Florida ready to welcome Dungy

January 19, 2009

NAPLES—In southwest Florida, the take on Tony Dungy's departure was a little different than it was in Indianapolis.

In Tampa, where Dungy's family lives, the story was played like the return of a native son. The Tampa Tribune ran a page 1 story above the fold under the headline "Dungy's Coming Home."

Tribune reporter Joe Henderson wrote, "Headlines will say that Indianapolis lost a top football coach, but Tampa gained a friend." Henderson told me Dungy's return was "huge" and that coverage dominated the local news the day the story broke.

Even the Naples Daily News coverage of Dungy's retirement reflected the deep connection the coach has with this area. The newspaper gave the story page 1 status in its sports section with a large headline, a photo and about 35 column inches. This part of the Sunshine State loves T.D.

It's been obvious for a long time that Dungy has been "on loan" to Indianapolis since he joined the Colts seven years ago. His wife and kids lived in Indianapolis awhile, but when the decision was made to give the kids a permanent home and consistent home life, Florida got the nod. In literature, they call that "foreshadowing."

All along, the coach made no secret of the fact that his wife preferred Tampa's warm climate to the winters in Indy. And, I've got to say as I sit here in 80-degree sunshine in January, I don't blame her.

But you know the coach's attachment to Tampa goes way beyond the weather. Dungy got his first head-coaching job in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and did a respectable job with the team. He turned around a losing franchise and made the Bucs an NFL contender. Some say the Bucs won their only Super Bowl to date because of the work Dungy did there.

The team's transformation marked Dungy's coming of age as a coach. That kind of experience builds roots in a community.

Even though he was fired by Tampa Bay, Dungy had endeared himself to southwest Florida by getting involved here as a citizen and by showing that an NFL coach can create a winner and be a nice guy and good man at the same time. His family obviously made some strong ties, too.

Tampa is where Dungy's pet project, All Pro Dads, was started and remains headquartered. The organization encourages NFL coaches and players to get involved in their communities and offers programs that are designed to help men become better fathers and establish stronger bonds with their children.

IBJ partnered with Dungy and All Pro Dads the last three years with an event called a "Power Breakfast with Tony Dungy." The coach talked about All Pro Dads and the Indianapolis Colts and took questions from the audience. He was always gracious and candid, and, of course, he always drew a big crowd. It was a great experience for us and mutually beneficial.

I had the opportunity to get to know the coach a little bit during those events. We ate breakfast together and had the opportunity to talk about a lot of things. This will come as no great news flash, but I can tell you the man is everything he is cracked up to be. Forget coaching; he's an outstanding individual.

With his departure, the Indianapolis Colts lose a beloved coach and a leader who took them to a Super Bowl title. Our community loses an iconic figure who led the home team to glory and finally solidified the city's credentials as an NFL town. More important, our community loses a man who could've made an even bigger impact here had he stayed longer.

And at this moment, I regret that lost opportunity a lot more than the loss of a coach. 

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Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.

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