SPORTS: Dungy deserves respect whether he stays or goes

January 21, 2008

-Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"

I'm dumbstruck by what I'm hearing and reading. (Probably more dumb than struck, you're thinking.) Still, I have to ask: When did the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy become such a mediocre coach? When did he become a coach that, as some are expressing to owner Jim Irsay, is not worth fighting for, or at least making accommodations to retain?

When did he become such a poor leader of a team that we should accept his possible retirement and desire to place family ahead of football with a shrug of our collective shoulders? Fine, Tony, just don't let the door hit you in the rear on the way out. Uh, does someone have Bill Cowher on speed dial?

Go ahead and hang that playoff loss to San Diego on Dungy if you want. Blame it on his resting of the starters in that final, meaningless, regular season game. Point out that despite last year's Super Bowl "aberration" or "fluke," he's a lousy playoff coach. Proclaim that he's squandered an abundance of talent that other coaches certainly would have guided to two or three Super Bowl victories by now. Make the case that the Colts are the Atlanta Braves of the NFL, all regular-season style and no postseason substance.

I'm not saying Tony Dungy is above reproach.

Wait a second, dang it, I am saying Dungy is above reproach, in this town at least. This is a man who has led the Colts through one of the best stretches ever by an NFL franchise. This is a man whose guidance provided this city three of the best nights it has ever experienced: the AFC Championship win, the Super Bowl win and the Super Bowl celebration in the RCA Dome.

This is a man who has represented the Colts, and Indianapolis, with class and dignity. This is a man who is universally respected by his players, coaching peers and opponents, and throughout professional sports. This is a man who endured an unspeakable personal tragedy yet inspired us all by his grace-filled response. This is a man whose words in his best-selling book have touched the hearts and souls of millions. This is a man who stands for everything you should want in a leader.

This also is a man who hasn't disgraced his franchise by cheating.

You know what? I consider the Super Bowl victory among the least of his accomplishments.

Tony Dungy could choose to return next year and go 0-16 and not lose my respect. Conversely, Dungy could go 16-0 next year and again lose the opening game coming off a bye week and still have my admiration.

Yes, pro sports is a bottom-line world. Yes, he's being compensated to the tune of $5 million a year to have his team perform at the highest level possible. Absolutely, the loss to San Diego was as disappointing as they come ... well, not as disappointing as the Pittsburgh defeat two years ago, but close.

I know this sounds ridiculously simple, but the Colts lost to San Diego because the Chargers made more plays. They executed better. They didn't squander opportunities. Guess what? The Chargers have professional athletes, too. They also have exceptionally talented athletes capable of overcoming adversity and difficult circumstances. It's sports. It happens.

On the Monday after, I felt as let down as everyone did. As deflated as the roof of the RCA Dome soon will be.

Yet I don't feel bad about this season. It was a hell of a year, considering the injuries, in particular to Dwight Freeney and Marvin Harrison. The Colts didn't do a post-Super Bowl flop like the Bears. They didn't fall incredibly short of expectations, like the Saints, Bengals or Ravens. They won, again, the NFL's toughest division.

My assumption, matching most of yours, is that Dungy won't be back. Indeed, by the time you read this, the decision may have been made. If he chooses otherwise, it's a cause for celebration, and if it takes the promise of Jim Irsay's personal jet to ferry him back and forth from Tampa, I'm OK with that though, flat guaranteed, if Dungy comes back, he will come back all the way.

If not, most likely, assistant Jim Caldwell is waiting in the wings, and the transition would be as seamless as possible. This is not a franchise that needs upheaval. This is not a team that is broken.

That said, don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?

I'm afraid we're about to find out.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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