How do the head coaches with a chance to join the next round of inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame stack up?
The answer to that question has taken an unusual turn, at least for me, over the past month. A few weeks ago, I sat on the set of NFL Network's "Pro Football Hall of Fame: The First Cut," a special revealing the 25 semifinalists for the Class of 2014. When our host, Andrew Siciliano, asked about one of the men to make the cut, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, I mentioned the social impact of being the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl.
I wish I hadn't.
Dungy's accomplishment has, of course, resonated among coaches and players alike, fathers and sons, young and old. Being the first African-American to coach a team to a title is more than relevant in a sport with a player population that is majority African-American (in 2012, 66.3 percent of players were African-American, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports). That's true even if Dungy didn't quite break down a color barrier the way Art Shell did in 1989 -- becoming the first African-American head coach since the 1920s. It's noteworthy to be the first to do anything, whether we're talking about Chuck Yeager being the first man to break the sound barrier, Oscar Robertson becoming the first basketball player to average a triple-double over a season, or Amelia Earhart being the first woman to fly solo across the Big Pond. All that said, Dungy's wonderful first was wonderful in the social realm.
The NFL is not a sociology class, nor is the Pro Football Hall of Fame a laboratory for good versus evil. Voters are not supposed to weigh heavily whether someone was a nice guy, what kind of butterfly effect he had on our culture or whether he had any off-field, off-kilter transgressions. It's about what took place on the field. That's why the NFL's greatest defensive player ever, Lawrence Taylor, is enshrined in Canton. It's also why the two players who re-integrated an all-white NFL -- Kenny Washington and Woody Strode -- are not members. They weren't the elite of the elite.
The fact that Dungy did it with class certainly doesn't hurt. Package the whole deal, and I feel Dungy is Canton-worthy -- as he would be whether he was black, white or that creamsicle color those poor Tampa teams were sporting when he walked into the building in 1996.
It's unfair to judge Dungy -- even in a positive way -- based on his being a man of color. To do so takes away from what a fantastic coach he was over such a long period of time. When he joined the Buccaneers, they were coming off a not-fun string of 13 consecutive losing seasons, including 12 straight with 10 or more defeats. Over the next six seasons, Dungy took the Bucs to the playoffs four times, falling one drive short of making the Super Bowl in 1999. Many of the players he coached in Tampa Bay would go on to win a Lombardi Trophy under Jon Gruden in 2002, right after Dungy was fired and started coaching in Indianapolis.
Yes, we have to acknowledge Dungy's impact on the organization he worked for (including on Gruden's championship Bucs squad) and his overall coaching ability, regardless of his ethnicity. And we should attribute similar credit to fellow semifinalist Jimmy Johnson, one of the premier coaches -- if not the premier coach -- of the 1990s.
So why is Johnson considered an underdog for induction and Dungy a favorite? No matter how uncomfortable it might be to think of in the ultra-sensitive, politically correct world we live in, it is possible that Dungy has the edge over Johnson because of a perceived impact on race through the prism of sports.
Put a different way, might Dungy be viewed as a stronger candidate for social reasons, while Johnson has been sitting and waiting because he was merely a great coach who didn't become something of a social icon?
"I agree with that there," Sharper said. "I think the point is ... Jimmy Johnson had a tougher job in winning the amount of Super Bowls that he did because he built that team, while Dungy came into Indianapolis with one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He did improve the (Colts') defense, but I think that Jimmy Johnson overall -- for his block of work -- I'd say he did the more impressive job."
"Jimmy Johnson's not in (the Hall of Fame)? If you just look at it for what it's worth, it's not even close," Ogunleye said. "I mean ... I love Tony Dungy ... but ..."
Johnson didn't set any trends. He didn't necessarily inspire minorities in the coaching field the way Dungy did and continues to do, nor was he a factor in the NFL's implementation of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head-coaching vacancy. But does that make Johnson a lesser head coach or a lesser candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Ogunleye understands the thinking when it comes to the popularity of Dungy compared to that of a coach like Johnson:
"As an owner ... years and years and years of you hiring, maybe, your type of head coach, and not an African-American, and the fact that Dungy did that (had success) in an era when you saw the Mike Tomlins pop up ... the fact is that the doors were starting to open for guys, and it wasn't just the Dennis Greens of the world getting rehired.
