Dungy disciples remain friends

Part of Tony Dungy’s vast NFL legacy will be on display Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And the former Indianapolis Colts head coach will be keeping a close eye on the happenings.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kick off against the Colts on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” Dungy will be analyzing the matchup from his perch in the network’s Rockefeller Center tower in New York City. Meanwhile, two of his prized pupils — Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin and hand-picked successor Jim Caldwell — will be walking the sidelines in Indianapolis.

Caldwell and Tomlin, alongside current Colts defensive backs coach Alvin Williams, were the new hires on Dungy’s staff during his final season in Tampa Bay. In fact, Tomlin and Caldwell were hired on the same day and shared a press conference to make the announcement.

That 2001 campaign ended with the Bucs — once the laughingstocks of the NFL — making the playoffs for the fourth straight season. But a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round cost Dungy his job.

During the season, Tomlin came to view Caldwell as a mentor — learning as much about life as about football.

“My office was next to his,” Tomlin said “Jim not only was a consummate professional but just an awesome guy. He and his wife were very good to my wife and I. We had very young kids at that time, and (the Caldwells) were a ‘been there, done that’ kind of couple. We enjoyed spending time with those guys and really enjoyed the year we spent together.”

Caldwell said Tomlin had a spark about him, even as a 29-year-old NFL coaching rookie.

“You could tell that he had all the things that you look for in a quality head coach,” Caldwell said. “He was very smart, certainly understood concepts and people extremely well, and was an excellent communicator.”

After the season, the two went their separate ways.

Caldwell and Williams rejoined Dungy in Indianapolis. Tomlin stayed in Tampa as the Bucs’ defensive backs coach.

Each continued to find success.

Tomlin and the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII against the Oakland Raiders the following season, and Tomlin remained in Tampa until Brad Childress hired him as defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings in 2006. Just one year later, Tomlin was hired as the head coach in Pittsburgh.

He won Super Bowl XLIII in his second season and led the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV in February, where they lost to the Green Bay Packers. In his fourth season overall, Tomlin has a 43-21 regular season record.

Caldwell and the Colts made the playoffs seven straight times before Dungy retired following the 2008 season. That run was highlighted by a Super Bowl XLI victory against the Chicago Bears and another Dungy disciple, Lovie Smith.

Caldwell took over as head coach in 2008 and immediately led the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV, where they lost to the New Orleans Saints. He is in his third season in the top job in Indianapolis and has a 24-10 regular season record.

Through the years, Caldwell and Tomlin have kept in touch. Although their conversations aren’t always as all-encompassing as they might once have been.

“Often, we are fighting the same battles,” Caldwell said. “So sometimes it’s not too good to share every bit of information with someone that you have to compete against. But we talk once in awhile.”

They’ll always be bound by their link to Dungy, who became the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator at age 28 with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1984.

It took 22 years for the Bucs finally to give him a head coaching job. He went on to change the history of two franchises, become the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl and the first coach ever to defeat all 32 NFL teams.

It’s a legacy any coach would be proud to be a part of.

“No question,” Tomlin said during a conference call Wednesday. “But more than pride, it’s a responsibility. We were blessed enough to be around coach and learn so much from him. I think we’re obligated to move forward and continue to excel and give back to the game of football.”

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