- Associated Press - Thursday, November 25, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Minutes into his new job, Tony Dungy did what he was hired to do: He offered an opinion.

Asked about the Bears’ recently acquired quarterback, Dungy questioned whether Jay Cutler had the maturity to win big in the NFL.

“I thought it was a pretty commonsense point,” Dungy recalled, a year-and-a-half after that conference call to introduce him as an NBC studio analyst. “Then all of a sudden I’m getting calls, and Chicago radio stations want me to come on: ‘Why are you killing Cutler?’ I don’t think I killed him. I just said I don’t know if they’re going to the Super Bowl.”

It was the first hint that people took what he had to say very seriously.

Now the former Indianapolis Colts coach’s voice is everywhere _ even though he never raises it. “So powerful, but yet so humble,” in the words of colleague Rodney Harrison.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calls him “one of my closer cabinet members.” He’s connected to one of the league’s biggest stories this season, having advised Michael Vick while the quarterback put his life back together.

And in a sport with no shortage of commentators spouting opinions, Dungy’s remarks on “Football Night in America” seem to slice through the clutter, frequently eliciting defensive responses from players and coaches.

“Because of his mild-mannered persona, people are surprised that he has been so opinionated and so direct,” said Bob Costas, the show’s host. “And yet he does it without bombast and without malice. There’s nothing snarky about him. I think that that’s almost disarming. It gives extra credibility.”

In 31 years as an NFL player and coach, Dungy never contemplated going into television. Co-host Dan Patrick, now Dungy’s broadcasting mentor, was certainly surprised by this career move for the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

“He has bigger goals than that,” Patrick said. “I always viewed coaches who did TV that they had nowhere else to go or wanted another job and were waiting for the phone to ring.”

For the show’s first three years, NBC executives had repeatedly tinkered with its format and roster, searching for the right tone and chemistry. Riding back to the hotel after the last regular-season “Sunday Night Football” game in 2008, NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol told play-by-play announcer Al Michaels they needed a coach.

Michaels suggested Dungy, who was still with the Colts but had considered retirement for several years.

The next week, with NBC preparing to air Indianapolis’ playoff opener, Ebersol pulled aside the man with whom he already shared a personal bond. They had started talking before the 2006 season, when each had recently lost a teenage son.

Now the conversation turned professional. Dungy’s eyes grew wide with surprise, Ebersol recalled, at the mention of TV.

“I really don’t have a gimmick,” Dungy said he told Ebersol when they spoke again after the coach announced his retirement. “I don’t have anything I’d add other than knowledge of the game.”

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