- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

MIAMI — Tony Dungy was an established National Football League assistant who had just been named head coach of the sad-sack Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Lovie Smith was an unknown defensive backs coach at Ohio State — his seventh collegiate job in 12 years — and was working to find a niche in a cutthroat profession.

It was February 1996 at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis when five colleagues told Dungy that Smith would be a solid addition to his first staff. The two met, and 15 minutes later, Dungy knew he needed to bring Smith to the NFL.

“I was looking for good teachers, guys who were going to be committed for the long term and I wanted to get some good, young, African-American coaches in the league that hadn’t had that opportunity before and Lovie fit the bill,” Dungy recalled. “I just knew after talking to him that this was going to be a guy that was going to do some great things.”

Dungy was right. Both he and Smith were going to do some great things — and make history in the process.

Eleven years after their friendship began, Dungy and Smith will be on opposite sidelines tomorrow night when Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts face Smith’s Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. They are the first two black head coaches to appear in the game.

Dungy and Smith don’t want their matchup to be about race and breaking barriers, but they also realize their skin color is a primary subplot and a sign of progress that good coaches — regardless of race — are getting opportunities to lead NFL teams.

“There had to be a first time,” Smith said earlier this week. “I don’t think it will be talked about as much later because once you cross that barrier, it’s not as big a story. I’m excited that progress is being made.”

Dungy said: “The African-American coach question is always going to be there. But the focus should be on the Colts and the Bears. … It’s a moment that I’m very proud of because so many of the coaches that came before me didn’t get this opportunity.”

Same philosophies

They are not like Jon Gruden, an entertaining expedite-per-minute yeller. They are not like Bill Parcells, whose glare frightens the toughest players. When Dungy and Smith want to get their points across, it is done with directness but at a reasonable volume.

They don’t yell.

They don’t swear.

They don’t humiliate.

“I can’t recall [the last time he cursed],” Smith said. “I don’t think you need to downgrade guys and curse them out. What players want you to do is coach them and teach them. That’s how we spend our practice time. We get our point across. There might be a time when you want to yell at a guy but then I just try to tell them what they did wrong. Is that to say I never raise my voice? No. Do I get upset from time to time? Of course. But you deal with it in a different way.”

Smith said Dungy taught him that treating NFL players like adults is the only way to go. In turn, the players immediately buy into what the coach is selling and band together. That was evident this season with quarterback Rex Grossman. When the fourth-year pro was going through his ups and downs, the entire team stood behind him.

“Other teams have conflicts between players and they bad mouth each other, but you don’t win that way,” Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. “When Rex had his struggles, the media tried to get us to say something bad about him. But instead, we tried to pump up by saying that we’re 13-3 and he’s our quarterback. That’s what Coach Smith kept saying and we backed him up.”

Smith’s first season in Chicago was a 5-11 debacle. But the Bears have gone 11-5 and 13-3 the past two regular seasons, mainly because Smith didn’t panic after his first season.

“He stayed the course and kept getting players that fit into our system both offensively and defensively,” said Bears linebackers coach Bob Babich, who first coached with Smith at Tulsa in the 1980s. “The players saw the progress we were making so they bought into his teaching. From there, things took off.”

Dungy’s attitude remains consistent in his second decade as a head coach. Colts center Jeff Saturday has played five seasons for Dungy and can remember only one time where Mount Dungy even came close to erupting.

“For him, it was yelling; in my house, it wouldn’t be called yelling,” Saturday said. “We were at a walkthrough and guys were messing around, not taking it seriously. He brought everybody together and basically told us he expected better from us.”

Defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, who has known Dungy since 1980, said, “His presence breeds respect. There’s never a gray area with Tony. As long as you don’t cross the line, you don’t have a lot of rules that are difficult to abide by.”

Because of that sterling reputation, the Colts snapped Dungy up after the 2001 season when he was abruptly fired by Tampa Bay despite three playoff berths and one NFC title game appearance.

“He’s so honest and has such a great feel for people that anybody who works with him responds to that,” Colts General Manager Bill Polian said. “By and large, when you ask good people to accept responsibility, they will.”

Different backgrounds

As similar as their coaching personalties are, the road to the Super Bowl was different for Dungy and Smith.

Dungy, 51: Born and raised in Jackson, Mich. Played at the University of Minnesota. Played three NFL seasons, winning a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh. Became a coach in 1980. Reached the NFL in 1981. Was a defensive coordinator for 12 seasons. Reached the playoffs nine times in 11 seasons as a head coach.

Smith, 48: A native of Big Sandy, Texas, who led his team to three consecutive state titles. Played at the University of Tulsa, but not in the NFL. Coached from 1983 to 1995 at six different colleges before joining Tampa Bay. Was St. Louis’ defensive coordinator for three seasons before joining the Bears in 2004.

During the 1990s, even though Dungy was building solid defenses with Minnesota, he questioned whether he would ever get a head-coaching job. The “Rooney Rule” — which requires teams to interview at least one minority coach during the hiring process — was not yet instituted, so Dungy got no phone calls.

“Did I think there was a time that opportunity would never come? There was a time I wondered,” Dungy said. “In 1993, there were seven openings and we had the No. 1 defense in the league [with Minnesota]. I didn’t get a phone call. At that point, I thought it would be a long road.”

In 1996, Tampa Bay and Miami had openings.

“I didn’t feel like I had a chance at either job,” Dungy said.

But the Buccaneers hired Dungy. Following a 6-10 first season, Tampa Bay won 10 or more games in three of the next four seasons. But a 2-4 postseason record wasn’t good enough for owner Malcolm Glazer. Dungy is 60-20 in the regular season and overcame more post-season demons by reaching the Super Bowl this season.

How much longer Dungy coaches is up for debate. His son, James, committed suicide in December 2005 and some thought Tony would retire.

“I think he realized how much this means to him and how much the players mean to him and how much watching them practice and play means to him,” long-time Dungy assistant Clyde Christensen said.

While Dungy has been involved with the NFL in some capacity for nearly 30 years, Smith worked at his trade in the college ranks. He was exposed to football at an early age. Big Sandy, population of 1,228 during the 2000 census, is the epitome of Friday-night-lights high school football.

“I don’t know how much of an impact I’ve had on it, but it’s had a big impact on me,” Smith said of his hometown. “I’m proud to be from there. Big Sandy is about hard work and it’s a football town.

“It’s been a long road but [I] had a plan to go into the coaching profession and do well. When you win three state championships winning becomes a part of you.”

Smith has been greatly influenced by his mother, Mae, who has lost her eyesight because of diabetes.

“At a young age, she let me know I could do whatever I wanted to do and to not use being poor or where I came from as an excuse for what happens to me,” Smith said. “Diabetes has taken her sight but she doesn’t complain. Every day, her glass is half full.”

Dungy and Smith have embraced the same attitude, which has spilled into their teams’ locker rooms.

And tomorrow night, 11 years after their paths first crossed, Dungy and Smith will have a front-row seat for each other’s coaching highlight.

“We have a special relationship that will last for a lifetime,” Smith said. “To compete against him on a national stage like this is a dream come true.”

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