Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE NFL / 1996

Color Him Orange

Tony Dungy Finally Gets His Chance And He's Ready To Meet The Challenge With The Tampa Bay Buccaneers

September 01, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT LONESOME, Fla. — At least they got the name right.

Forty minutes from Tampa Stadium exists a community with a store, a few blueberry farms, some mobile homes, and no recorded population.

Thick trees and endless green fields are the only reliable companions of dusty Florida 674 as it snakes past one of many spots not found in the state's travel brochures.

In the woods near here, two day laborers living in nearby Lakeland made national news three years ago when they set a man on fire because he was black.

On this late spring afternoon in the Fort Lonesome Grocery, rancher Phillip Parrish is fishing around in the cooler when asked whether his neighbors follow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Plain as orange and white, he says.

"The Bucs are right up the road, they're all we got," he says.

He is asked what they think about the new coach, an African American named Tony Dungy.

Plain as black and white, he says.

"There's 90% blacks on the team, did you know that?" Parrish asks. "They needed to have more whites.

"With this Dungy, people wonder whether they made a mistake."

This Dungy will probably read this with a sense of relief.

At least the guy didn't slight him on an answering machine, just a voice and viciousness.

At least he didn't send him an unsigned letter, an X-rated rip in third-grade English.

At least it didn't come from the side of an NFL owner's mouth--and don't think that hasn't happened.

At least this time, the insult has a face, a name, an intent, something Tony Dungy can ponder while working 18-hour days to save the franchise and fulfill a wish.

"That sort of stuff stings you a little," he says. "But it makes you work harder. It makes you more determined."

He will need that strength this year as he deals with a strange owner, an unstable franchise, a depleted offense, and a team history that includes double-digit losses in 11 of the last 12 years.

If he loses quick, he will need that strength as the first black coach of an NFL team in the South.

"I've gotten no hate mail yet," he said. "But we're pretty much still in the honeymoon phase here."

This Dungy, he'll read the above dateline and laugh.

Fort Lonesome? Sounds like somewhere he lives.

*

They did not make a mistake.

Tony Dungy tells himself this every day.

While pushing the players through extra-long practices.

While scolding them afterward for not picking up their socks.

While addressing the Buccaneers with the soft eyes and quiet voice of a professor, challenging their characters to have character.

While dropping everything and praying.

Yes, among other things, Tony Dungy prays.

"I prayed for the draft, I pray for Errict Rhett," he said, referring to the team's holdout running back. "I pray that things work out."

In their own way, many in the NFL are praying along with him.

Despite the overcrowding on the Buffalo Bills' bandwagon, members of football's working class are in close agreement this fall about two things:

--They want Tony Dungy to succeed.

--They wonder if he has much chance.

His best player, Rhett, is a spoiled brat who refuses to play unless they alter a contract he signed.

His potentially best receiver, Horace Copeland, is out for the season because of a leg injury.

His owner, Malcolm Glazer, is going to move the team to Cleveland or Los Angeles if voters don't approve a tax increase on Tuesday to provide funds for a new stadium.

And although he's the fourth black coach in the NFL's 77 years, he is the first who didn't work in the metropolises of Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Minneapolis.

The people of Tampa, whose rural outskirts give the place a Georgia accent, say it doesn't matter.

"He has been very well accepted here, he's handled himself very well," said Leonard Levy, a businessman who helped the city gain an expansion team in 1976. "All people here care about is winning."

Dungy says he has been treated like royalty.

"My wife walks into a Walgreen's to buy some lipstick and the place just stops," he said. "That story made the newspaper, and the next day, two or three cosmetic places sent stuff to my office. And my wife was just fine buying at Walgreen's!"

Players like Courtney Hawkins, a black wide receiver, say the diverse and growing community is a great place for minority athletes.

"Nobody black, white or Chinese has won in this town," he said. "If you win, they don't care what you look like."

And, the black man who was set on fire near Fort Lonesome on New Year's Day in 1993 was carried to safety by a white Fort Lonesome resident.

But after spending 15 years as a top assistant coach with never a head coaching offer until now, Dungy, 40, understands that things aren't always as they seem.

Shortly after his January hiring, the morning disc jockey on a Tampa radio station did a spoof in which Dungy was impersonated.

With an exaggerated plantation accent.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|