Irsay Calls Seven Years with Dungy an Incredible Journey
INDIANAPOLIS – It began with a phone call neither Jim Irsay nor Tony Dungy would forget.
It ended late Monday afternoon in an emotional press conference.
In between came not only a Super Bowl championship, but seven memorable, historic seasons that Irsay – the Colts' Owner and Chief Executive Officer – said on Monday was as much about relationships as it was success and glory.
As of Monday, the Tony Dungy Era is over in Indianapolis.
But Irsay said one thing is certain:
It never will be forgotten.
"I guess the word, 'bittersweet,' is used sometimes in describing moments in time," Irsay said during a 5 p.m. press conference at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in which Dungy announced his retirement after seven seasons as the Colts' head coach.
"I knew this day would come at some point. It always does in life when time rolls along. Nothing stays the same and things change. It has been an incredible journey."
Irsay, who hired Dungy on January 22, 2002, fought tears in the press conference while he discussed at length what Dungy meant to the franchise and the Indianapolis community.
"You dream about having the kind of relationship with a head coach that I've had with Tony," Irsay said.
Irsay and Dungy each discussed in detail the conversation the two had when Irsay called Dungy from Indianapolis in January of 2002 to discuss the Colts' head coaching job. Dungy, then in Tampa, had been fired days before by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he has said since he wasn't sure he would return to coaching.
Irsay convinced him differently in a long conversation that each said Monday extended beyond football while at the same time setting a tone for the franchise's future direction.
"We really talked about what we wanted to do going forward and what we wanted to achieve both on and off the field," Irsay said. "In life, I always believe we're not human beings having a spiritual experience, but it's the reverse. We're spiritual beings having a human experience. There's something behind everything you do that's tied to a power greater than you. You try to keep that focus as you go forward, because the human experience is temy. Sometimes in life, we're blessed to be given a platform to do things that affect people. You're given a stage and there are a lot of bright lights on you.
"Tony and I talked about that, and we talked about not just wanting to win. Certainly, in our business, winning is critical, but when you win, how will you be remembered."
The conversation resonated with Dungy, too.
"I'll never forget Jim calling me and telling me what he wanted to do," Dungy said. "He said something that was very important to me. He said, 'Here in Indianapolis, we don't have the tradition. We don't have three or four generations of Colts fans. We have to connect with our community. We have to turn our young people into Colts fans. That's what I want to do by winning and winning the right way.'
"That was very enticing to me."
That, Irsay and Dungy each said, came to define the coming years.
"There have been great coaches throughout the history of our league who have won, and each one is remembered differently," Irsay said. "But I think the key thing about Tony coming in, about the horseshoe, about the things we talked about that night . . . we had no idea what kind of journey we were about to go on or how long it would last, but we certainly dreamed and had our feelings about some things we wanted to accomplish.
"To say the least, those things were far exceeded by Tony."
Dungy said he recalled discussing the topic during his introductory press conference in 2002.
"I remember saying, 'Our goal was to win and win consistently, and win a Super Bowl or two, but that if that's all we did it really wouldn't be that meaningful, that we needed to win in the right way and we needed to win with the right kinds of players that would be role models that our young men and women in this community could look up to and say, 'I want to be like him, or him, or him,' and we wouldn't have to worry which player they picked, that they would be good role models, that our guys would connect with the community and give back, and that we would represent the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana and the National Football League well,''' Dungy said. "I think we've done that. We haven't won as many games as would have hoped, but we won our share. We did it with a great group of young men who are tremendous role models and I'm very, very proud of them."
Irsay said his relationship and conversations with Dungy often extended far beyond the parameters of the job.
"It wasn't about football and it wasn't about winning," Irsay said. "It was about going through life, dealing with personal losses, staying together and really having faith and belief. I think that's the thing with Tony.
Irsay said Dungy's success extended beyond Xs and Os, and beyond attributes normally associated with a football coach.
"I talk about the magic in our sport and the National Football League," Irsay said. "I believe in that magic. There are people like Tony throughout history who have come in and added chapters to that. Tony's belief in how we do things, doing things the right way, what it say so the youth of America, what it says to the bigger picture and to the community was always woven with what we were trying to do and what we were trying to accomplish."
Irsay, like Colts President Bill Polian, talked extensively of the strength of Dungy's belief, and how it impacted the franchise off the field and on. He said that was particularly true in 2006.
The Colts won five consecutive AFC South titles under Dungy, and made the playoffs in each of his seven seasons. Irsay said on Monday there were more ups than downs under Dungy, but he recalled the aftermath of a 44-17 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2006 as one of the downs. The Jaguars rushed for 375 yards against the Colts that day, and many outside the team discounted the team's Super Bowl chances.
Dungy, Irsay said, did not.
"I can see it now, with Bill and Tony and I there," Irsay said. "Logic would have it that when you give up that many yards rushing and you're getting close to the playoffs that you don't have much of a chance. Tony said, 'No.' He stood there with the faith and the belief. That started from him. He said, 'No. We can do this thing and we will do this thing.'
"The belief gathered behind him, our leader and our head coach."
The Colts won four postseason games that season, winning their first World Championship in 36 seasons with a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. During that time, Irsay said Dungy discussed it being the Colts' time, and Irsay on Monday recalled the Colts' 38-34 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game weeks later.
The Colts trailed in that game, 21-3, before rallying with a dramatic, 32-point second-half to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1971.
"We're down 21-3, and he said, 'No, it is our time still,''' Irsay said. "He walked the sidelines and said that and believed it. It always was with Tony you could get that sense. He had that magical aspect of leadership. . . .
"I can't thank him enough. I know he has pushed me as a man and made me a better person. Our conversations together have meant the world to me and they'll continue."
Irsay spoke of Dungy for nearly 10 minutes before a room filled with media and Colts employees, turning the stage over to Polian after an emotional speech during which he fought tears. Before he finished, Irsay read a poem he said "sums up my belief in what Tony inspired on our journey when we finally did win the Super Bowl and what it stood for and what it meant to me:"
Once upon a time – oh, what a time it was, a time that moved within us – the seeds of our humble beginnings,
We would gather in our circles and pray together on sore, bended knees, holding hands to keep our dreams from escaping from our hearts,
We had heard about a time, a time that might be ours, a time that the spirit might deliver – when long tired days were shared within those rooms,
And we would lose some along the way, but we would honor them with a gift of conviction and faith,
We would hold on with nothing left within us except the will that says, 'Hold on,'
We would cry and we would laugh,
We would suffer and we would rejoice,
We would get angry and we would meet sadness,
But we would always find our circle,
With clenched hands and heads bowed, and ask for the courage when the distance seemed too far,
Then, on a rain-drenched, windy night, hiding deep inside a magical, Florida winter, we finally walked softly into our time.
Irsay then turned to Dungy.
"That kind of sums up what the journey has been with you, Tony," he said. "I just can't thank you enough, Tony, for all you have done, and the way you have brought the horseshoe back to such a height that it stands for so many special things."