Sports Perspectives by Mark Elder

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

A few words about Tony Dungy and coaching

Filed under: Legacy, Race — Mark @ 17:14

Tony Dungy retired yesterday and so naturally the media (quick side note:  am I a part of “the media,” or is the “blogosphere” still entirely separate?) has rushed to recap his professional career and capitalize on this discussion on his legacy and place in history.

Tony, like all NFL coaches, has been linked in the NY Post’s Page Six to both Victory (see 2007 Super Bowl) and her fat sister, Agony of Defeat (see every other season of his career).  He is far from unique in this way.  The list of good and great coaches who have won exactly one championship is long and storied, though Dungy, unlike any other coach, found his way into the playoffs every season of his coaching career.  Much will be said this week about how Mr. Dungy is a better man than coach, and that is saying a lot for a coach who never missed the playoffs and seemed to win 12 or 13 games every season he was in the NFL.  We’ll be reminded that he is the only Black coach to win a Super Bowl, and we’ll learn a bit about his life’s work of helping young men to find a good and righteous path toward personal, financial and spiritual success.  All of that is wonderful, and I do admire Mr. Dungy quite sincerely, both for his professionalism and his ability to set aside football in favor of greater personal outreach, but the question sportswriters ask themselves, or are asked by their editors, when a man of Dungy’s stature retires is “how will you remember him/her?”

I will remember Dungy as a man who did not try to do too much, and as a result was able to accomplish more than he may know.  I’ve had many a conversation of late about the inherently slow nature of progress, and I think that Dungy’s choice to lead by example and help individuals through personal outreach is helping to lay the foundation for a stronger future for the Black community. 

The reason is simple.  If progress is slow, attempts to circumvent the process, to take a shortcut straight to the end game, will fail and set us back instead.  Dungy did try to succeed, don’t get me wrong.  He did not sit at his desk one morning laying out a plan for tempering his inevitable triumphs.  The point is that he clearly has a similar vision for progress – a vision for a stronger, healthier, more prosperous Black community with strong families and faith – but he did not take the podium and turn it into his pulpit.  He used his fame and acclaim to reach out on a personal level.  He leveraged his position to get peoples’ ears, but he has, to date, kept the most dangerous, controversial truths private.

Mr. Dungy’s crowning achievement is that he managed to be different without ruffling any feathers, and he did so in a world that initially rejects change with resounding and overwhelming force – then subsequently flocks to it at light speed.  The NFL coach is supposed to be a loud and fiery disciplinarian with white skin, brown hair and a stiff, thin upper lip.  Dungy is none of those things and his level of success is precisely equal to that of the best modern-day coaches who perfectly embody that stereotype (think Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, who replaced Dungy in Tampa and won the Super Bowl in his first season with Dungy’s team).  The stereotype of the Black man, especially in NFL circles, is similarly linear.  The NFL’s Black man isn’t supposed to be soft-spoken, spiritual, smart and savvy.  Dungy apparently shredded that memorandum upon his induction into the head coaches’ club and continued about his business, winning football games and helping people his way.

Dungy didn’t win five straight super bowls and history will not remember him as Victory’s greatest lover.  Nor would he wed Defeat (as Marv Levy did in the 1990s), and it is better for all of us that he vacates his throne somewhere in the middle.  What we needed from Dungy was not to write a story of incredible, unfathomable success.  Eldrick has done that – blown every white player ever to cross him completely out of the water – but it hasn’t meant that Black people are equally respected and represented in the sport of golf.  Dungy may have wanted to crush the competition on an annual basis, his failure to do so means more for progress.

If Dungy, or his disciples Jim Caldwell and Lovie Smith, had achieved disproportionate success by bucking tradition and stereotype, they might be able to change convention and even stereotype, but they wouldn’t be making progress for the long run.  As long as Black people mimic each other and have similar levels of success, they will continue to be grouped together.  Similarly, any disproportionate level of success will be mimicked by white and Black alike, and in the ultimate copycat league, it would be the system he devised that won.  Sure, he’d be credited with creating the system, but we’re not ready for that yet.  Dungy’s value to progress comes from the fact that he is unanimously acclaimed for his work on and off the field, unversally respected as a man and as a professional, and the fact that he got here without following a trend or inciting a paradigm shift.   He doesn’t and didn’t fit a description, nor has he single-handedly created a new description that GMs must seek out.  He is calm, cerebral and clever.  He treats his players as professionals, as adults.  As such, if a man with a bright football mind and a similar philosophy is considered for a head coaching position, there is now a precedent, but not a strong enough one to force out the old guard. 

As Mr. Dungy steps down, he leaves behind a lasting impression in the NFL community.  He has demonstrated that, regardless of the race and age of NFL players, they can be treated with the respect befitting of a professional adult.  He simultaneously proved to the NFL that a Black man could be victorious at the highest level in the sport of football, and that there is no such thing as “the Black coach;” there are only Black individuals employed as head coaches.  He did not try to be white, he did not try to be Black, he did not fall victim to the myth that a Black man operates a certain way.  Dungy never felt compelled to succumb to convention.  He just did what he felt was right to the best of his ability and he got the same results as Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren and Tom Coughlin.  He has forced me to remember him as an individual.  I will not forget that he is the first Black man to lead a team to a championship, but I will remember first his character and his tireless efforts to achieve relatively modest gains, independent of his race.  It takes a lot for me to say that I can remember a man independent of his race, and that is why I believe we’ve put another foot forward on the path to progress.  As Wyclef Jean’s father told him the night he played Carnegie Hall in front of America’s powerful elites, you have made it when people can see through your wardrobe, through the dark skin and scars, and see the man.  Above all, I will remember Mr. Dungy as a man who made it, and a man who has taken us one step further on our individual paths to make it.

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