Dungy disciples

The key trait for those who 've learned from the coach? Character

Published January 28, 2007

Coaching trees are normally rooted in a scheme. Bill Walsh's grew out of the West Coast offense in San Francisco. Bill Parcells' sprouted from the 3-4 defense he developed with the Giants. But you have to dig a little deeper to see what makes coaches grow under Tony Dungy. "Coach Dungy's tree is built on character," Lions coach Rod Marinelli said.

"It's how you do things: treating people with respect, how you carry yourself. It's bigger than X's and O's. It's not the Tampa 2. It's how we taught the system, the belief, the passion and having the respect for the game."

Those traits will be on display all week at Super Bowl XLI in Miami, where Dungy's Colts are preparing to play Lovie Smith's Bears. They are the first two black coaches to reach the title game, a point of pride for both men.

In fact, Dungy and his disciples account for four of the six black coaches in the NFL, including Kansas City's Herm Edwards and recently hired Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

Not surprisingly, all come from the defensive side.

Smith, who coached linebackers for the Bucs from 1996-2000, exudes the same quiet confidence as his mentor. On the eve of the conference championship, Dungy sounded as concerned about Smith reaching the Super Bowl as he did his own team.

"I'm so happy that Lovie got there because he does things the right way," Dungy said. "He's going to get there with a lot of class, no profanity, no intimidation, but just helping his guys play the best that they can.

"That's the way I try to do it. And I think it's great that we're able to show the world not only that African-American coaches can do it, but Christian coaches can do it in a way that we can still win."

A beginning in Tampa

The Bucs weren't winners when Dungy took his first head-coaching job in 1996. Far from it. They had suffered through 13 straight losing seasons. Ownership of the team had been transferred to Malcolm Glazer, who threatened to relocate the franchise if he couldn't get a publicly financed stadium in Tampa.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Dungy assembled a coaching staff for the ages.

He found Smith at Ohio State, where he had spent just one season coaching defensive backs. Dungy needed him to switch to linebackers.

"I do remember that day," Smith said. "I drove down to Indianapolis (for the scouting combine), and I hoped I would get the job as much as anything. And luckily, he chose me on his staff. I've been thankful to him since then.

"He talked about wanting to get teachers on his staff. Instead of 'coach' he used the word 'teacher.' And that's what I've tried to do."

Edwards had been working in the front office of the Chiefs when Dungy persuaded him to coach defensive backs.

"It was a great staff to be on," Edwards said. "There was a lot of knowledge, a lot of energy, and we were all very detailed. We all worked closely together, and that was kind of the uniqueness of it.

"I can remember going out on the grass on the field and just walking around to show a guy where we wanted him aligned, whether it was 3 yards inside the hash or 2 yards outside the numbers. Whatever it was, we walked it out like we were the player. We just did it that way. We believed in details."

Dungy is a man of faith, and it has been unshakable. The quietude he displays masks a fierce competitive streak. But it was that calming effect the Bucs needed most when he took over.

Without raising his voice, his message was delivered loud and clear.

Marinelli, a defensive line coach hired from USC, needed only a few weeks to understand the standards Dungy demanded.

In the first week of training camp, Marinelli lobbied hard for a full-speed contact drill pitting three defensive linemen against five offensive linemen. Considering the oppressive heat and the violence of the drill, it was met with resistance from nearly everyone.

Consequently, that period of practice didn't go very well. Players were sluggish, and assignments were missed.

Marinelli passed Dungy after practice on the way to the cafeteria.

"After 5 feet, he turned and said, 'Coach Marinelli? That drill this morning. Did you just decide to walk through it first?' " Marinelli said. "He attacked my competitive nature. I said, 'No, Coach, that was a poor drill, a poorly organized drill. I take responsibility for that.'

"So it'll get better?" Dungy said.

"The way he said it was just brutal. You could've just shot me through the heart. But if you listen to the words, you'll be a better coach. If you have a competitive nature, you want to please him."

That's why it was so disappointing to Dungy and his staff when the Bucs were 0-5 before the bye week. Dungy made the players practice in pads when teams traditionally spare players a heavy workload. His team responded with an upset of the Vikings.

But three more losses followed before Dungy delivered a postgame speech that turned around the franchise.

"I apologize to the people in this room who have bought into what we are doing because there are guys in here who have not," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. I will see if we have the guys who can believe in what we are going to do."

Different roles

Edwards, who was Dungy's assistant head coach, is by nature more verbose. Dungy even tapped into that, allowing Edwards to deliver terse messages and the head coach to remain in control.

"Tony was the good cop, and I was the bad cop," Edwards said. "The one thing Tony always said was that he would think it, but I would actually say it. The leader has to be the calmest guy on the ship, and that was Tony. He tried to create a winning attitude from Day 1 in Tampa. We fought through the tough times and never changed our plan."

The Bucs won five of their last seven games in Dungy's first season, building for a stretch of four playoff appearances in the next five seasons.

"People look at the franchise and are happy with the success, but they don't remember it didn't feel too good to be in that building," former Bucs general manager Rich McKay said of that first season. "Nobody thought we could win, and they all helped change that mentality. They were good teachers. Tony is just a good leader and example setter. He's unparalleled in that way."

The Bucs' success under Dungy led to opportunity for his coaches. Edwards was the first to get a head-coaching job, taking over the Jets in 2001, the same year Smith was hired as Rams defensive coordinator.

"My ambitions weren't to be a head coach," Edwards said. "My ambition was to be a player and eventually become a secondary coach and just coach my eight or 10 guys and not worry about having to make all those decisions.

"But when I went down there with Tony, he said, 'You've got to do this.' I understood what he meant. I had to do. It was for a lot of reasons and not just for me. It was for the people who were going to follow me."

Tomlin replaced Edwards on the Bucs staff. At 29, he had no previous NFL experience. But Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin recognized his attention to detail during his interview. Last week, the Steelers named Tomlin, now 34, their coach.

Marinelli's son-in-law, Joe Barry, replaced Smith, and the Bucs linebackers did not miss a beat. He is now Lions defensive coordinator and could be a head coach in a year or two.

In each head coach - Smith, Edwards, Marinelli and Tomlin - you can see Dungy's patience and perseverance. They are committed to their faith, family and football. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree.

"I think our styles are similar as far as treating the players like men and expecting them to behave that way," Smith said. "There is a certain standard that we have for them.

"A lot of us have a picture of how a coach is supposed to be, how he is supposed to act. I think what Tony Dungy showed me is that you don't have to act that way. Be yourself, believe in what you know and just stay with that through the storms and you can get the job accomplished."

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.