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Coach Dad

"Coach Dad" Continued...

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

When in Tampa, Dungy volunteered for Abe Brown's Prison Crusade Ministry. Growing up near a Michigan state prison gave him preconceived notions about the inmates he was visiting. "My view from growing up was that the prisoners were bad-tough, hardened criminals," he recalled. In Florida, though, he met young men who needed some guidance and love. "The high percentage of these guys had no dad or limited exposure to their dads. Very few of these guys in there had two-parent families," he said. As they talked about their lives, he wondered at times what kept him from that path. "Maybe the only difference between me and being an NFL coach is not that I was a good guy. Maybe I got a little more direction."

He also came to appreciate his father in a new way, as he realized that lots of other fathers had not sacrificed themselves for the sake of their children. NFL coaching added to his appreciation, as he realized that a big part of coaching was becoming a father figure for some players who had not known their fathers very well, if at all.

Dungy's success seems based on the fact that he has faith in something bigger than football. His Christian commitment has earned him lots of respect in a business that can be hard on anyone who seems a little too soft and kind. Yet that commitment helps him see the limits of the sport.

He was included in Time magazine's recent list of the 100 most influential people in the world, but he quickly pointed to others in his family as more deserving of the honor. He nominated his two sisters, a nurse and doctor, and a brother who is a dentist. "I don't see a football coach as being tremendously influential in the big scheme of things," he said. "There's a very big difference between influence and importance. What my siblings do is incredibly important."

Yet he'll use his influence for faith-based causes. He avoids commercial endorsements to keep a focus on his family message. He and his wife Lauren have quietly adopted children to blend with their birth children. He was scolded after the Super Bowl by advocates of same-sex marriage for accepting a fatherhood award from the Indiana Family Institute, which was supporting a marriage amendment. He came back with a ringing endorsement of the amendment and family values.

His faith-first approach also might have cost him his job in Tampa Bay, where he transformed a struggling Buccaneers squad. Although Dungy turned losing seasons into playoff appearances (he has the best coaching record in team history), he didn't reach the Super Bowl quickly enough and was fired after six seasons.

He thought about going into the prison ministry full-time. He also quickly got other coaching offers. A persuasive call came from Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was looking for a winning coach but a family-friendly one as well. He was impressed with the way Dungy kept football in perspective. "He has things in balance," Irsay told WORLD. "If he loses a football game, he doesn't look at himself as any less as a person."

Irsay sees a competitive drive in Dungy, but at a deeper level. "Anyone can rant and rave and throw the headset down and kick a blackboard at halftime," Irsay said. "But is he willing to have the difficult conversations with people in the organization, with players, with coaches? Will he close the door, one on one, and hold people accountable?"

Irsay sees the suffering in his own life, as well as Dungy's, as a spiritual test. Irsay lost a sister, Roberta, 15, in an auto accident. His handicapped brother Tom died in 1999. Jim Irsay had a bout with addiction to prescription drugs in recent years. "Almost all spiritual growth-the touchstone of it is suffering, through those tough seasons," he says. "That is what gives your faith a chance to grow. If it doesn't you can become bitter."

Dungy's toughest trial was the loss of his son James to suicide in December 2005. "What it forces you to do is live in the present," he reflected for USA Today a few months later. "Make the present as good as you can make it. Because you can't count on the future, and you can't go back and redo the past."

His suffering helped him to be an even more effective exhorter to parents to make the most of the time with their children, because the time might be short. He has been careful to carve out time for his children, but NFL coaches always have more work to do. "You want to do a great job at both. Logic tells you that you need more time at home, but reality is different," he says. "The times that you are home, you have to zero in and make sure you're doing what's important to them. It's not necessarily what they want to do. It may be studying with them. You've got to make them know that they're important."

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