NEW YORK (AP) — Minutes into his new job, Tony Dungy did what he was hired to do: He offered an opinion.
Asked about the Bears’ recently acquired quarterback, Dungy questioned whether Jay Cutler had the maturity to win big in the NFL.
“I thought it was a pretty commonsense point,” Dungy recalled, a year-and-a-half after that conference call to introduce him as an NBC studio analyst. “Then all of a sudden I’m getting calls, and Chicago radio stations want me to come on: ‘Why are you killing Cutler?’ I don’t think I killed him. I just said I don’t know if they’re going to the Super Bowl.”
It was the first hint that people took what he had to say very seriously.
Now the former Indianapolis Colts coach’s voice is everywhere — even though he never raises it. “So powerful, but yet so humble,” in the words of colleague Rodney Harrison.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calls him “one of my closer cabinet members.” He’s connected to one of the league’s biggest stories this season, having advised Michael Vick while the quarterback put his life back together.
And in a sport with no shortage of commentators spouting opinions, Dungy’s remarks on “Football Night in America” seem to slice through the clutter, frequently eliciting defensive responses from players and coaches.
“Because of his mild-mannered persona, people are surprised that he has been so opinionated and so direct,” said Bob Costas, the show’s host. “And yet he does it without bombast and without malice. There’s nothing snarky about him. I think that that’s almost disarming. It gives extra credibility.”
In 31 years as an NFL player and coach, Dungy never contemplated going into television. Co-host Dan Patrick, now Dungy’s broadcasting mentor, was certainly surprised by this career move for the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl.
“He has bigger goals than that,” Patrick said. “I always viewed coaches who did TV that they had nowhere else to go or wanted another job and were waiting for the phone to ring.”
For the show’s first three years, NBC executives had repeatedly tinkered with its format and roster, searching for the right tone and chemistry. Riding back to the hotel after the last regular-season “Sunday Night Football” game in 2008, NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol told play-by-play announcer Al Michaels they needed a coach.
Michaels suggested Dungy, who was still with the Colts but had considered retirement for several years.
The next week, with NBC preparing to air Indianapolis’ playoff opener, Ebersol pulled aside the man with whom he already shared a personal bond. They had started talking before the 2006 season, when each had recently lost a teenage son.
Now the conversation turned professional. Dungy’s eyes grew wide with surprise, Ebersol recalled, at the mention of TV.
“I really don’t have a gimmick,” Dungy said he told Ebersol when they spoke again after the coach announced his retirement. “I don’t have anything I’d add other than knowledge of the game.”
“He said, ‘That’s really what I’m looking for.’ And that surprised me.”
Ebersol assured Dungy he would need to be in New York only from Saturday evening through Monday morning, leaving all week for the reasons he retired — to spend time at home with his kids in Tampa, Fla., and commit to community service.
The most persuasive argument came from an unlikely source. Lauren Dungy told her husband, “I don’t think you should break away from football just cold turkey.” She figured the TV gig would ease his NFL withdrawal — reducing the odds he’d return to coaching.
NBC Sports producer Sam Flood showed Dungy video of other studio shows and told him, “Everything you see here is something we don’t want you to be.” The network got Dungy the exact same clicker he used to break down plays for the Colts.
He realized TV commentary was no different from standing in front of a bunch of professional athletes days before a big game.
“That’s why I had to laugh when people would say, ‘We didn’t think you’d be honest,’” Dungy said. “For 30 years, do you tell your team, ‘Hey, you guys played great — you lost 40-0, but, hey, it was wonderful’? You are honest.
“I never worried about that part of it. I just worried that honest wouldn’t be entertaining.”
He certainly wasn’t the kind of coach who entertained with eye-bulging tantrums during games or boastful proclamations before them. Had he been asked about Cutler while with the Colts, Dungy would have said, “They picked up a good quarterback. It will take some time to work him into the system, but I know he’s going to help them.”
“That’s what people see, and they assume that you’re just very, very quiet,” said Dungy, whose former team faces San Diego on “Sunday Night Football” this week. “People that know me well know that that’s not necessarily the case.”
Not in the locker room after a 40-0 loss.
“That’s the competitor in him,” said Indy linebacker Tyjuan Hagler. “You just haven’t seen that publicly.”
People still seem to view Dungy as the mild-mannered Colts coach, not a guy paid to opine. Rex Ryan sought him out in August, after Dungy said on Patrick’s radio show that the New York Jets coach’s cursing on “Hard Knocks” reflected poorly on the NFL.
Would Ryan have reacted differently if somebody else said the same thing?
“Yeah, maybe so,” Ryan said, “because they always say you have to consider the source. Dungy’s a good man and I was surprised that he would have such negative things to say about me.”
When the skidding Cowboys faced the undefeated New Orleans Saints last December, Dungy declared Dallas had “no chance” of winning.
Well, the Cowboys won — and said Dungy’s comment motivated them.
Dungy doesn’t regret the logic behind the opinion, but it was a lesson in carefully selecting words when you have only a few seconds to express it.
“I’m going to say ‘highly unlikely,’ never ‘no chance,’” he said.
Then there were Peyton Manning’s reviews. Dungy said his former quarterback would send him text messages last season griping, “Hey, you’re giving away too much. You can’t say that. You can’t talk about the hand signals.”
“Yeah, you had your best year,” Dungy said with a laugh. “I couldn’t have been giving away too much.”
Dungy, now 55, planned to work one season and see how it went. It wasn’t until six or seven games in he started to feel at ease.
Meanwhile, the revamped show was beginning to find its groove, as Costas put it. Costas moved to the site of the Sunday night game, with Patrick hosting from the studio with Dungy and Harrison, the recently retired New England Patriots safety.
One Sunday afternoon last month, the New York crew was watching games when several vicious helmet hits happened within minutes. The casual conversation between the two NFL guys turned into pointed remarks on-air that night about how to reduce dangerous hits.
League officials cited the comments in announcing stiffer punishments.
Ebersol considers the show the “first paper of record of what happens each Sunday in the NFL.” That makes for a more serious tone than the pregame shows earlier in the day, which are steeped in predictions.
As with the Olympics, Ebersol wants the Sunday night NFL telecasts to reach not just the hard-core sports fan. He believes Dungy, with his detailed explanations and understated demeanor, is the perfect voice for that.
Just like John Madden. Yes, Madden — and his “Boom!” — who unexpectedly retired as the “Sunday Night Football” color commentator while Ebersol was recruiting Dungy.
“Both of them have such a deep abiding love for the game and the people of the game,” Ebersol said. “They come at it in different ways. John was much more emotional, and at other times totally cerebral. To them it has always been about more than winning and losing football games.”
AP Sports Writers Michael Marot in Indianapolis and Dennis Waszak Jr. in Florham Park, N.J., contributed to this story.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.