Celebrating Tony Dungy’s Steelers Coaching Legacy

Tony Dungy now sits from his rightful perch in in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he earned through his efforts in transforming the perennial loser Tampa Bay Buccaneers into contenders and for securing the first Super Bowl win by an African American head coach with the Indianapolis Colts.

  • But Tony Dungy’s roots run Black and Gold, a fact Dungy brought home by tapping Donniey Shell to present him.

Dungy’s time in playing in Pittsburgh as well as Tony Dungy Steelers coaching resume were all about overcoming the odds, an experience that served him well in Tampa and Indy. The Pittsburgh portion of Dungy’s resume is plenty impressive, and Steelers Nation must embrace it and celebrate it.

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Keith Gary , Mike Mayock, Anthony Washington, Tony Dungy and Chuck Noll; Photo Credit: Donald J. Stetzer, Post-Gazette

Tony Dungy’s Time as a Steelers Defensive Back

By the spring of 1977 the Pittsburgh Steelers had won two Super Bowls and just lost the 1976 AFC Championship game with the team that, almost to a man, the Super Steelers insist was the most talented of the decade.

  • Such a talented team wouldn’t leave much room for an undrafted rookie free agent, would it?

Fortunately Chuck Noll’s philosophy flowed in a different direction. As Dungy later told Jim O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Press:

…You think you’re just a little ol’ free agent and you’d think you don’t belong, but the coaches give you as much time as they give everybody else. They really try to help you make the team. So do the veterans.

Tony Dungy not only earned spot on the team, but played extensively as the Steeler’s 5th defensive back and third safety behind Mike Wagner and Donnie Shell. During 1977 and 1978, Dungy appeared in 30 games, making two starts and hauling down 9 interceptions. Highlight’s of Dungy’s Pittsburgh Steelers playing career include:

  • Leading the team with 6 interceptions in 1979
  • Recording AND throwing an interception as an emergency Quarterback in 1977
  • Forcing a Randy White fumble in Super Bowl XIII, setting up the Steelers final score

The Steelers traded Dungy to the 49ers following 1979, where Dungy played for a year before getting traded, and ultimately cut by the New York Giants.

While Dungy didn’t have a Hall of Fame playing career for the Steelers, he did earn a Super Bowl ring, and he now joins Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as the 10th player from the Steelers Super Bowl XIII Championship team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for an undrafted rookie free agent trying to break into the league with a team laden by Super Bowl veterans….

Noll Brings Dungy to Pittsburgh as Defensive Backs Assistant

As the exploits of Dungy’s brief playing days reveal, he might not have had the athletic talents, but he certainly possessed football smarts. New York Giants head coach Ray Perkins came to that conclusion based on Dungy’s brief time there, and gave Dungy his first interview in 1981.

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Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

When Dungy called Steelers defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer for advice, Widenhofer arranged a meeting with Noll, and Dungy joined the team as a defensive backs coach.

  • By his own admission, however, Dungy spent 75% of his time during his first year working with the Steelers linebackers.

Nonetheless, Chuck Noll saw enough to send incumbent secondary coach Dick Walker packing while promoting Dungy to defensive backs coach. Tracing the impact of positions coaches was just as difficult in the early 80’s as it is today, but Dungy’s made close to an immediate impact, coaching his players to read the quarterback instead of focusing on receivers.

The fact that Dungy was able to make such a quick impact as a position coach is a little eailser tunderstand when you realize that the 27 year old Dungy had enough confidence to suggest technique changes to Mel Blount, who was well into his mid-30’s and already clear first ballot Hall of Famer.

When Woody Widenhofer left Pittsburgh to take the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaw’s head coaching position, Chuck Noll only had one place to look….

Tony Dungy, Youngest, 1st Black Coordinator

At age 29, Chuck Noll at once made Tony Dungy the youngest coordinator in the NFL and also the first African American coordinator. While Noll admitted he’d talked to several candidates “…but not with a really open mind.”

Earning such a prestigious promotion at age 29 might seem like an uncanny a stroke of good luck, but Tony Dungy got nothing handed to him. If anything, fate worked against him:

  • News of Blount and Bradshaw’s retirements dominated the news conference announcing Dungy’s hire.

Worse yet, Jack Lambert’s career ended 3 starts into this Tony Dungy’s tenure as Steelers defensive coordinator. Undaunted, Dungy took the reins of a Steelers defense that was literally shedding Hall of Famers and defied the odds. By end of the Steelers 1984 season, the Steelers defense had the NFL’s number 5 defense (in total yards) two notches below 1983’s edition and Steelers defenders ranked 2nd in interceptions, a rank above the previous year.

In the 1984 Steelers playoff upset win over the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, the Steelers defense dominated John Elway, sacking him 4 times and brutalizing him so badly he could barely stay in the game. Years later, a cousin of mine recounted how Elway was forced to take snaps with one hand – press accounts do not confirm that, but Elway injured his groin, bruised a kneed and twisted an ankle.

Asked about the 1984 Steelers defense following the game, Elway conceeded, “They dictated. They more or less did what they wanted.”

Tony Dungy put an exclamation point on Elway’s concession with the game tied at 3:45 left to play, with the Broncos attempting to rally on 2nd and 5 from their 20 yard line. The Steelers defense showed zone coverage, Elway looked at safety Eric Williams and assumed he had a one-on-one with Ray Alexander.

  • Except that Williams was playing man coverage, intercepted Elway’s pass and returned it to the Steelers 2.

It was Elway’s second interception of the day, and his last as it set up Frank Pollard’s go-ahead touchdown.

