Tony Dungy’s Children’s Books Seek to Impact a New Generation
Even a half-century removed, the memories are vivid for Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy. As a 12-year-old, he was sitting in his childhood living room, in the small automotive town of Jackson, Michigan, watching the 1968 Summer Olympics with his father, Wilbur. American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were on the medal stand, their black-gloved fists raised in protest of racial injustice.
“All of these African-Americans at the time were debating whether we should stand for the national anthem and my dad says, ‘What do you think is going to make the situation better?’ ” Dungy recalls. “He was a veteran, too, and he didn’t say ‘No, you should always stand,’ he just said, ‘What do you think? What is this doing? Is it helping the situation? If you think it’s helping things and making things better, then do it. But don’t do it because everyone else is.’ That wasn’t the answer I wanted. I’m like, ‘Dad, tell me what to do.’
“So, I think that comes through in the book.”
The book is Austin Plays Fair, which Dungy co-wrote with his wife, early childhood education specialist Lauren, along with Maria Finds Courage. The two children’s books released this past August, the first in what they hope is a lengthy series with a third slated for a spring release. The couple, who have 10 children of their own, and usually more in their foster care, first discussed writing children’s books when Tony was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990s, and many of the wives of the players and coaches were part of an outreach program reading to local elementary classes every Tuesday during the season.
“I kept noticing the books needed more diversity and stronger story lines,” Lauren says. “I wanted the kids to walk away with a message, that it’s important to have integrity, to be fair and honest. Tony and I talked about it—that kids needed to see characters they can relate to and we wanted strong parents as role models.”
TONY AND LAUREN DUNGY HAVE VISITED SCHOOLS ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO READ THEIR NEW BOOKS TO CHILDREN.
Few NFL coaches have ever been considered more of a role model than Dungy, who following a three-year playing career as a defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers embarked on what became a 28-year coaching run, the last 13 of which were spent in charge of the Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts. His success was almost unparalleled: He was the youngest assistant coach and coordinator in league history, at 25 and 28 years old, respectively, and the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl. Also, his career winning percentage (.668) as a head coach is second to only Bill Belichick for those coaching at least 100 games in the last 40 years.
Following the 2008 season, which saw the Colts win at least 12 games for the sixth straight season, Dungy retired at age 53 and quickly took a job as an analyst for NBC on Sunday Night Football, where he still appears every week during the season.
“The biggest challenge for me was, as a coach you want to make sure everyone knows exactly what you meant and what your instructions are, so you take as much time as you need,” Dungy says. “In television, you have 12 seconds to make your point. Everyone may not get it, but you need to move on. I had to learn to talk in sound bites as opposed to storytelling. Second, I can’t worry about what former colleagues think. I’m going to be honest, and I can’t be concerned if someone is upset with that.”
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Make no mistake, though, Dungy stays in close contact with numerous former players and coaches. On a given week, he’ll talk or text with 20 to 30 of them, whether they be asking for his advice or just checking in. Really, that’s the only part of his old job that Dungy claims to miss, the family environment of the team. During his coaching days, Lauren would say that his 53 players were his other children.
“I do miss the relationships, how you share those highs and lows, how a team comes together over the course of the season,” Dungy says. “I don’t miss the routine—the hours, the regimentation from July to January without a day off.”
Unlike the overwhelming majority of college and NFL coaches, Dungy was never a believer in needing to work 18-hour days, sleep on his office couch or report at 4 a.m.
Much like his mentor, the legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll, Dungy tried to be home for dinner most nights during the season. That’s a point he stressed in his first book, Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices and Priorities of a Winning Life, which reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 2007, the first NFL-related book to do so.
“The number of hours in the office doesn’t dictate the success you have,” Dungy says. “When I became a head coach, we wanted to be sensitive to the families. We tried to be efficient. Everyone else may look at it as the more time we put in the better we will be, but I just don’t think that is the case.”
Lauren also remembers taking the kids to different team facilities for breakfast with Tony before school. It wasn’t ideal, but it allowed the family to spend more time together. She was an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh for six years before the couple started having kids and moving around for different coaching gigs. Her love of reading, though, goes back to her childhood, when her father would read to the family nightly and make weekly library visits.
As for this generation’s youth, one of the lessons the couple wants to stress in their books is teamwork and the importance of striving for the greater good of all. It’s the individual choice they’ve made, because they believe it helps the situation—a lesson worth passing down from one generation of the Dungy family to the next, and on to the rest of the world.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.