MIAMI-- --It's the quintessential dopey Super Bowl week question: If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
Well, Dungy has a tree. Smith is one of its products. This tree is unique in a couple of ways - it's one of the more recently planted, since Dungy has been an NFL head coach for only 11 years, and its branches include primarily, although not solely, African-American coaches.
As much as for any coach yet to win a Super Bowl can expect to be, Dungy's proteges from his six years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and five with the Colts are suddenly hot properties. Smith coached on his staff in Tampa Bay. So did Herm Edwards, who has taken the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs.
So did Mike Tomlin, handed the keys to one of the great NFL coaching legacies when the Pittsburgh Steelers hired him. So did Rod Marinelli, who, the consensus is, deserves a better organization than the Detroit Lions.
The fact that Dungy now meets one of his professional progeny in a Super Bowl adds to the intrigue of this historic matchup. Such meetings don't happen very often in pro football, period, much less in the Super Bowl. So this is even more new ground broken.
"It is something we did talk about happening," Dungy said this week in yet another recounting of the pre-playoff game lunch in Indianapolis he had with Smith and Edwards. "The fact that it all started for us back in 1996 with the Bucs has made this a very special feeling."
Smith, Edwards and Tomlin look at Dungy as their coaching godfather. But Dungy makes it clear that he didn't materialize as a head coach out of thin air.
"I'm not the head of it. I have to look back and thank Coach [Chuck] Noll for giving me a chance to come into the NFL and getting me started," he said.
Dungy's style is close to a dead ringer for Noll's - no surprise since he played on one of Noll's four Super Bowl championship teams in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Noll wasn't a screamer, either; he gave respect and got it, and his players rewarded him for his trust.
"I would say I'm somewhere in the middle of the tree, and the roots are Chuck Noll," Dungy said.
Still, Dungy's particular branch looks like few others before, or others in existence now. Without mentioning that other characteristic of Tomlin's that gets more focus, Dungy pointed out that it's meaningful to him that one of his products ended up following Noll and Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh.
"It felt like it came full circle," Dungy said. "It's a cycle that I'm proud to be a part of."
Coaching tree branches are, by nature, tangled. Dungy also can trace his roots to the last head coach he worked under, Dennis Green with the Minnesota Vikings (as can the Brian Billick tree, impressive in itself). That means Dungy is attached to the Bill Walsh tree, which sprouts from the Paul Brown tree, which is pretty much pro football's Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
And you thought those required botany courses would never be put to use.
Speaking of Walsh, from his great San Francisco 49ers teams came successes by Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan, and Holmgren's staff has produced, among others, Andy Reid and Jon Gruden. Those four coaches have six Super Bowl appearances and four wins.
However, ponder this: "Early on when I got in and became a student of the game, you heard a lot about the great staff Holmgren had in Green Bay," said Colts defensive tackle Anthony McFarland - who played for Dungy and Gruden in Tampa Bay. "Then you've got to start looking at that staff we had in Tampa, and put up right up there with that staff in Green Bay."
Not all trees, meanwhile, bear tasty fruit. Bill Parcells begat Bill Belichick and John Fox, but also Romeo Crennel (who, like Marinelli, might just need to find a decent organization) and Tom Coughlin (mixed results with two teams). Jimmy Johnson produced Dave Wannstedt, Norv Turner and Butch Davis; enough said.
That makes the meeting of Dungy and Smith more amazing.
"To know him and know what he teaches on a day-to-day basis, and to get a chance to talk to the players who played for Tony, they'll all say the same thing," Smith said. "So as coaches, a lot that, we got. And it's good for us to bring it to different parts of the NFL.
"I look forward to the day when someone off our staff gets a head coaching job," he continued, "and we can start some other branches off of ours."
Not far from Smith that day sat Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera - whom Smith hired from Reid and the Eagles and made a coordinator for the first time when taking over the Bears three years ago. It's likely just a matter of time before Rivera gets a head coaching job, possibly the second Hispanic in NFL history to do so.
Rivera, then, is in position to be a branch of Smith's tree - another coaching branch that looks distinctively different from the others before it.
Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog.