Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reflections on Tony Dungy

By JC De La Torre

As a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I have great memories of Tony Dungy's tenure with Tampa Bay. When it was announced by the Glazer family that Dungy was going to replace Sam Wyche, I may have been one of the few in the area who didn't say "Who the hell is Tony Dungy?" I admired Dungy during his time as defensive coordinator in Minnesota and as he was passed over from one job to another I had always felt that his time would come. When it came with my beloved Buccaneers, I was ecstatic. Things didn't start out so well for Tony. In 1996, the bay area was embroiled in a "should we or shouldn't we" stadium situation that would ultimately decide whether or not the Bucs stayed in the area. Dungy and his family didn't buy a house until after the referendum decided the issue. Two days before the election, Dungy had his NFL debut as head coach. Many felt the Bucs needed to play well to prove to the fans they were worth saving. Tampa Bay lost to division rival Green Bay 34-3. Under the cloud of this terrible defeat, the Community Investment Tax that brought the Buccaneers Raymond James Stadium narrowly passed. Dungy's Bucs lost their first six games, but finished strong winning five of their last seven to rally to a 6-10 finish. It would be the last of 14 consecutive losing seasons for the Buccaneers, thirteen of which were double-digit losing years.

In the off-season of 97, Tampa Bay changed their colors and had their final season at the place we lovingly called "The Ole Sobrero". The Bucs built off of their strong finish in 96, announcing Pewter Power to the NFL with a shocking upset of the mighty San Francisco 49ers, taking out (albeit not intentionally) Steve Young and Jerry Rice in the process. The Bucs roared to a 5-0 start and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982 by beating the Bears 31-15 to finish the year 10-6. Tampa Bay was the wildcard, hosting Detroit and Barry Sanders. Many pundits thought the Bucs would lose, as the Lions pounded Tampa in their last meeting with Barry running for 259 yds. The Bucs used the power of Alstott and the skill of Dunn to power past the Lions 20-10 in the final game of old Tampa Stadium's history. They would lose the next week but set the foundation of what would eventually become champions.

Dungy would never have a losing season with Tampa Bay after 1996, culminating with a trip to the 1999 NFC Championship game and a division title where the Bucs battled the greatest show on turf, the St. Louis Rams. Under the direction a rookie QB and with one of the best defenses in the NFL, Tampa Bay held the powerful Rams to 11 points, their lowest output of the season. Unfortunately, the Bucs fell short, losing 11-6. Expectations were risen when top flight quarterback Brad Johnson joined the Buccaneers, but Tampa Bay fell to 10-6 and 9-7 the following seasons, barely making the playoffs and eventually losing on the road in Philadelphia in both games.

Dungy was dismissed after the 2001 wildcard loss at Philadelphia and went on to a fabulous career with the Colts, eventually winning the Super Bowl in 2006. I was never on board with the dismissal of Dungy. Many fans in Tampa were frustrated with the production of the offense and felt that the team would never win the Super Bowl under Tony. We'll never know. Jon Gruden came in, made a few changes on offense and took Tampa Bay to the title in 2002. Tony, meanwhile, left a dramatic impact on this community. He's still a beloved figure here and he, as well as General Manager Rich McKay and even the previous coach Sam Wyche, were instrumental in turning the worst franchise in sports into champions - a franchise people respected.

We wish Tony Dungy the very best in his retirement and we look forward to seeing Tony's continued impact in the Tampa Bay community. A great coach, a great man, the NFL is losing a great one.

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