Those high-profile, high-stakes Colts-Patriots showdowns from the early 2000s, which featured so many compelling individual battles — Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, Bill Belichick vs. Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison’s tackling fury vs. the assorted joints and limbs of Indianapolis receivers — own a secure place as one of the storied NFL rivalries of this century.
So it might seem fairly remarkable, then, that two of the marquee names in those duels have ended up with a friendship, born from their mutual second career, that has now had longer staying power than the rivalry itself.
Dungy, who coached the Colts from 2002-08, winning Super Bowl XLI, and Harrison, whose ferocity at safety was a crucial component for two Super Bowl winners during his six seasons (2003-08) with the Patriots, are now in their 12th season together as studio analysts on NBC’s enormously successful “Football Night In America” studio program on Sunday nights.
When Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production at NBC Sports chose Harrison and Dungy for the 2009 season, there was some question whether they would be copacetic given their teams' history. Dungy and Harrison both acknowledge they had the same question.
"We are great friends now, and we hit it off right away,'' said Dungy, who will serve in his analyst role for Sunday’s Patriots-Seahawks game from the NBC Sports compound in Stamford, Conn., while Harrison will be shown from his home in Atlanta. "The first year in New York we would walk from the hotel to the studio, and we’d be walking down the street and we get all kinds of double takes, like, ‘Are those two guys actually walking together?’ ”
Harrison remembers the skepticism, and he also remembers those walks a little differently.
"I did not know him well before we were put together,'' said Harrison, who says Dungy and Patriots coach Bill Belichick are the two smartest people he has ever met in football. "I did not know what to expect. He was the enemy. Coach was the enemy. He was a part of the whole Peyton Manning-vs.-the-Patriots thing. We had a lot of respect for the coach, but we didn’t like him and we wanted to beat him.
“But I remember this from back when we first started. We used to broadcast out of New York — what was that called, 30 Rock? — we would walk through the streets and be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Tony Dungy,’ and people grabbing him. I realized the impact he had on people, people pulling on him, the expectations that they have of him, and how he would show his character. And as they were pulling on him or trying to get his attention, I’d be like, ‘Holy crap, Coach, I’m so happy I’m not you.’ ”
While their football philosophy is the same — “the same things matter to us, discipline, preparation, accountability,” said Harrison — their perspective is not.
“Rodney still thinks like a player, and I still think like a coach,” said Dungy. “So we still have those disputes on the show. ‘This was this guy’s fault.’ ‘Well, they didn’t coach him right.’ ‘Oh, they coached it right, he just didn’t play it right.’ We think the same on a lot of things. Fundamentals, about football, fundamentals, about life. So it really has been neat. He’s a great friend. One of the things I love about Rodney is his honesty and his integrity. He’s going to tell you what he thinks. He’s very staunch in his beliefs. I admire that in him and I try to be the same way. Be honest, and you can speak the truth in love, but you should always speak the truth.”
That truth sometimes leads to disagreement on the program, and disagreement, if authentic, can make for compelling television.
“Everyone wants to pit us against each other,” said Harrison. "People seriously think that at times we’re really not getting along, like, ‘Hey man. Why don’t you like Coach?’ I’ve even had older people come up to me. ‘Lay off Coach! Lay off Coach! Why do you continue to pick on him?’ And I’m like, ‘Why he is the victim?’ Coach is getting on my nerves!
"But there’s a real bond there, and I hope people see that. If I need some advice for anything that I might be going through personally, I might text Coach and say, ‘Hey, Coach, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?’ And you know, he knows me, and it’s the same thing. He’ll call me up and say, ‘Hey Rod, what do you think about this?’ And I just think that it’s a level of respect. Coach Dungy is not just a friend or a co-worker. I look at him like a father figure. I look at him like uncle, you know, a brother, somebody that you can talk to. He’s easygoing and he’s always there for you.”
The “Football Night In America” program and “Sunday Night Football” are among the greatest successes in modern sports media. “Sunday Night Football” has been prime-time television’s No. 1 program for the past nine seasons. “Football Night in America” has been the most-watched weekly studio program in sports since its debut in 2006 (with host Bob Costas and analysts Jerome Bettis and Sterling Sharpe. Mike Tirico is the current host).
“You think about these shows and people come and go,” said Harrison. “But this is our 12th together. For us to be able to stick together this many years, man, it just says something about the character of what we’re doing. NBC, they’re not going to have a bunch of [expletives] doing this. They’re just not. If you’re not doing this right, you’re going to be gone.”