Once, an acquaintance of mine overheard me telling someone a story about my favorite football coach.  When I was finished, she asked, “how exactly does someone end up with a favorite coach?”

I explained to her that football is one of the true deep loves of my life, and that while I admired many players and had a few beloved teams, yes, I did have a favorite coach because he’d not only changed the way I looked at the game, he’d changed the way I look at my life as a person and as a writer.

Tony Dungy is a man who lives in faith, and I respect him immensely for it even if my own relationship with it can best be described as “rocky” and “under construction.”  But he’s one of those people who walks the talk that comes out of his mouth, and as such, he coached both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts in the manner in which he lived… quietly, thoughtfully, earning respect by giving it, and by instilling a sense of discipline in those around him.

He didn’t scream at people to get them to do what he wanted, he didn’t curse at officials or badmouth management, even when he had good reason.  In fact, there were times I kind of wanted to see him lose it, but just when you’d think Coach was finally going to lay into a player who was putting self ahead of team — one of the biggest sins you can commit in Dungy football — he’d just get this look of utter disappointment on his face.

And his players would tell us in interview after interview… disappointing Coach Dungy was the one thing you never wanted to do.  I remember one player saying he begged coach to yell at him after getting into some off-field trouble, but that calm voice remained steady, and the player said he’d never felt worse in his life.

I’ve often posted on Facebook after an episode of “Friday Night Lights” where fictional coach Eric Taylor was especially awesome that every kid should have a Coach Taylor.

Every kid should have a Coach Dungy, too.

Coach had lost his job in Tampa for not having the killer instinct, but found a job in Indy because Jim Irsay wanted a man to lead the Colts on and off the field, and he more than got his money’s worth.  And still those rumblings began again, because every year it seemed the Colts just had to finally be ready to win it all and then every year, they came up short.  So there it was… Dungy will never get them to the Super Bowl… Dungy’s too conservative… too nice.  Dungy doesn’t have the killer instinct…

Then the world reminded us there were more important things than trophies and win-loss columns.

When James Dungy took his own life at 18, Colts fans mourned with the Dungy family as best we could, but we all knew that they were facing a tragedy we couldn’t even begin to imagine.  And yet there Coach stood, delivering a eulogy for his son that celebrated the gift of the 18 years they’d received with James, and somehow lifting up everyone around him on what was surely one of the most difficult days of his life.

And then Coach went back to work, and the Colts didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.  In years past, that would’ve left me cussing out my television and hating on whoever had beaten them, wishing them defeat at someone’s hands so they could get what they had coming.  But in January of 2006, when the Colts went home, it felt like a relief… Coach could be with his family, the players had time to grieve the kid they’d known so well, and we could all just take a moment to hope that everyone left behind who had loved James would be okay.

The next year, Coach Dungy returned to his team, and the Colts returned to the playoffs.  But there was no week off in the 2006-2007 playoffs, no dominance that screamed the Colts were a shoe-in for the AFC title game.  First there was a wild card game against Kansas City; then the Baltimore Ravens, who routinely made it their life’s work to beat Peyton Manning to a pulp, but somehow… a win; and then… the New England Patriots, who lived to destroy the Colts’ playoff dreams.

The Colts were behind the majority of the game, and I couldn’t imagine that the team and the fans had come this far to not make it to the promised land once again.  My heart ached a little at the thought of watching Coach Dungy have to shake hands from the losing sideline again… not after he’d come back, not after what his family had sacrificed for him to have another shot at the big game.  And then one of my closest friends, who is also a huge football fanatic, said to me, “Just have a little faith.  You know they can do it.”

So I had a little faith… and just said over and over again, “they can do it.”

And they did.

Now I’m not trying to take any credit for that… no magical thinking here.  What was more important was the reminder from my friend.  The Colts had done everything the way they believed was right for them… they had followed Coach Dungy’s lead, held firm to their philosophy of how to win, and they had earned that win with every second of hard work they’d put in all year… in all the years since Dungy had come to Indy… through that final whistle.

Their belief was rewarded even bigger on February 4, 2007, when the Colts took home the Lombardi trophy and made Tony Dungy a Super Bowl winning coach.

