Tony Dungy’s NFL career began in a cradle of Hall of Famers.
Dungy was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 1977, which means he joined a roster that already included NINE future Hall-of-Fame players – Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann and Mike Webster – plus a Canton-bound head coach in Chuck Noll and an already-enshrined owner in Art Rooney.
Dungy’s playing career lasted just three years but he went into coaching immediately thereafter and would subsequently cross paths with many more future Hall of Famers, such as Dermontti Dawson, Derrick Thomas, John Randle, Lamar Hunt, Cris Carter, Randall McDaniel, Chris Doleman, Warren Moon and Gary Zimmerman. After Dungy became the head coach of the Buccaneers in 1996, he also eventually tutored McDaniel again in Tampa from 2000-01.
Despite a career spent in the presence of Hall of Famers (and perhaps a career that is also destined for the same honor), it was a unique and special experience for Dungy when former Buccaneer great Warren Sapp got the call to Canton this past February.
Elected in his first year eligible and due to officially be enshrined in July, Sapp is just the second player to enter the Hall who spent the majority of his career as a Buccaneer. He also happens to be the first Hall of Famer that Dungy helped get to Canton as his head coach (and, as was announced Thursday, the fifth member of the Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor).
“I coached Randall McDaniel just for a year or two but I feel like this is the first player who played under me, who developed under me, and it’s quite a thrill,” said Dungy, the Bucs’ general from 1996-2001 who recently visited One Buccaneer Place. “It’s well-deserved. I remember talking to Warren and Derrick [Brooks] when I first got here and saying, ‘If we do this right, the defense is tailor-made for you guys. You should have great careers.’ You never assume Hall of Fame, but we thought Super Bowls and Pro Bowls would be in line. Warren certainly did his part.”
Sapp and Brooks were both drafted during an unforgettable first round in 1995, and Dungy arrived the next year. For the better part of a decade in Sapp’s case, and more in Brooks’ case, the two served as the core of one of most sustained periods of defensive domination in NFL history. Both would end up winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, Sapp getting his first in 1999 while Dungy was still at the helm. Sapp redefined the role of a three-technique defensive tackle and did it with a bigger-than-life personality, all of which made him an undeniable choice when the Hall voters closed their doors in February on the day before the Super Bowl.
Next year, Brooks will be eligible for the first time, and Dungy is hoping his other former charge gets the first-ballot honor as well. In fact, with Marvin Harrison and Dungy himself on the ballot for the first time, too, it could be an extremely satisfying ceremony for Dungy in Canton in the summer of 2014.
“I’m really excited and I think Derrick should go, and Marvin Harrison also,” said Dungy. “That would be three players that I coached, and to me that’s the mark for a coach. If you have guys that played under you that really developed and played great like that, that’s what it’s all about. I’m looking forward to seeing Derrick and Marvin go in…and if I were to get in with them, it would be just like the icing on the cake. Really to just see those three guys go in [including Sapp] in their first-year-eligible would be special.”