I think, as the Colts go down what could be an undefeated path, I want to go back in time a decade to when the Bucs hired Dungy. I do this to let you know that sometimes the best hire you make is not the one with the loudest trumpets. It's the smart one. The unassuming Dungy was as much Wally Cox as Bill Parcells. Look at him now. "When we hired Tony,'' recalls Rich McKay, now Atlanta's general manager, "believe me, they didn't throw any parades in Tampa. It was not a popular pick at all. We were a franchise in desperate need of credibility and stability. Only I had it reversed. We actually needed stability first, then credibility. I realized that after Jimmy Johnson and Steve Spurrier turned us down and then we had a list of maybe eight candidates. Tony was fifth or sixth on that list. I was doing some interviews out at the East-West [College All-Star] Game out west. Big-time Bucs, you know. I was interviewing guys in a hotel room, a single room, right there on the bed. Tony had broken his glasses and one of the earpieces was off the glasses. They were tilted to one side. After about an hour, I finally had to say, 'Will you please take those glasses off? They're driving me crazy.' But everything about his resume said winner.''
Everything about the early days said loser. In 1996, when the Bucs lost at home to Detroit, 27-0 in Week 5 to go 0-5, the 35,000 empty seats reminded everyone how hopeless this team was. Not Dungy. The night of the game, his wife, Lauren, asked him why he didn't just air out his underachieving masses. "Because they're really trying,'' he said. The day after the game, when McKay and Dungy gathered to watched the game tape, McKay said there was no screaming. "Tony kept saying how good the players were. I knew, walking out of that meeting, we'd be OK.'' And John Lynch, then a fourth-year Bucs safety, told me: "The problem with our franchise was we always were looking for the magic pill. And right about that time, Tony would be watching film with us and he'd say, 'The answer's right here. Look at that missed tackle.' He convinced us we were good and we didn't need any savior.''
At the time I was opposed to the Dungy firing. Not only did Dungy take the Yucs and turn them into a Super Bowl contender, but he did so while turning away guys with character issues.
You know how Notre Dame fans complain about how hard it is to recruit good (but slightly retarded) athletes because Notre Dame has such high academic standards? It's gotta be tougher to get guys to come to a struggling franchise where one run in with the law gets you kicked off the team. (Of course, if Notre Dame let men into the women's dorms after midnight they might have better luck in recruiting.)