Dungy delivers hope - and victories
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 17 January 2000

This is what the quiet man saw. Colors. Tony Dungy was in the open field. He was running across the grass, the yard stripes clipping beneath shoes that did not touch the ground. There were fireworks in the sky. As Dungy approached the tunnel, he looked up, and he saw the red jerseys. Hundreds of them, leaning over the rails, echoing the sounds of the fireworks with their cheers. Dungy shot his fist into the air again, and the noise rose, as if he were a conductor, and his smile widened. This is what the quiet man felt. Excitement.

His is a tranquil face in a profession of storms, and in the past, it has led to Dungy being both blessed and cursed. But he feels the same thing you feel. Of course he does. Press him, and he'll tell you that his stomach knots up when things appear at their ugliest, as they did most of Saturday's divisional playoff game. He feels the same joys, the same frustrations, as everyone else who watches the Bucs play. It just churns deeper.

But as he ran from the field, moving ever closer to this thing called the Super Bowl, there was no reason to hide his satisfaction any longer. This is what the quiet man remembered. Yesterday. It is an amazing thing, what occurs to a man in his moment of achievement. Dungy's team had just beaten the Washington Redskins, 14-13, to advance to the NFC Championship.

But in the blur of colors and highlights, Dungy could not help but flash back to the lesser days of his first season as he ran from the field. It seems so long ago, and certainly so far away. That was a franchise of a different stadium, different uniform, different legacy. But it was Dungy's first team, so many heartaches ago, and part of enjoying where he had come was to recall where he had been. "Coming off the field, I was thinking of that first year," he said quietly. He was in a bare corridor of RayJay, leaning against a wall, a slight grin on his face. "I remembered that first game, losing 34-3 to Green Bay. I remembered being 1-8 and wondering what the players were thinking. I remembered doubting myself. I remembered all the players, Hardy (Nickerson) and (John) Lynch and Brad (Culpepper) and Warren (Sapp), and how far we've come since then."

How far? "Light years," is the way Nickerson puts it. And, at the core of it all, there are two reasons the Bucs have made the trip. 1) Tony. 2) Dungy. This is his team, for good or for bad. This is his personality, that calm in the face of calamity. Even when the Redskins led 13-0 Saturday, even when you looked at the Bucs offense and wondered if the game plan was to hold Washington to negative points, Dungy looked as if he were at a deli pondering the corned beef or the pastrami.

Ugly? For goodness' sakes, of course it was ugly. Lucky? For crying out loud, of course they were lucky. But confident? Yeah, the Bucs were that, too. This is what they get from Dungy, that unshakable belief that if they stick around long enough, someone's going to make a play. "I'd love to win a game by a couple of scores," Dungy said. "I'd certainly like to win one the way Jacksonville did. But this is what we are. This is the way we play."

In other words, a salmon is cursed to swim upstream, and a porcupine is destined to take another porcupine to the prom. And the nature of the Bucs is to play football so homely it hurts your face to watch. "We punch other teams in the mouth for 60 minutes, and we see how many teeth they have left at the end," Sapp said.

In other words, the Bucs make the other team as ugly as it is. Through it all, through the lousy running game and the vanishing wide receivers and the three-and-outs, Dungy has transferred a faith, a belief in winning games that resemble childbirth for all the sweating and straining and crying and bleeding, to his players. You want to know what was going on in Dungy's mind when the Redskins were lining up for a potential game-winning field goal? "I felt like someone was going to block it," he said. "I just did."

That's the thing. With this team, you always feel someone is going to make some play somewhere along the line to pretty up an ugly game. Somewhere along the line, his team has learned to believe it, too. For one thing, this team plays some defense. By the end of the game Saturday, Stephen Davis must have felt like Michael Westbrook had jumped him all over again and, it should be pointed out, Westbrook didn't exactly spend the game establishing an alibi.

For the Bucs, this was a big deal. In the length of a presidential term (and we know what kind of distractions some leaders run into along the way), Dungy has removed the tarnish from this team. "It's been a big journey," he said. "I remember thinking how far we had to go after that first loss." Sapp remembers, too. "People don't realize how far this team has come under him. When I first got here, it was a third-world country. People didn't know if they were coming or going. It was awful."

If fans do not realize how far the team has come, they at least seem to notice how close they are to the ultimate goal. As Dungy stepped from the stadium into the crowd, there was a reverence, almost an awe, as he moved. People like him here. They'd like a little more offense, if he could work it into his day, but they like Dungy just fine. He went through the fans, signing shirts and hats and photos, and people reached out to touch him, to call his name. "Hon," one woman called him.

Once, Dungy signed an autograph, and looked up to see man in a Redskins T-shirt and a hat. He chuckled softly and shook his head. This was a coach soaking up the moment. This is the best time for Dungy, in those precious moments after victory, when the juices flow freely, when the stubbornness of his team has worn down another opponent. Someone told him the Bucs were going to the Super Bowl. Dungy nodded. No one laughed. This is what the quiet man has provided. Hope.