And what in the world, you ask, does all this have to do with me, my life, or writing?  Well, it has to do with what I learned by watching Coach Dungy walk through his coaching life back from his assistant days with the Minnesota Vikings, which is where I first became acquainted with his coaching philosophy.  You don’t have to be the loudest, you don’t have to ignore everything else in your life except the job, you don’t have to listen when people tell you that you have to change who you are to get where you want to go if you’re sure who you are is the best person you can be.  You can instead keep working and moving forward and doing what you believe in your soul to be right.  And even if it takes a little longer… it will still get you to where you wanted to be all along.

This last year of my life has been filled with more excitement and optimism and more stress and disappointment than any year I’ve lived so far.  I like to think of it as the featured roller coaster in “Niceole Land,” and the ride is poised to continue.

But when it starts to feel like… well, like the downs are little more frequent than the ups… I think about Coach Dungy and how he got to where he wanted to be by doing the things he believed in his soul to be right.

It might take a little longer… but I’ll get there.  And I’ll still be me when it happens.

If you want to read something both entertaining and full of inspiration, pick up “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy.

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When I started the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program, we had to submit a little bio about ourselves.  Mine started off like this:  “Niceole Levy has watched more than 700 prime-time television shows in her lifetime and often jokes that her Master of Professional Writing degree from USC was simply a way to justify all that TV time as ‘advanced research.’  Now she also calls it work, her position as a closed captioning supervisor providing access to hours of drama and comedy programming for her viewing pleasure.”

A few clarification points:

1. The actual number of television shows has just hit 746.

2.  I really do get paid to watch TV, so a lot of those shows were watched for income, though some of those were certainly enjoyable and a few became favorites.

3.  I know it’s hard to believe after seeing how much TV I’ve watched, but I do not spend all my time sitting in front of a television.  On top of the obvious — writing — I cook, bake (a lot), do Pilates and dance workouts, walk, shoe shop (more than I should), spend time with family and friends, and go to a lot of summer movies where pretty boys blow up lots of things.  In other words, I actually have a life that doesn’t involve TV.  So how do I manage to watch so much?  I apparently sacrifice sleep over a chance to hang with my favorite characters.

So, yeah, there’s been a lot of TV.  I love it… not a bad thing to love the industry you want to spend the rest of your life working in, right?  But out of that 746 shows (Wow.  That really starts to look like A LOT of TV when I keep typing it), there are 5 key shows that had the biggest impact on the writer I have become and the one I continue to strive to be.  And clearly I’m about to tell you what they are and why, but with this note — your 5 is probably different, and more power to you.  There are some amazing shows that I love that won’t make this list (“China Beach,” “The Unit,” “The Sopranos,” “Boston Legal,” and the single-season gem “Terriers” to name but a few.)  But these are the ones that, as I sit down to craft pilots, I think back on in the hope of trying to create something that is even a fraction as well-drawn, moving, and memorable.

1.  “Hill Street Blues.”  One of the most striking things about Hill Street to me is that really, if you could CGI in modern clothes and switch out the giant hand-held portable phones for smart phones, the subject matter holds up remarkably well.  But one of the best things about HSB was that they were never afraid to reveal awful things about characters you loved… recovering alcoholic J.D. LaRue seemed to always be one step away from self-destructing, and even Renko’s friendship with Bobby Hill couldn’t always keep his old-school racism at bay.  The writers also didn’t hide from the emotional costs or the life-and-death realities of what it meant to live your life on a beat, and often delivered that message with a punch to the gut for viewers.  In a spoiler-free world, I had no idea Ed Marino’s Joe Coffey was going to be gunned down, and it absolutely broke my heart.

And to top it off, Frank and Joyce… who were the first couple I saw on television that made me think about what a real relationship should look like outside of all the romance and perfection so many other shows put on display.  What did it really mean for two strong adults to try to put their two lives together and make a marriage work?  I’m not sure I’d ever thought about that before these two forced me to think about relationships in more grown-up terms.

2.  “Homicide: Life on the Street.”  The true testament to the power of this show in my life can be summed up with one episode title:  “Three Men and Adena.”  The episode is so brutal and so upsetting that I have barely been able to rewatch it more than once since I first saw it.  Because if Frank and Tim are right?  If they’re right, then their inability to bring Risley Tucker (played by the always amazing Moses Gunn) to justice is injustice at its worst.  And if they’re wrong?  They destroyed a man emotionally and still couldn’t close their case.

