Dungy's Hall Induction Rather Dubious

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While anchoring an ESPN radio program the day before Super Bowl 50, host Wendy Nix talked about why she’s such a passionate fan of the NFL. Nix praised the meritocratic nature of the league, and with good reason. In the NFL you’re first and foremost judged by what you achieve between the proverbial lines.

Nix’s words rang very true. Going back to Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, there were just as many players on each team who played college football at Portland State (DeShawn Head, Julius Thomas) as there were from college football “blue bloods” Alabama, Auburn, Louisiana State, and Ohio State combined. These four traditional powers could claim but two players in total on the two rosters; James Carpenter from Alabama and Trindon Holliday from LSU.

To the NFL general managers who build teams in this most competitive of leagues, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from. All that matters is that you’re able to contribute to the winning ways of the team. If you’re good, the NFL will find you regardless of your origins. A meritocracy indeed.

That’s why the announcement of the 2016 inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame later that night was such a disappointment. A league made great by its elevation of merit arguably suffered the politicization of the most prestigious NFL honor of all: induction into its Hall of Fame.

Though Terrell Owens ranks second all-time in the NFL for receiving yards, and third all-time in touchdowns, he wasn’t voted in. Interesting about Owens is that he’s living proof of the certain truth that if you exhibit talent and a willingness to work hard, the NFL will find you. In Owens' case he played football at Tennessee-Chattanooga (miles from UT-Knoxville in terms of stature), plus he was picked in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft a year after the team traded up in the first round to select wideout J.J. Stokes at No. 10. While Owens was expected to at best play Garfunkle to Stokes’s Simon, he soon enough eclipsed the once can’t-miss receiver from traditional power UCLA.

Owens eventually made 49ers fans forget Stokes on the way to becoming arguably the best receiver of his generation not named Randy Moss. His brilliance included a masterful Super Bowl performance while with the Philadelphia Eagles in which he played with a broken leg. It’s broadly expected that Owens will eventually be voted into the Hall of Fame, but his failure to gain first-ballot induction correctly raised many eyebrows in light of his amazing exploits on the field. Unfortunately, that’s not the only reason his failure to make the cut should have NFL fans wondering.

A bigger reason concerns the induction of former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy. Though no sane person would doubt Dungy’s success, the vote* in his favor suggests that entrance to the Hall of Fame is far more politicized than NFL fans or the league would care to admit.

To Dungy’s credit he coached seven playoff teams in seven years while with the Colts, and then his 2006 team won the Super Bowl. Still, Dungy’s Super Bowl winning team included a certain Hall of Famer in quarterback Peyton Manning, wideout Marvin Harrison (HOF inductee in Dungy’s 2016 class), Reggie Wayne (likely a future HOF inductee), running back Edgerrin James (in the running for future induction), along with a defensive end in Dwight Freeney who will similarly rate serious consideration for the Hall once he retires. Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian (inducted in 2015) surrounded Dungy with some amazing talent on the way to the Super Bowl win. What’s not been explained is why the win, along with Dungy’s record, rated induction so soon after eligibility, let alone induction in the Hall of Fame at all.

Some will argue that Dungy didn’t just succeed in Indianapolis. He also turned a traditionally weak Tampa Bay Buccaneer team into an annual visitor to the playoffs while he was there.

That’s fair enough, but Bill Parcells turned no fewer than four downtrodden NFL teams (New York Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets, and Dallas Cowboys) into playoff contenders. One of his Jets teams made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game, his Patriots made it to a Super Bowl where they lost to the Green Bay Packers, and two of his Giants teams won Super Bowls. Jeff Hostetler and Phil Simms quarterbacked Parcells’ Super Bowl winners, but neither would be compared to Manning. Notable here is that despite accomplishments that surely eclipsed those of Dungy, Dungy reached the Hall almost as quickly as Parcells.

Interesting about Parcells’ Patriots team that lost to the Packers is that Green Bay was coached by Mike Holmgren. Under Holmgren the Packers won one Super Bowl, then lost to the Denver Broncos the following year. Like Dungy (Manning’s first ballot HOF induction is a foregone conclusion), Holmgren coached a first-ballot inductee in Brett Favre (2016). Also similar to Dungy, Holmgren’s resume includes turning around another once-downtrodden franchise in the Seattle Seahawks. Holmgren’s Seahawks teams made the playoffs six out of the 10 years he was there, and were arguably a few lousy calls away from a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL. Despite three Super Bowl trips to Dungy’s singular visit, and credit for turning around two teams, Holmgren is not in the Hall of Fame.

Jimmy Johnson arrived to a Dallas Cowboys team in the late ‘80s that hadn’t been a contender since the early part of the same decade. Thanks to great drafts on both sides of the ball including the “triplets” (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin – all in the Hall of Fame), Johnson soon enough had a bottom-dwelling team contending for the Super Bowl. His Cowboys teams won two in a row before a personality conflict between Johnson and owner Jerry Jones led to Johnson’s departure.

George Seifert replaced the legendary Bill Walsh as head coach of the 49ers only to win a Super Bowl in his first year with Hall of Famer Joe Montana as his quarterback. Five seasons (and a couple of NFC Championship losses later to Johnson’s Cowboys) Seifert’s 49ers won the Super Bowl again with Hall of Famer Steve Young taking snaps.

Despite two championship rings apiece to Dungy’s one ring, neither Johnson nor Seifert is in the Hall. One argument that could be made by defenders of Dungy’s induction is that in addition to his success in Indianapolis, he also as previously mentioned revived the moribund Tampa Bay franchise. In Seifert’s case his Carolina Panthers teams never made the playoffs, but then Johnson’s Miami Dolphins made the playoffs three out of the four years he coached them.

Still, if Dungy’s defenders want to argue that it was his success with two teams that sealed a quick induction for him, how might they explain Dick Vermeil? In Vermeil’s case he turned the hopelessly bad Philadelphia Eagles into a team that made the 1980 Super Bowl (a loss), rehabilitated a perennially bad St. Louis Rams team into an eventual Super Bowl champion, and then he followed his success with the Rams by taking the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs in 2003. Three bad teams, and three turnarounds. Yet Vermeil isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Also notable is that Vermeil’s Eagles lost the 1980 Super Bowl to an Oakland Raiders team coached by Tom Flores. Flores has two Super Bowl rings, yet he too isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

Similarly interesting about Dungy’s tenure at Tampa Bay is that he was replaced as head coach there by Jon Gruden. Like Dungy at Tampa Bay, Gruden turned a down-on-its-luck Oakland Raiders team into a playoff contender only to reach Tampa Bay and win the Super Bowl in his first season. Gruden had success with two teams just as Dungy did, has one Super Bowl ring as does Dungy, yet he too is on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame. Based on Dungy’s success, shouldn’t Gruden be a lock?

The answer to the question about Gruden is no. The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction is about greatness. And that’s the problem. Though Dungy was undeniably a very good NFL coach, to paraphrase Nietzche to be very good is not enough for induction in the Hall of Fame. That Dungy reached the pinnacle of NFL success so quickly signals a voting process that is more about politics, and quite a bit less about merit. That’s sad for the players, coaches and general managers who made the league great by virtue of it being all about merit.


* In an early version of this piece the author incorrectly asserted that Dungy was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. More fact checking revealed that Dungy was voted in after his third year of eligibility.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets and author of "Who Needs the Fed?".

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