Pittsburgh would of course fall to the Miami Dolphins the next week in the AFC Championship, but the 1984 Steelers had shocked the world in won the AFC Championship, ruining the ’84 49er’s perfect season and upsetting Elway’s Broncos at Mile High. And Tony Dungy’s defense had led the way.

1985-1987 Tony Dungy’s Star on the Rise

Unfortunately, the 1984 Steelers success was largely a mirage. Chuck Noll had managed to coax above average performance with average talent. But as the last of the Super Steelers faded, the Steelers slipped into mediocrity during 1985 and 1986.

  • Yet Tony Dungy’s kept the Steelers defense competitive.

The 1985 Steelers finished 7-9, Chuck Noll’s first losing effort since 1971, but the Steelers defense finished 6th overall in yards allowed. The rest of the NFL took note of Tony Dungy’s Steelers coaching career.

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In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s Youngest Defensive coordinator

In the winter of 1986, Dungy found himself a head coaching candidate, as the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the job that ultimately went to Buddy Ryan. Dungy didn’t get the job, but by that point he was widely expected to become the NFL’s first African American head coach.

The 1986 Steelers slipped even further, dropping to 6-10,and the Steelers defense slipped to 18th in yards allowed.

The 1987 NFL draft saw Chuck Noll reload on defense, picking future stars like Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Thomas Everett, and Hardy Nickerson (in addition to one-year wonder Delton Hall.) Armed with the infusion of talent, Tony Dungy oversaw a defensive rebound, as the Steelers defense improved to 13th overall, was 3rd in interceptions, and returned 7 interceptions for touchdowns, leading the league.

  • Indeed, the Steelers defense carried Pittsburgh to a 8-7 record (6-6 in non-strike games), and kept them competitive in games they had no right to contest.

Some fans insisted that the Steelers were “A quarterback away from the Super Bowl.” In 20/20 hindsight, such observations were clearly wishful thinking, but the Steelers defense appeared to be on the rise. After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Bruce Kredan quipped that the Steelers had applied the finishing touches to Curtain II by drafting Aaron Jones, he wasn’t being entirely sarcastic.

Steelers Dreadful 1988 Campaign and Dungy’s Demise in Pittsburgh

The 1987 Steelers finished one game out of the final Wild Card slot for the playoffs. Yet, the fact that they almost won that game on thanks to 4th quarter, 45 yard pick six by Cornell Gowdy, teased that the Steelers defense was once again knocking on dominance’s door.

  • Again, the hopes of Steelers Nation fell into disappointment.

The 1988 Steelers opened with a win over Tom Landry’s Cowboys, and closed with a win over Don Shula’s Dolphins, but struggled mightily in between only winning three other contests. While the Steelers special teams and offense had their liabilities, the fact is that the 1988 Steelers saw 4th quarter lead after 4th quarter lead evaporate.

  • Statistics confirmed the defense’s decline, which slipped to 28th in yardage, worst in the NFL

The decline of the Steelers defense in 1988 defies easy explanation. 1988 saw Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, and Hardy Nickerson blossom into full time starters. Alongside these upstarts were players like Bryan Hinkle, David Little, Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Dwayne Woodruff who were still playing in their primes.

  • Most likely, the 1988 Steelers defense regressed because they could not get on the same page.

Steelers linebackers coach Jed Hughes had designs on converting Aaron Jones into an outside linebacker. Tony Dungy disagreed, and wanted Jones to remain at defensive end. Jed Hughes went over Dungy’s head, and Jones spent part of the season at outside linebacker.

  • The damage this move did to Dungy’s standing with the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL should not be underestimated.

Ed Bouchette detailed it in a Dawn of a New Steel Age. In his book, Double Yoi, Myron Cope also delved into the incident, sharing that reporters silently rooted for Dungy in his struggle with Hughes, but ultimately arguing:

…I could not help but think that word travels on the football grapevine – Tony had let the linebackers coach steal Noll’s ear. Was he head coaching material or a wimp? In time, he answered the question, but the grapevine may have delayed his rise to the top for years.

The is plot actually thicker here, involving other revered Steelers legends here, which Ivan Cole documents on Going Deep with the Steelers, based on conversations with Bill Nunn.

  • Regardless, Dan Rooney didn’t like what he saw, and demanded that Chuck Noll fire several assistants.

Noll resisted, contemplated resigning until relenting. Jed Hughes name was on the hit list, Tony Dungy’s was not. But, the Steelers did ask Dungy to take a demotion. Dungy declined and resigned, ending his time in Pittsburgh.

Tony Dungy’s Arch in Pittsburgh Comes Full Circle (Sort of)

Tony Dungy had been the hot coaching prodigy in the mid and late 1980’s, often expected to be the NFL’s first black coach and/or the man to succeed Chuck Noll. Alas, Tony Dungy didn’t fufill either role, at least directly.

mike tomlin, tony dungy, steelers vs. colts 2008, steelers, colts, heinz field

Mike Tomlin and Tony Dungy prior to the 2008 Steelers-Colts matchup; Photo Credit; ESPN, used on High Court Press

In a wired twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Tony Dungy with Rod Rust, the recently deposed head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Tony Dungy for his part would head to Kansas City to serve as Marty Schottenhimer’s defensive backs coach, whose secondary contributed the success of Kansas City’s defense, brining Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher to the attention of the Rooneys.

Dungy parlayed his success in Kansas City into a defensive coordinator job in Minnestoa, which he used to get his first head coaching job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tony Dungy hired and mentored promising young coach by the name of Mike Tomlin, giving him his first job in the NFL.

Tony Dungy’s roots not only Black and Gold, but his influence has lived on in Pittsburgh, long after his departure.

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