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Dungy still a role model

8-28-03, 6:15 p.m.


Tony Dungy, the Colts' nice guy head coach, is one of those rare people.

Old enough to be a role model, but young enough to remember what it took to get there.

Old enough to remember the slights and rejections of African-American coaches in the 1980s and 1990s, but young enough to help any color following in his footsteps in the 21st century.

Cool enough to be known for his frosty sideline presence. Passionate enough to be a leader.

No, Anthony Kevin Dungy, 47, will tell you. He doesn't think things are quite where they should be in the NFL when it comes to minority hiring. When he looks across the sidelines Friday night at the RCA Dome in the pre-season finale, he'll see Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and know the only other minority head coach in the league is Herman Edwards of the Jets.

"I'm not sure what can be done about it," Dungy said this week. "But I do know there are so many qualified coaches out there that should be considered and involved in the process. If you talk to coaches and open the field, you're going to find another Marvin Lewis."

Dungy calls coaching against Lewis, " a thrill," and working against Bengals defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier "a happy moment for me."

Dungy looks at Frazier and this is the kind of guy he's talking about. When Dungy came to Indy last year, after leading Tampa Bay to four playoffs, he interviewed Frazier for the job of defensive coordinator, a position that eventually went to former Bengals secondary coach Ron Meeks.

"Leslie Frazier is going to be a phenomenal head coach," Dungy said. "I was looking for a guy who had experience with my scheme, and went with Ron, but Leslie would have been the next guy. He had experience working under a great coordinator (Philadelphia's Jim Johnson) and had success with the players he coached. But I don't know if he gets that chance if there isn't a Marvin Lewis or a Tony Dungy."

Lewis, 44, calls Dungy a role model. Frazier, also 44, calls him a spiritual mentor and looks forward to their couple of e-mails a month, "about everything. It's usually words of encouragement or he talks about what his family is doing."

As Lewis says, "I've known about Tony Dungy

for a long time."

When Lewis was a high school senior, he remembers getting a recruiting letter from the University of Minnesota and when the schedule card dropped out, Dungy was all over the cover as the Gophers senior quarterback finishing his career as the school's all-time leading passer.

When Frazier started his coaching climb in the '80s, Dungy was the African-American of his generation that offered hope. Born in 1955 in Jackson, Mich., Dungy still played in an era when a black college quarterback was a quirk instead of a constant and was virtually automatically moved to defensive back in the pros. He played three years, two with the Steelers and one with the 49ers, before going into coaching right away.

"Tony was a guy that did it the right way," Lewis said. "It took a long time (to become a head coach), but through no fault of his own."

No one was talking about it then, and probably young coaches in the college ranks like Lewis and Frazier were the only ones noticing Dungy quietly becoming the NFL's youngest assistant coach at 25 and then the youngest defensive coordinator at 28. They also noticed it took him 12 more years to reach the next step as Tampa Bay's head coach in 1996 at age 40.

Dungy noticed, too. He still talks about the guys from the generation before who "got passed over," such as Jimmy Raye and Sherm Lewis, but he also says, "I think it worked out very well for me at the right time in Tampa."

"It took him awhile to finally break that barrier to become a head coach," Frazier said. "But he was a guy that we always looked to and all believed once he got an opportunity he was going to be successful. His success in Tampa and what he's doing now in Indy has helped every African-American head coach."

The man has coached two different teams to five playoff berths in seven seasons, but the big reason people look to Dungy is his unflinching demeanor. They are drawn to his class and how he carries himself. Wins are, of course, nice, too. Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins met him at the 1998 Senior Bowl and saw the whole package.

"With him being a minority, you kind of have to feel he was a role model when you started thinking about what you might do after you stopped playing," Hawkins said. "He's a classy guy, kind of reserved and quiet. Pretty humble. You see him on TV, how he carries himself, and his actions, and then you meet him, and it's the same thing."

But Frazier knows Dungy stokes a fire in his veins. He saw it this past summer when Dungy invited him and about 10 other NFL assistants to a fishing weekend. On the last day, Dungy tied for the biggest fish trophy and they had to go back out on the water for a fishoff.

When the other guy suggested that Dungy should abdicate because he was the host, he got a little hot.

"He's a competitive dude," Frazier said. "He told the guy no way. If it's third-and one, are you going to punt? No way. You're going for it. That's Tony. He's competitive. May the best man win. And the guy won, and that didn't make him very happy."

But Dungy didn't organize the weekend for the fish. Frazier saw it as sort of a retreat, a way for Dungy to help coaches coming up. It was a mix of minorities and whites out there on the Minnesota lakes that Dungy brought together with one common thought.

"It was a chance to get away from football and talk about other things in life," Dungy said. "To talk about the important things like faith and family."

Dungy has always been generous with his time, if not his office. Jay Hayes, the Bengals' defensive line coach, met him through mutual friends in the USFL and again when brother Jon played with Dungy's Chiefs. If he asks for advice, Dungy never hesitates.

"He was just a guy I always thought was a great coach even if he was green," Hayes said.

When Lewis would come home to visit Pittsburgh as he scaled his own ladder in the '80s (Idaho State, Long Beach State, New Mexico) he would check in with Dungy at the Steelers' offices. They never were able to hook up, but Lewis would always watch film in his office.

It wasn't until Lewis interned with the Chiefs in 1991 that they developed a relationship.

"Tremendous," Lewis said. "His intellect, his mental aptitude for the game. His calmness. His ability to teach the players. He lost his first five games (in Tampa Bay), but he stuck with what they were doing, and knew good things were going to happen. No question his patience is one of his great attributes, but what is significant about him is his personality and his quality and character as a person."

Dungy has been reading the news from Cincinnati. He has watched the tape. He has told his team.

"You can already see what Marvin has done there," said Dungy, whose Colts beat the Bengals last year, 28-21. "I told our guys (Wednesday) that this is a different team than the one we played last year. They're playing with energy and they're playing fast. And from reading the clips coming out of there, you can see his impact."

If Lewis is blazing trails here, look what Dungy has done. But he's too middle age to look at it that way. It takes a young guy like Hawkins to see it.

"Before this season, I never played for a black head coach or a black coordinator," said Hawkins, born in that fall of 1976 in Dungy's senior season at Minnesota. "Before August tenth (when the Bengals played the Jets), I never played in a game with two black head coaches on the sidelines. Now I'm doing it again two weeks later. It's not a big deal, but it does show there is progress."

The guy on the other sideline Friday night is a big reason why.

"It's going to be awesome," said Frazier of the moment he looks across the way. "To see him and watch him from afar, he's a great example for every coach. Black or white."

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