Coach Tony Dungy: “You Don’t Win Every Game”

Coach Tony Dungy has had a lot of firsts, as the first NFL coach to defeat all NFL teams, the youngest assistant coach at age 25, the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl, and the first NFL book author to ever reach the New York Times bestseller’s list. Tony was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 to 2001, and head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 200 to 2008, retiring in 2009. I caught up with Dungy to discuss what matters most, and find it fitting to run the interview the day after the 46th Super Bowl in which he served as commentator…

What role does attitude play in your life?

Attitude is really the key. When you are involved in sports as much as I am, you are going to have wins and losses, ups and downs, and it really depends on your outlook, how you handle both of those things. Attitude goes a long way wherever you are in life, whatever your station. How you look at things really determines a lot of what you’re going to be able to do.

Did you set goals, or how do you go about attaining so many notable accomplishments?

I don’t think I’ve set out to do those things exactly, but I think setting goals is important. One of the things I did…one of the things I think my parents instilled in me…is that you do set goals that you try to reach. Don’t be afraid to set your mind on high goals. I never thought some of those things when I was growing up, even when I started coaching. You know, you want to win the Super Bowl but you don’t think necessarily about it.

How was it different to win the Super Bowl as a player, versus as a coach?

As a coach I think you have a much better understanding about everything that is involved, how difficult it is. You have a greater appreciation for everyone else’s role. It was a thrill both ways but I just think you have a much bigger understanding of everything as a coach. And that’s why it was probably more satisfying to me.

You are a coach who integrates your philosophies off the playing field. What are some of your favorite lessons coaching has taught you about life?

The important thing is to get people working together. That’s how you succeed. You are going to have to bounce back from adversity, in sports and life. Sometimes it’s harder to handle success than it is to handle defeat. When you have tough situations, you tend to go back to work and rectify those. Sometimes when you are winning and everything is going smoothly you can get complacent and that’s when things can fall apart.

You are known for staying calm, even when things don’t go well. How do you stay calm amidst hardship?

I probably learned that from my dad and from the church. Trusting in the Lord, and not only in yourself. My dad always tried to look at things analytically, “How are we going to move forward from the position we are in? How are we going to make things a little bit better?” I learned those lessons from him. I wasn’t always that way.

You have also talked about the importance of improving every week towards one’s goals. How can we measure whether we are improving in our own lives?

I think by setting goals and analyzing and seeing where you are. And again not just by being caught in the trappings of success and thinking, “Things are going well so we must be doing a good job.” But really analyzing, “What did we do well and what did we do not so well?” and looking at it periodically and systemically.

You are also known for your Next Man Up method of coaching, in which you train each player on the team as if he has equal importance. I imaging this would also translate into management-treating each employee equally. As a coach, was this ever difficult for you to maintain, as certain players took the limelight?

Not really. I think it comes back to attitude. My attitude was to try to show everyone on the team that they were important, that their role was critical to us winning, to treat everyone with respect. I think if the leader does that, that transmits to other players, as opposed to saying, “Well, these people are important, these are less important, these people are not important at all.”

You have managed to prioritize your family amidst your career. How have you maintained this balance, in an industry that certainly must challenge you to invest a tremendous amount of time and energy?

It is hard. You put in hours and all those things that go along with the job, but trying to let them know they are important when you do have off time, trying to do things that they really enjoy, trying to incorporate them as much as you can into your work. It’s not always doable, not always easy, sometimes you can, but that helps make them feel a part of it and feel special.

You have been on presidential advisory boards, and started and served in many charities. How do you find so much energy to give?

You get a feel, at least I do anyway, of what’s important and things that do transcend your job; you really do feel like you can put some energy towards that. I’ve always been one who felt that education, young people, Christian outreach, and neighborhood outreach is important—and that’s going to last a lot longer than football careers. That’s always something I’ve been interested in.

You have had a lot of success. Many in your shoes, and in your industry, have sacrificed character to gain success…but you haven’t. How do you stay so steadfast in your character?

To me, I think that’s the critical thing. Whether you have success or don’t, whether you climb the ladder or not, you’re always going to be able to reflect back on who you are as a person. And that’s going to come out, whether you’re successful or not. That’s got to be the most important thing. I’ve always tried to pray about that, make sure I do things with integrity, trying to be the best person I can be all the time, and not necessarily just the most successful.

Can you tell us a little about your book, Uncommon?

It really delves into that: what’s important about life. It’s really if I were having a six hour car ride with someone, to talk about what I think is important about life—integrity, character, helping other people, being a part of a community, being a part of a winning team—really explaining my feelings on that. The title really came from a Bible verse where Christ said don’t follow the wide road, follow the narrow road. Don’t necessarily look to just be average, to go where everyone else is going. Set your sights a little differently; set your sights higher…to be uncommon.

You have experience great loss, such as that of your son at a young age. How can we cope with loss, and learn to find a blessing in it?

The lesson in sports is that you don’t win every game; you don’t go undefeated. God is there in the wins and the losses. He is always there. Sometimes we don’t always draw on that, we don’t always feel that. That’s the great part about sports. When you do lose, you have to bounce back. You have to come back and look forward. To me, that is the big thing about Christian life; you learn from your past but you look forward with anticipation.

Do you ever struggle to stay positive?

Sometimes. I think it’s human nature when you have a tough situations, difficult loses, disappointment. You have to force yourself to stay positive. It’s an attitude. It goes back to the very first question… You can have that positive attitude or you can give into the circumstances. Life is tough and there are times when you will feel like giving in, but you have to look forward and stay positive.

Now that you have retired from coaching, do you have any goals yet to achieve?

Outreach and trying to help the communities that I live in, wherever that’s going to be, Tampa or Indianapolis. Helping young people reach their potential. Seeing if we can help especially with graduation rates, getting people involved in education so they can reach their potential, and spreading the gospel especially in areas where maybe there are people who aren’t going to hear it in a church setting, that you can get the message across.

Interview originally ran in Attitude Digest magazine, Fall 2009

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