In 1981, the Pittsburgh Steelers hired Tony Dungy as the defensive backs coach. Dungy had played for the Steelers in 1977 and ’78 as an undrafted free agent. He intercepted 9 passes in limited action, including 6 for the Steelers in 1978 which culminated in the victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII. Dungy left the Steelers after the Super Bowl Championship and signed with the San Francisco 49ers starting seven games. The next season, he was placed on the New York Giants‘ practice squad, but left to become the Minnesota Vikings‘ defensive backs coach.
Chuck Noll thought so much of Dungy’s work that he promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1984 at the tender age of 28, which made him the youngest defensive coordinator in league history. Noll was the perfect coach for the Rooney family, setting a tone of best man for the job regardless of what they look like. Noll had chosen Joe Gilliam over Terry Bradshaw as a starter in 1974, for no other reason than he thought Gilliam was the best man for the job. Less than 10 years later, he picked Dungy for the same reason. He thought he was the best defensive coach to run his defense.
What If Noll Hadn’t Fired Dungy in 1988
In 1988, Noll’s seat was getting blazing hot as the Steelers fell to 5-11 and the vaunted Steelers defense slipped to dead last in the league. Noll knew he had to make a change, but his affection for Dungy behind the scenes made it an extremely difficult decision to let him go. The Steelers were in transition and were just one year removed from being a top 10 defense. In the spirit of our series, let’s say that Noll sits down with Dan Rooney and convinces him that 1988 was an issue, but that Dungy who was just 34, was a coaching star they couldn’t afford to let get away. Noll would share that he only planned to coach for 2-3 more years, and he felt strongly that Dungy was the right man to succeed him. Mr. Rooney is skeptical, but they agree that all the coaches except Dungy would be let go and that they would reevaluate after one more season.
The 1989 season begins with a thud with the Steelers being outscored 92-10 by the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. The head coach puts his job on the line and invokes his four Super Bowl trophy pedigree and guarantees Mr. Rooney that if he just has faith until the end of the season, they will make the playoffs, or he will resign and forfeit his last two years of pay. They shake hands and agree to the terms. Despite the horrific start, Dungy works around the clock to design a game plan that will give the Steelers a chance against the Minnesota Vikings and comes up big as the Steelers, after looking like the worst team in the league, win against the playoff bound Vikings. The black and gold go on to win 9 of the next 14 games including an incredible three in a row to secure a Wild Card berth against division rival the Houston Oilers. The Steelers pull a stunning upset against the run and shoot Oilers in Houston, and then a week later give the AFC representative Denver Broncos all they could handle in a 24-23 loss.
Shortly after the loss, Mr. Rooney pulls Noll and Dungy into the trainer’s office to congratulate them on a job well done and lets the defensive coordinator in on Noll’s promise that the 1991 season at the end of his current contract would be his last. He tells them that after the amazing turnaround and the defense going from last to 15th, he is prepared to consider Dungy a viable candidate for the head coach position going forward. Both coaches are not satisfied with a playoff loss, but are excited about the team’s future.
In 1990, Dungy does a fantastic job with the defense as they rise to the third best scoring defense in the league and the Steelers once again go 9-7, but they do not make the playoffs finishing third in the AFC Central. Noll’s final season with Dungy in 1991 sees the Steelers defense carry the team to an 8-8 record after a huge Thanksgiving Day win over Dallas 24-20 after the defense comes up huge in the last 10 minutes of the game to send Noll off into the sunset.
After the season ends, the Rooney’s start the interview process explaining to Dungy that they have to interview other candidates and to respect the process. After meeting with several candidates, including a mouthy special teams coordinator named Bill Cowher who gets upset when asked if he would ever leave the team after two Super Bowl appearances and become a TV studio host, the Steelers brass is ready to talk to Dungy. His quiet, unassuming style makes the team feel that the transition will be smooth and unlike the wild-eyed Cowher, who inexplicably was stuffing resumes in the secretary’s pockets halfway through the interview, he seems in control of his emotions.
The Steelers pull the trigger, and the 1991 head coach in Pittsburgh will be former player, Tony Dungy. Chuck Noll attends the press conference smiling ear to ear like a proud father. Dungy reminds the press that while he has been a defensive coordinator, he was a college QB and he appreciates Bubby Brister as a competitor, but is going to look for a quarterback to bring into camp to compete with Brister and third round pick Neil O’Donnell through the draft.
At pick 11, the Steelers select Tommy Maddox.
O’Donnell wins the job in camp with Brister as his backup and Maddox holds a clipboard waiting for his chance. The Steelers have a nice run to start Dungy’s career and after a couple of division titles, they make the Super Bowl against the hated Cowboys. O’Donnell still chokes and the usually reserved Dungy decides that three years holding a clipboard is long enough and ‘Tommy Gun’ gets his nickname from Myron Cope seven seasons early.
The Steelers go on a magical run and win a Super Bowl in 1997 when Maddox hits star wide receiver Kordell Stewart who leaps over Bill Romanowski at the goal line in the AFC Championship game and points to his head as if to tell Romanowski to think about how to tackle him. Maddox outduels Brett Favre in the Super Bowl and the AFC gets back in the win column. After a couple of down years, Maddox gets the Steelers back to the Super Bowl in 2001 after defeating the New England Patriots and their rookie QB who are rumored to have practice tape of the Steelers signals for the AFC Championship game. Bill Belichick is seen cursing his assistants after the game, shouting “#$%^& Maddox doesn’t follow the signals, he probably doesn’t even know them!” The Steelers win a crazy shootout against the Rams 49-48 in the Super Bowl and Dungy has his second ring in 10 seasons.
In 2003, Maddox injures his ankle in a freak skydiving accident after beating the Bengals 17-10 in the third game of the season. He thought it would be great for the fans to see him parachute in against the Tennessee Titans and over Dungy, and the team’s objections did it anyway. The season was lost as the Steelers turned to Antwaan Randle El as the backup quarterback and went 6-10 despite running an NFL record 12 reverses per game. Dungy gets credit for innovating and inventing the jet sweep.
In the draft, they elect to go with a young quarterback out of Ohio. Ben Roethlisberger is picked by the Steelers and after Maddox is injured against Baltimore, he takes the field. Roethlisberger inspired by his head coach decides to become a youth pastor after his 15-1 rookie season, so that he can inspire the kids of Pittsburgh. He leads the Steelers on a great run winning two more Super Bowls and securing a national endorsement deal for milk, the Honeycomb Hideout and Kool-Aid. Dungy retires after the 2008 season at the age of 53 with a 4-1 record in Super Bowls and turns the team over to his young defensive coordinator who has been grooming for three years, some young kid named Mike Tomlin. Tomlin upon being hired coins his signature phrase, ‘The standard is the standard, and Coach Dungy set the standard.’
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Does Dungy follow in Noll’s footsteps with four more trophies? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.