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By Greg Johnson
Tony Dungy has always believed in a balanced approach in life.
While he excelled in football during his college days at Minnesota, won a Super Bowl ring as a defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and later become a Super Bowl-winning head coach, the sport never defined him as a person.
The character and positive influence he nurtured through his professional accomplishments, along with the work he does through the Dungy Family Foundation, is why Dungy will honored with the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award at the 2013 NCAA Convention in Grapevine, Texas.
Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, whose concern for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906, the award is the NCAA’s highest honor and is given annually to an individual “for whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being thereafter have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement.” Dwight Eisenhower was the first recipient of the “Teddy” in 1967. Last year’s honoree was Will Allen, humanitarian and former basketball star at Miami (Florida).
Dungy’s name will be added to the distinguished list of recipients at the Honors Celebration on Jan. 18.
Even when he was coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1996-2001) and the Indianapolis Colts (2002-08) to 10 consecutive playoff appearances, Dungy was known for the things he did away from the field. He said that was instilled in him by his college coach Cal Stoll and his coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Noll.
“Both of those coaches told me that football would be with me only for a short time,” Dungy said. “But getting ready for your life, and how you can make an impact off the field, is really what’s important.”
The Dungy Family Foundation is the instrument he uses to live that philosophy. The Foundation believes in strengthening, sustaining and empowering communities by providing opportunities to those in need through educational, emotional, spiritual and financial support. The Foundation collaborates with existing community organizations to educate youth and those less fortunate.
““The greatest thing for me going to college was learning about decision-making. You are making decisions about what academic path you are going to take, and what friends you build relationships with. You learn how to handle your personal life and process information. That is what college was all about for me.””
— Tony Dungy
“It was my wife, Lauren’s idea, and all my siblings take part,” said Dungy, who stepped away from coaching after the 2008 season at the age of 53. “It is has been exciting for us to help young people. We are concentrating in the cities where I’ve worked before in Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Tampa and Indianapolis.”
Dungy is also a national spokesman for Basket of Hope, which strives to give spiritual hope to children diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses and to their families, primarily by delivering baskets filled with inspirational materials. Dungy’s memoir Quiet Strength will be distributed in the Baskets of Hope this year.
Dungy grew up in Michigan about halfway between the campuses of Michigan and Michigan State. His father, Wilber, who flew with the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, was a Michigan graduate, while his mother, Cleomae, was a Michigan State alum.
However, when it came time for Dungy to choose a college and play football, he picked Minnesota. Stoll, who was an assistant coach at Michigan State, had just taken the job with the Golden Gophers and convinced Dungy to head west.
“It was God’s providence,” said Dungy, who ended up being a four-year letter-winner and a two-time second-team all-Big Ten selection at quarterback.
Dungy, who also played one season of basketball for Bill Musselman, was named to the all-Big Ten Academic Team his junior and senior years. When he graduated with a degree in business, Dungy was Minnesota’s career leader in total offense, touchdown passes and completions.
As a student, he also had a chance to intern at Fortune 500 companies like Cargill and General Mills.
“The greatest thing for me going to college was learning about decision-making,” Dungy said. “You are making decisions about what academic path you are going to take, and what friends you build relationships with. You learn how to handle your personal life and process information. That is what college was all about for me.”
After college, Dungy signed as a rookie free agent with Pittsburgh, where he had to change positions from quarterback to defensive back. There were hardly any African-American quarterbacks in the NFL in 1976.
Dungy had offers to play quarterback in the Canadian Football League, but he chose the NFL because he wanted “to play with and against the best.”
After three years with the Steelers and one with the San Francisco 49ers, Dungy decided to hang up his cleats. He worked for Heinz and Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, but it was an offer from Noll that got him into coaching.
“Coach Noll liked the way I adjusted to the defensive side of the ball, and he liked my desire to learn,” Dungy said. “He thought I could be special on his staff. He taught me how to coach. After the first day of coaching, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. That’s when I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
According to Dungy, there were only seven African-American assistant coaches in the NFL when he started on Noll’s staff in 1981.
Dungy was the Steelers’ defensive backs coach for three seasons before being named defensive coordinator in 1984. It made the then-28-year-old Dungy the youngest coordinator in NFL history.
He later was on the staffs at Kansas City and Minnesota before being named the head coach at Tampa Bay in 1996. Many NFL analysts thought Dungy should have been rewarded with a head coaching job much sooner than that.
“You are always a little impatient, because you have goals,” said Dungy, who went 139-69 (.688) as an NFL head coach. “I wasn’t that frustrated, though, because I enjoyed what I was doing.”
Dungy always looked at coaching as a way to influence young men’s lives both on and off the field. He was doing that regardless of his job title.
The highlight of Dungy’s coaching career came in 2006 when he guided the Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI. It made him the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl. Even more special, Dungy’s former assistant Lovie Smith, who also is African-American, coached the Chicago Bears on the other sideline.
“When I started coaching in the NFL, there was not even a thought of an African-American being a head coach,” Dungy said. “Seeing those opportunities grow was special for me. I remember my Dad telling me about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball (in 1947).”
He also recalled how proud he felt when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl when he guided the Washington Redskins to the title in 1988.
“It made me think maybe that’s the way people felt after we won the Super Bowl,” Dungy said.
Dungy has also left a coaching tree as part of his legacy in the NFL. Besides Smith, other African-American coaches who worked for Dungy and later became head coaches include Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), Herm Edwards (New York Jets and Kansas City) and Jim Caldwell (Indianapolis).
Since stepping away from coaching, Dungy has worked as a studio analyst for NBC. He’s enjoying the broadcasting career, even though it makes for tough travel in the fall.
Dungy’s son, Eric, is a receiver on the University of Oregon football team. So most weekends, Dungy flies from Tampa to the West Coast on Fridays, and watches Oregon’s games on Saturday. He then takes a red-eye to New York so he can appear live on NBC for Sunday night’s NFL Game of the Week.
Though he’s often asked about a return to coaching, Dungy said he doesn’t see it happening.
“I’m going to take a page from coach Noll,” Dungy said. “He had a great career, and when he was done, he moved on. That’s how I felt when I stepped away. It wasn’t like I was tired or burnt out. I just had other things that I wanted to do.”
Dungy said he was honored to hear he was named this year’s recipient of the “Teddy.”
“When you choose where to go to college, you dream and hope for the best,” Dungy said. “You never would think something like this (being honored) would be in store for you later in life. This is a product of my decision to go to the University of Minnesota.”