the replay official.

Instead of ranting, however, Dungy kept insisting his team should not have let it come to that play. Other coaches might have yelled a little louder.

Oct. 28, 2001: Sometimes, there are warts. Sometimes, there is criticism.

In Dungy's final season, the Bucs were 2-3, and my thesaurus was out of synonyms for "awful." But the Bucs crushed Minnesota 41-14, and Dungy couldn't help but tweak a few of the writers in a corridor at Raymond James Stadium.

"Maybe we could get you guys to write that we aren't any good," Dungy said. "That seems to help."

"Gee," I said. "Maybe I should get a game ball."

Dungy looked at me and grinned.

"You got some votes," he said.

Jan. 15, 2002: He was no longer the coach, and the practice field he stared at was no longer his yard.

It was an hour after the news conference in which Dungy had been fired, and most of the reporters had gone. Dungy stood on the porch of the old One Buc, in the middle of the weights.

He was hurt, obviously. He never believed the stories that he was going to be fired. Long after his team's owners stopped believing in him, he still believed in them.

I stood next to him. After a while, I turned and said "congratulations."

He smiled and asked what I meant. I predicted, "You're going to go to the Colts, you're going to have a better quarterback and a better running back, and you're going to win a Super Bowl," I said.

Then I said thanks.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805 or at gshelton@sptimes.com