"If the Hall of Fame looks at other characteristics, then maybe, I get it. Maybe that's what people are looking at: the impact."
It's interesting to note that Johnson accomplished his own first, although it's more of a sports rarity than a societal benchmark: He was the first coach to win both a national championship in college football and a Super Bowl title. But that is not to be taken into consideration, as the Pro Football Hall of Fame is just that: the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thus, Johnson's candidacy has to be evaluated based on what he did in the NFL, between the lines -- just like Dungy's should.
That's where this gets tricky, because after further review, Johnson should at least be even with Dungy for induction. Yes, Dungy won more games overall (139 victories for Dungy, 80 for Johnson), but Johnson chose to get out of coaching sooner (he coached for nine years as opposed to Dungy's 13). Consider, however, that Johnson took over an awful Dallas Cowboys team in 1989, the worst in the NFL -- it was even worse than the club Dungy inherited in Tampa -- and had it in the Super Bowl four years later. Under Johnson, Dallas won two Super Bowls in dominating fashion, while the club he built from scratch won a third under Barry Switzer.
Diving deeper, the candidacies of Johnson and Dungy are so close, yet so inversely related, it boggles the mind. Dungy turned around the disaster he inherited in Tampa, but he couldn't get over the final hump. Then, he took a Colts squad with a legendary quarterback in Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl title. Johnson, meanwhile, who inherited a disaster that was even worse than Dungy's, did get over the hump -- but failed to do the same in Miami with a legendary quarterback in Dan Marino.
"Jimmy is more like Gale Sayers/Terrell Davis -- a run of hit-you-over-the-head brilliance, and then an abrupt ending. He was fine with the Dolphins, but nothing Hall of Fame-worthy," explained Michael Silver, my NFL Media colleague. "Dungy is more like Jerome Bettis/Curtis Martin -- sustained excellence over a long period, though not necessarily as sensational at any one time ... though he did win a Super Bowl, which is obviously huge. There is room for both of them in the Hall, I hope."
The fact remains that Dungy is a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, while Johnson had been out there in nominee no-man's-land for years before finally making the semifinalists' list.
To some, however, Johnson clearly deserves Canton recognition.
"It's not even close," explained former Bears receiver Curtis Conway. "Sharper just hit it all really on the head. I guess I look at Jimmy's whole track record, just who he is as a coach, and how's he proven it on every level. He's taken a team (and won Super Bowls), even dealing with (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones and his ego.
"I mean, I think he got cut short because he could have another one, because Barry Switzer came in and took his team. You think Jimmy couldn't have won another one?! He was shortchanged, in my opinion."
Regarding Johnson's Hall worthiness, Ogunleye was prompted to pose a rhetorical question:
The truth is, I really don't care that Dungy was the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl. I care that he was a superb coach and teacher who got his players to play for him. In fact, his role as an innovator in pushing the Tampa 2 defense to the forefront makes him more than Hall-worthy -- more so than the color of his skin.
That said, I don't feel Dungy is head and shoulders above Johnson, who was an innovator in his own right. Johnson, remember, pushed the idea of rotating defensive linemen constantly to keep them fresh. In the 1980s, D-linemen often played 90 percent of the snaps. The way Johnson drafted, swapping picks so as to acquire as many talented college players as possible, is widely emulated today.
"He was not the first to trade back to get multiple picks, but he was the first to do it extensively," Casserly said. "He also did a good job of accumulating picks."
Innovation, in fact, is the hallmark of the career of the third head coach on the 2014 ballot: Don Coryell. The modern passing game owes him a huge debt of gratitude.
And perhaps that's the bottom line when it comes to Dungy's legacy. The league as a whole owes him great thanks for proving, once and for all, that ethnicity has no ownership of being a successful head coach -- as successful, in fact, as the football business can measure. Dungy earned a Lombardi Trophy; there is no higher accolade.