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Tony Dungy: Finding God’s game plan

Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to Super Bowl victory on Feb. 4, 2007, the first such win for an African-American coach. Dungy had taken eight of his previous 10 teams to the playoffs. With this victory, he joined Mike Ditka and Tom Flores as the only individuals to win the Super Bowl as a player and head coach.

Dungy joined the Colts in 2002 after serving as the most successful head coach in Tampa Bay history. He has also held assistant coaching positions with the University of Minnesota, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. Before becoming a coach, Dungy played three seasons in the NFL.

In his 2007 memoir, Quiet Strength, Dungy shared principles, practices and priorities that have kept him on track despite overwhelming personal and professional obstacles. This year marked a time of transition for Dungy as he retired from the NFL and released his second book with co-author Nathan Whitaker. In Uncommon, Coach Dungy reveals lessons on achieving significance he has learned from his remarkable parents, his athletic and coaching career, his mentors and his journey with God.

Dungy and his wife, Lauren, are the parents of six children: daughters, Tiara and Jade, and sons, Eric, Jordan, and Justin, and the late James Dungy. Dungy spoke recently with Scott Harrup, senior associate editor.

Q: You’ve attributed your success in the NFL as a player and as a coach to God’s influence on your life. How has that sense of divine direction played out during your retirement?

Dungy: I’m trying to find the best way to be utilized by the Lord and how to take advantage of the platform I have enjoyed as a coach with teams that have had success and the publicity that’s been generated. I feel like God prepared me to be a coach. He put me in that position. And so He must have something in store for this part of life as well.

Q: What goals do you and Lauren share for the years ahead?

Dungy: We are writing a series of children’s books with messages about family and the Lord and how it all ties in together. We want to reach out in different types of ministries. And we want to direct our family together more than we were able to when I was coaching and had basically seven or eight months a year of long hours and being away from home.

Q: The life principles in Uncommon are anchored in biblical truth. What steps do you take to include Bible study in your day?

Dungy: I try to be faithful at getting up a little bit before the kids and reading and studying. And Lauren and I have made a priority of Wednesday night. That was something we couldn’t always do during the football season, but now we’re really hesitant to pursue anything that’s going to take us away from Wednesday night Bible study at church.

Q: Is there a recent Bible passage that caught your attention?

Dungy: I’m involved with a coaches Bible study group, and we’re going through 1 and 2 Samuel right now and the lives of Saul and David. In those books, you’re looking at servant leadership and godly leadership. It applies to us as coaches with our teams, but also I think as fathers with our families and putting the Lord first and going to Him in decision-making processes.

Q: You write in your chapter on “Failure,” “I’m often introduced today as one of only three people to win a Super Bowl as a player and as a head coach. What they don’t always say is that there were 27 straight seasons that ended in disappointment between those Super Bowl wins.” You describe how God can use even times when we have failed to make us stronger.

Dungy: We tend to look at successes or times we accomplish the goal as “that’s what God had in mind.” When we don’t accomplish the goal, we say, “Well, that wasn’t the result of what the Lord had in mind for us.” But that’s not always the case. I think you learn a lot more in failures and defeats, many times, than you do in victories. God has those difficult times to teach us and to help us grow. I didn’t look at those 27 years as “failure years.” There were things I learned that helped create that Super Bowl win.

The Book of James talks about perseverance. Can you stay in there and hang in there when you don’t win, when you come up short? Do you make changes, or do you stick with the plan? If the plan, in football, is good, you stick with it. Just like life, if your plan to follow God is a good plan, just because you have some disappointments or some things that go wrong you can’t abandon it. You get thrown for losses and things happen that you don’t know if you’re ever going to recover. But you will, and the Lord is there for you, and He’s there even more in those times than He is in the times of success.

Q: You speak of your parents’ influence on your life. Your dad’s doctorate in physiology and your mom’s career as a high school English teacher seem to have been a good combination for someone with one foot in world-class athletics and another in writing best-sellers.