Those were the stakes the cops of “Homicide” faced every week, and they pulled no punches, not when one of their own committed suicide or faced losing a part of himself after a stroke on the job, and not when one of Baltimore’s finest becomes a murderer rather than let a murderer go free.

3.  “NYPD Blue.”  I know, another cop show!  But while Blue yet again dealt with cops, it was the character arc of one Andy Sipowicz that made it one of the shows I cherish most.  If anyone had told me in year one that I would come to care so much for Andy, I’d have laughed at them.  He was everything you’d come to expect in the disillusioned depiction of a cop… a racist, a sexist, a bad husband and father, a drunk.  And yet piece by piece, we watched Andy’s life be rebuilt… destroyed… and rebuilt again.

It’s hard to say which of the tragedies Andy suffered broke my heart more… the day he found his son was the victim in the murder he’d responded to, the loss of his best friend Bobby Simone, or the death of his beloved Sylvia.  But there is no doubt what my favorite Andy moment of all was… the last one, with Andy, now a fully-realized, strong, sober, happy man, in charge of the squad he loved after putting in all the hard work it had taken to earn the job and the respect that went along with it.  It was one of the most amazing journeys I’ve ever been on with a character, and hey, as you know from the TV show total, I’ve been on a lot of them.

4.  “Once and Again.”  Gone far before its time, this show’s depiction of the complexities of life post-divorce, of falling in love again, of blending families, and of growing older never failed to move me.  There were no perfect people anywhere to be found in this tale, no white knights riding in on horses to save the damsel.  But there was such a level of honesty in how they revealed each layer to their characters, some hidden so deep that even in the final episode, Rick and Lily were still realizing that after they’d said I do and supposedly set out on their happily ever after, there was still a chance that they might want different things out of life, and what did that mean for their family?

Even when I wanted to yell at them, because everyone on this show could be a jerk, (because seriously, who can’t?)  I felt their confusion and their struggle with whatever was motivating the jerky behavior.  Years after the final episode, I still think of how much I would’ve loved to see Rick and Lily have their baby and face squeezing one more person into their already bustling lives or what a joy it would’ve been to see Karen finally… finally allow herself to be happy with Henry Higgins or how amazing it would’ve been to see this extended family that always found a way to tell the truth, even if it took a few lies or omissions to get there, discover and accept Jessie’s sexuality.

5.  “Friday Night Lights.”  The most recent entry to my Fantastic Five, but no less beloved than the others, from the very first episode of FNL, I knew I’d love this show forever.  Something about the way you felt everyone else’s reaction to Jason Street’s injury told you about what this show was and what you could expect from it, and even that one little misstep in season two (okay, not so little, but still, we all got over it, right?) did nothing to diminish my devotion.  This show faced the task of replacing treasured characters as the originals “aged out” and graduated, and I remember being so worried that I’d never feel for Vince Howard the way I had about Matt Saracen.  Who could touch my heart the way 7 had?  And yet I went into the final season of the show worried sick that Vince’s past might come back to destroy him and hoping against hope that he would stay on the path Coach Taylor had set him on.  And could I love any character more than Tim Riggins?  He was every guy you’ve ever known who is good at heart and can’t seem to catch a break.  And yet finally, even Tim Riggins seemed on the path to a good life because of the town that never forgot him and the people who loved him.

Much has been written about the Taylor marriage in FNL, and it is truly one of its finest aspects.  I won’t belabor it by repeating everything great that’s been written about it except to say that it was inspiring at every turn.  But one of the biggest things I will take away from FNL is the spirit of the show.  Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.  It wasn’t just Coach Taylor’s winning philosophy.  It was a summation of what you can do when you write from your heart and tell a great damn story.

So as my latest pilot outline goes to script, many of the things I consider on the journey will be those I’ve mentioned here.  How can my couples’ relationships be as meaningful and as important as the ones I loved so much?  How can I write an episode that someone will remember years later and think, “and that’s when I knew I’d love this show”?  Find the honesty, find the thing no one’s expecting, mine the layers to reveal something no one can see in the character until you peel back the skin, write an episode so powerful, it’s almost unwatchable… those will be my goals… and now, off to write I go.

P.S. If you haven’t seen any of the above — get thee DVDs!  You won’t regret it.  And, fellow writers, what are the shows that made you want to write?  Hit the comments and share!  I can always use new inspiration!