Tony Dungy never set out to make history, especially the kind that led to a place in football immortality.
No, the original goal was far more modest than what the journey turned into, with Dungy becoming the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl and now the first to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I knew exactly what I was going to do,” Dungy said in reminiscing about what would become the unlikely start to his career. “I was a business administration major at Minnesota, and my plan was to play about 10 years in the league, get a little nest egg and become a businessman.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way. After playing four seasons at quarterback for the University of Minnesota, Dungy wasn’t drafted in 1977 and made the Steelers as a free-agent safety. But that 10-year career thing? Didn’t happen.
“I ended up getting cut, traded a couple of times, and finally cut, and now I’m 25 years old and really not sure what I’m going to do,” Dungy said. “I tried different jobs, but nothing really excited me. I tried to stay in shape to see if I’d get another shot.”
That shot never came. But a telephone call in 1981 from Steelers coach Chuck Noll did, and it changed everything.
“Coach Noll called and said he had an opportunity on his staff [as a defensive assistant], and I remember the first day I went to work and I was just sitting there taking notes and learning, and I couldn’t wait to get back to work the next day,” he said. “I didn’t know how good I’d be at it, but the more I did it, the more I enjoyed it, and it ended up being a 28-year career.”
And what a career it was. Dungy had a terrific run as defensive coordinator of the Steelers and Vikings, and turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a foundering franchise into a perennial playoff team from 1996-2001. He didn’t get to the Super Bowl and was fired, but within a matter of days, he was hired by the Colts. He did a remarkable rebuilding job there, too, and led Indianapolis to its only Super Bowl victory after the 2006 season. It was the first time a black coach had ever won an NFL title.
So he accepts this well-deserved Hall of Fame induction proudly, but also with mixed feelings. “I’m grateful in a lot of ways, but I’m a little bit sad in some ways because I know I shouldn’t have been the first,” he said. “I was talking to [former NFL quarterback James Harris] about his coach [at Grambling], Eddie Robinson, who didn’t get the opportunity to show what he could do in the NFL and would have been a winner and might have had a Super Bowl win had he been given the opportunity. You kind of regret that.
“But on the other side, you’re proud and you feel like you’re representing a group of coaches that maybe didn’t get the notoriety, didn’t get the opportunity, so I’m proud of that,” he said.
The NFL continues to push for greater diversity among its coaches, although a recent ESPN report suggested success remains a long way off. Since 2012, NFL teams have hired 21 first-time white head coaches and only one first-time minority head coach — Todd Bowles of the Jets in 2015.
Dungy says much needs to be done, although he is “very optimistic. The thing we have to do is just keep educating owners, university presidents, general managers, athletic directors. There’s a group of talent out there that you don’t want to overlook.
“It’s not even a black-white issue or a minority issue. It’s just looking at different paths and identifying what real talent is and not saying here’s the only blueprint. There’s a lot of ways you can go to the top and ways you can succeed, and we just have to get people to look at those, and I think we’re doing a better job of that.”
Dungy now takes his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, the first African-American head coach to wind up in Canton. He hopes many more will follow.