Dungy: I look at the teams I played for and the different training that I got, and I could point to the Lord and say, “I know You’re training me to be a coach.” But I never in my wildest imagination thought I would be an author, even though I grew up in a home environment where my mom really was a wordsmith.

But my parents’ biggest influence was their marriage and their role modeling for us what a husband and wife should be about. Of course, that points you to the relationship between God and the Church. My parents corrected us and let us know through all times — good, bad and indifferent — that God was there for us, that God was going to be the Director of our family. They were leading the family, but they were looking to Him. He was really in charge.

Q: How do you apply those principles to your own parenting?

Dungy: We really try to direct our children and say the same things. That God is in charge of our family. Our prayers are always acknowledging that. And try to show them that we’re living as parents in direct obedience to the Bible. So that when we discipline, when we give them suggestions, when we do anything, we’re doing what we think Christ would want us to do.

Q: In Uncommon, you’ve been able to share powerful fundamental values with a national audience. How can someone who is not a writer or public speaker communicate those same values effectively?

Dungy: It starts with lifestyle. That’s what my mom did so well. As a high school teacher she modeled Christ to her students every day. She taught Shakespeare and public speaking, which were elective courses, and people wanted to take a class from Mrs. Dungy because of the way she ran the classroom and the way she was as a person. No matter what job you’re at — high school teacher, businessperson, construction worker — you can model Christ in the way you do your job. That’s going to have an impact.

Q: How would you connect mentoring and discipling?

Dungy: Mentoring is taking an intentional role in someone’s life to direct them a certain way. Discipling, to me, is just focusing that mentoring on the spiritual side of things. So I’m going to intentionally lead you in a direction spiritually when I’m discipling.

Q: Where have those roles fit into your life?

Dungy: I think I’ve been a mentor and somewhat of a discipler to a lot of my players. I’ve always considered that I wasn’t just a coach who was trying to teach them to be a better player. That was part of my job, but I did see myself as a person who was there to help them grow.

Q: Reading Uncommon, it’s clear you have had your own mentors. [Former Pittsburgh Steelers Coach] Chuck Noll, for example?

Dungy: No question about it. I’ve been mentored by Coach Noll and almost every coach I’ve had, in some capacity. Coach Noll especially, from the time I was a young player and then eight years working for him as a coach. I was young and impressionable, and I was wondering, How am I going to do this? How am I going to be a coach? I couldn’t have had a better teacher.

Q: You make the observation he would rather lose a game playing well than win a game playing poorly.

Dungy: He didn’t like sloppy wins. He didn’t like days when we didn’t improve, no matter what the score was. Obviously, you want to win more than you lose, but his thing was how are we playing? Are we playing up to our capabilities? Because if we do, the wins will take care of themselves.

Q: Is it stretching that principle too much to apply that to God’s expectations of us?

Dungy: You’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do and do your job and function to the best of your ability. And that’s what God wants us to do. He says, “Here’s the standard. Here’s what I’m asking you to do. Now let Me handle the circumstances. And whether it turns out the way you think it should or not, I’m going to work everything for good in that anyway.”

Q: You write in your chapter on faith: “We can act like we’re in control, or that we’ve got things figured out, but Jesus was clear that we are not promised tomorrow. Only God knows how everything will play out. And our lives will be more effective if we play according to His game plan rather than trying to take matters into our own hands.” What do you say to people about the connection between faith in God and continuing to direct all our energies toward personal excellence?

Dungy: That’s where faith comes in, that God is asking us to do that. Do everything that you can, but realize you can’t control everything. You’ve got to have faith at some point that it does go beyond your hands. Otherwise, you would go crazy. You would think, Well, I’ve just got to keep doing more, because the more I do the better prepared I’ll be. And the better prepared I am, the more we’ll win. There comes a time when you can’t do that. You’ve got to at some point say, “I’ve done all that I can, and it is now in the Lord’s hands.”

Q: What do you want readers to take away from Uncommon?

Dungy: The point of the book was really to connect with young people especially, and talk about decision making and how you’re going to live. What has come through to me from Coach Noll, my dad, my mom and so many others is that who you are is so much more important than what you do or how many games you’ve won.

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