By George Bremer
Anderson Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — As Tony Dungy stood on the sidelines before Sunday’s afternoon practice at Anderson University, members of the Indianapolis Colts intermittently stopped by to shake his hand reverentially.
The head coach for the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI championship team was greeted by each player as if he was a visiting head of state. First came Reggie Wayne, one of just seven players still on the roster from Dungy’s final season in 2008. Austin Collie was next to pay his respects, followed a short time later by reserve quarterback Chandler Harnish — who grew up a Colts fan cheering for Dungy in Bluffton.
Finally, it was Andrew Luck’s turn. And the two men shared a handshake that bridged the franchise’s highly successful past and its suddenly promising future.
“Tony was great,” said current Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who had an audience with Dungy on Saturday night. “He’s got so much, and he’s done so many great things. What I told the team (was that) he is the all-time winningest coach in Colts history. Every one of his teams here went to the playoffs, 93 wins, won a Super Bowl and more importantly than that it’s what he’s done off the field and how he is as a man and how he is as a father and all the lives that he’s impacted.”
Dungy was at training camp at the invitation of Colts owner Jim Irsay. He said it’s the first time he’s been at any NFL practice since he left the sidelines following a run of seven straight playoff appearances in seven seasons with Indianapolis.
He spent time on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium during NBC’s broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI in February, and he said that if the excitement on that field didn’t lure him back to the coaching ranks nothing likely will.
Still, it was clear he likes the look of Indianapolis’ young roster — especially Luck, who was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL draft.
“He looked like a third- or fourth-year guy in this first practice,” Dungy said. “I’ve seen him play twice, Oregon against Stanford, and so I saw it from that perspective. And you feel like, ‘Well, he’s been running this offense that he’s been comfortable with.’ But to see it here, and knowing that he’s had a condensed offseason program too because of the school’s set up there, it was very impressive. And, you know, I guess I know now what those guys, (general manager) Ryan (Grigson) and Jim Irsay and Chuck (Pagano), knew (after the draft) that they are going to be in good hands.”
Irsay also addressed the media during Sunday’s afternoon practice, and he spoke about the similarities between Dungy and Pagano.
Both men came up on the defensive side of the ball, and Irsay said he’s impressed with both men’s ability to inspire respect in their players.
“You talk to those guys in Baltimore (where Pagano coached from 2008-11), and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and those guys, the trust and the admiration that they have in Chuck was tremendous,” Irsay said. “That’s something that they both have and bring into the room when they get with the players because a leader is followed a lot of the times from the heart and from the deep belief. You can’t force someone to follow you even though their contract says it, you must. It comes more from a deeper place, and I think the players have a great respect for Chuck as they did for Tony.”
No one in the media could remember the last time they’d seen the owner attend practice on the first day of training camp, and Irsay repeatedly told the media he liked what he was seeing.
He’s heard the national pundits who believe this Colts team could be among the worst in the league. But he isn’t putting much stock in those opinions.
Instead, he said, Indianapolis will set its own expectations from within.
“I know we don’t want to use ‘rebuild,’” he said. “I guess ‘retool’ or whatever word you want to use, but we want to have a chance to compete and have a chance to be in the playoffs, to have a chance to win games and do things people predict that you can’t do.”
Dungy supplied a gentle reminder of just how possible those goals are.
His first team in Tampa Bay in 1996 was torpedoed by a 1-8 start, but the Buccaneers were a playoff team just a year later.
Dungy said the key for Pagano is to stick to his plan no matter what outside influences suggest. And he brought up some examples from last season of teams that didn’t let others dictate how their stories played out.
“The thing about it, it’s not the talent but it’s about getting the talent to understand the system,” Dungy said. “So you’ve got new guys here, new system, and that’s the big thing. How quick will it get put together? But what I told the guys (during a post-practice address), our first playoff game last year, for NBC, was Cincinnati and Houston. Cincinnati was supposed to be rebuilding, they had a rookie quarterback, and Houston was playing the third-team quarterback after the first two got hurt, and they had never been to the playoffs. So we in the media can write about who is supposed to be good, who has got talent, who is going to be this or that, but they get the chance to prove it on the field. That’s really what it’s all about, and that’s what training camp is about.”