In all our hearts, a place for Tony

He's no longer ours, but the bay area still has love for ex-Bucs coach Tony Dungy.

Published January 28, 2007

Listen closely, and you can still hear his voice.

Even now, you remember the way he stood on a sideline, studying a football game the way an art lover studies a painting. You remember the little things he would say over and over. You remember how after a loss he was calm and quiet, and after a win he was calm and quiet.

Five years after the Bucs divorced Tony Dungy, and still, the Tampa Bay area loves the guy.

How do you explain it? Where else is the coach of another team so beloved? There are other places where former coaches are admired - Don Shula in Miami, Vince Lombardi in Green Bay - but usually, those feelings are forged by a trophy or two.

Dungy never won a Super Bowl here, and he has been gone almost as long as he was here. Yet, the love affair continues.

As Dungy prepares for next Sunday's Super Bowl, he does so as one of us. Still. There is an unabashed affection for him that is rare. No, Cleveland fans didn't pull for Bill Belichick like this. Jets' fans didn't show this kind of love for Herm Edwards.

Here, however, Dungy remains part of the fabric of Tampa Bay sports.

"He has the heart of the people," said the Rev. Jefferey Singletary, pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church and a close friend of Dungy's.

"I think it speaks to the character of the man. Tony isn't just a good coach, he's good for the community. He's involved from working in the soup kitchen to clothing the needy to helping the homeless to street ministry to prison ministry. There is something special about him."

As coach of the Bucs, Dungy never reached the Super Bowl, and his offense never blossomed, and by the time he was fired after the 2001 season, a lot of fans were frustrated by his team's shortcomings. In some ways, however, he seems more popular now than ever

Why? His is an affection that has been built in stages. When he changed the perception of the team back in '96, he won people's respect. When his dismissal was ham-fisted in 2001, he nudged their guilt. When he handled the death of his son a year ago with such grace, he touched their soul. Given the respective standings of the Colts and the Bucs, it is fair to say he fueled their nostalgia.

Blend it together, and it explains why it feels as if much of Tampa Bay has been relocated to Indiana this week.

"It's definitely a love affair," said Bucs' cornerback Ronde Barber. "He's such a good guy. How can you not root for him?"

Perhaps this is more about a neighbor than a former coach. Talk to those who know Dungy best, and they toss out superlatives like playing cards.

Character. That's the one former Bucs' safety John Lynch, now with Denver, goes to first.

"You know that old bracelet that says 'W.W.J.D.? What would Jesus do?' " Lynch said. "There are a lot of times I find myself thinking 'What would Tony do?' "

Lynch, by the way, is up for the Bart Starr Award, which is given to a player who shows "outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community." The other finalists for the award are the Falcons' Warrick Dunn and the Colts' Peyton Manning.

"I don't think it's any coincidence that all three of us played for Tony," Lynch said.

Genuine. That's the word Singletary keeps repeating.

"He's a class act," Singletary said. "I have never heard him speak an ill word against the Bucs. I've heard him say nothing but good things. The night the Bucs won the Super Bowl, Tony and his family were in my home, and for the entire game, he was rooting for the Bucs. He doesn't react the way most of us do. He is not a man who is willing to trade insult for insult."

Perspective. Even now, former Bucs' general manager Rich McKay, now with the Falcons, remembers that.

"He's a guy who has his priorities in order," McKay said. "He's a guy who sees things the right way. And he's doing it in a profession where that always isn't the way. So many times with athletics, you admire the way a guy plays the game. ... In this one, you're imagining a guy you would like to be like."

Compassionate. That's the go-to word for Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

"He's so intent on making life better for others," Iorio said. "We love football, but he transcends that context. He's a person of tremendous faith and kindness, and I think people in the Tampa Bay area saw those traits in good times and bad."

Before Dungy, the Bucs had mostly bad times. Perhaps that is the start of the Dungy-Tampa Bay relationship.

He was the third choice when he was hired. Steve Spurrier had decided to take the job, then changed his mind. Jimmy Johnson decided he would rather have the Miami Dolphins job.

The Bucs were chaotic then. No one knew if a new stadium would be approved and, if not, no one knew if the team would relocate. There had been 13 years of double-digit defeats, and everything from the record to the orange colors to the winking pirate had become a punch line.

"As a player, you didn't get close to anyone," Lynch said, "because five guys were being cut a week.

"I remember his very first meeting when he told us what it was going to take to win a championship. He said he was going to bring in some solid schemes, but that wasn't what was going to win for us. Character was."

Oh, players helped. And on defense, Dungy could pick a player out of a crowd. Take Brooks, who had spent most of his rookie year as a strongside linebacker, taking on tight ends instead of being free to run.

"He told me I was the second player he called," Brooks remembers. "He told me I was going to be a Pro Bowl player, and not in five years but the next year."

In the 11 seasons since Dungy arrived, the team colors have changed, and the stadium has changed. Most of all, the perception has changed.

"A lot of people got on the ship while Tony was the captain," McKay said.

Under Dungy, the Bucs reached the playoffs four times in six years. But as the offense struggled, critics saw Dungy's calm more as a detriment than an asset. The popular opinion changed from "he sure is nice" to "he's too nice." And reaching the playoffs didn't feel like enough.

"I think over the years, some people still feel he didn't get his just due," Dunn said. "He got fired after making the playoffs four out of six years. We were heading in the right direction. Sooner or later, we would have gotten it together."

Dungy was eventually replaced by Jon Gruden, who won the Super Bowl the next year. Even now, there are those who debate which coach deserves more credit for it.

"In our hearts, Tony was with us when we won the Super Bowl," Lynch said. "In our hearts, he was deserving of that."

Hearts. When it comes to Dungy, that word gets used a lot, too.

"His reach extends far beyond the football field," said Mark Merrill, president of Family First, a Tampa-based charity for which Dungy has worked for 10 years. "I think Tampa Bay and the nation saw how graciously he handled himself through that dismissal, through the death of his son, through the criticism of not scoring enough and not acting the way people want. That steadfastness, that humility, that patience is why people still care."

Once his coaching career has ended, Dungy has talked of returning to Tampa Bay. He still owns a home here.

If that happens, perhaps there will be a role for him in Tampa. Put it this way: If he wants to be the mayor, the mayor said she would vote for him.

"Yes, I would," Iorio said. "I think he's the kind of person you want to see in leadership. His heart is in the right place."

When it comes to Dungy, it appears, Tampa Bay's is, too.