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He did it his way

Dungy's approach goes against the grain

INDIANAPOLIS -- He doesn't sleep in his office, silence his underlings, grouse at the media, close his practices, lie to his players or the public, sulk about losing or equate winning a football game with keeping the free world safe. How did Tony Dungy ever get into the position he's in today?

The coach of the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts walked into his news conference yesterday with a smile on his face, not unlike the one he wore a year ago after getting knocked out of the playoffs the day before by the Pittsburgh Steelers on his home field. You win some, you lose some, he seems to feel. Dungy, like every coach, would rather win them, but he doesn't think it's the end of the world if he doesn't.

That was one of the many reasons Dungy said he was ecstatic when Marlin Jackson leaped in front of Tom Brady's last pass of the season and intercepted it Sunday night, sealing a 38-34 victory over the Patriots that sent Dungy to the Super Bowl for the first time and severed the head of a nemesis that had tormented his team for years.

Yet for Dungy, it wasn't about beating the Patriots or even so much about finally getting his chance to win a Super Bowl. It was not even totally about having the opportunity to become the first African-American coach to win that game and to be getting it across the field from his friend, former assistant and fellow African-American, Lovie Smith.

That story, Dungy acknowledged, will be beaten to a pulp "where it will seem like we've been talking about it for 100 years." Opportunity's arrival is always a big story, especially when it was just 25 years ago that Dungy entered a league that at the time had only 14 assistant coaches of color in a league of 28 teams. Dungy understands that and the importance of where he and Smith now find themselves, but what he spoke about yesterday was a subtler theme.

"I think even more important than that to me, I know the type of person he is, and Lovie has the same Christian conviction that I have," Dungy said. "He runs his team the same way. I know how those guys are treated in Chicago and how they play tough, disciplined football even though there's not a lot of profanity from the coaches. There's none of the win-at-all-cost atmosphere. For two guys to show that you can win that way, I think that's just as important for the country to see."

Important for the country to see that a man can win an athletic contest without becoming a troll, a dictator, or an anti-social misfit. That he can convince his players of the importance of their jobs without trying to convince them that it is Armageddon every Sunday. That a man can win and still realize that the win, or the loss, does not define who he is. It is merely what he does.

"I know I probably didn't get a couple of jobs early in my career because people couldn't see my personality or the way I was going to do it," recalled Dungy, as a grin crossed his face. "One guy did ask me, you know, in an interview, 'If you get this job, is this going to be the most important thing in your life and are you going to treat my team as the most important thing?' And I said, 'No, I'm not.' I didn't think I was going to get that job, and I didn't.

"I got that from Denny [Green, who hired Dungy to coordinate the defense of the Vikings]. Denny was very family-oriented. He let you do your job but he let you make time for your family. I did that and I think that's very, very important.

"I know Lovie does that. I know Herm [Edwards] does that. I know Mike [Tomlin, the new Steelers coach] is going to do that. Rod [Marinelli, his former assistant who now runs the Lions] is going to do that, so to have that resonate -- that you can be good, that you can win, that you can be successful, and you don't have to live and die and eat and sleep football -- I'm proud of that, too.

"For your faith to be more important, for your family to be more important than your job, it's things we all talk about and we all know that's the way it should be, but we're kind of afraid to say that sometimes. Lovie's not afraid to say it and I'm not afraid to say it."

One guy who challenged Dungy on that was his former kicker, the now-unemployed Mike Vanderjagt, who told a Canadian television reporter a few years ago, "Coach Dungy, he's just a mild-mannered guy. He doesn't get too excited. He doesn't get too down, and I don't think that works . . . I think you need a guy who's going to get in somebody's face when they're not performing well enough."

Dungy never got in Vanderjagt's face, although he did criticize him publicly and privately for his remarks. When Vanderjagt missed a field goal attempt by about a mile to knock the Colts out of the playoffs last year, he didn't want Dungy in his face then and he didn't get him. He just got told that he wouldn't be back. Now Dungy is going to the Super Bowl with Adam Vinatieri and Vanderjagt is reading the help wanteds.

"I think that's probably the thing I feel best about and that's what's driven me to stay in the game as long as I have," Dungy said of his approach to winning. "I really wanted to show people you can win all kinds of ways. I've always coached the way I wanted to be coached."

One wonders, though, whether there was a time when he considered the need to modify his approach. Harden it, perhaps.

"I never felt I had to change, because that's the way coach [Chuck] Noll [the Steelers legend who gave Dungy his first job in pro football] was, and I saw a guy who won four Super Bowls that really always talked about football being really not your life's work but really something you're doing to set up your life's work," said Dungy. "He was very much family-oriented and we won that way, so I know you could.

"I never thought about changing. Never felt the need to change. I knew we could win this way."

Winning with a human touch does not mean, as some seem to think, winning without making demands on his players, his coaches, and himself.

It is not being demanding where Dungy's approach seems at odds with the league's conventional wisdom. It's how the demands are made.

"We talked about that in Tampa, how we were going to have to outhustle people," Dungy said. "So we said that if you're not running full speed, it's a loaf. If you changed speeds, that means you weren't running full speed during the play, so that's a loaf. If you're supposedly a fast guy, a defensive back or linebacker, and defensive linemen are passing you by, that's a loaf. If you don't hit a guy when you could hit him, that's a loaf.

"We had some disputes early on with Warren Sapp and some guys who didn't like our way of doing it, but pretty soon that became the way we played, and Lovie's taken that to Chicago. I know those guys take a lot of pride in not getting loafs and I know how Lovie grades. It's not easy to not get a loaf during the game.

"You have to be able to push people. You have to challenge people. What I do, I try to set very high standards. You set the standard high where if you're not doing this, you're doing less than capacity and that's not good enough. That's what I try to do. Here is the standard. You don't have to yell about it. There's the standard.

"For some guys, the standard is higher. When you have great ability, the standard for you is much higher than the guy who doesn't have that kind of ability. Once you develop that and set that and hold everybody to that, it's easy to push them. I'm not saying my way is the best way or the only way. It's just the way I was raised."

It's also the way he has followed to Super Bowl XLI, and it won't change that night. If things go well, Tony Dungy will smile and be joyful for the experience. If they don't, he'll smile and be joyful for the experience. Either way, he'll go home when it's over and know what he's just done. Won or lost a football game and nothing more.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com

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