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overcoming odds through unity, passion, and perseverance
By Chuck Pagano
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Chuck Pagano
All rights reserved.
Arriving in Indy
Dedication is not what others expect of you; it is what you can give to others. —Anonymous
The storm was over.
When training camp opened in late July 2012 in Anderson, Indiana, the oppressive heat from a summer drought scorched the Midwest, turning our practice facility into an oven. Talk about trial by fire for a rookie coach. But then two weeks into camp, a massive rainstorm blew in, powerful enough that we had to cancel our afternoon practice. Thunder echoed across the campus of Anderson University, the site of our preseason camp, as lightning crackled against angry, dark skies. High winds drove much-needed rain into the area and cooler conditions for the rest of camp.
Some of the sports media called the storm a symbol of the "winds of change" taking place within the Colts' organization. I liked the comparison because we definitely wanted to lay the foundation for a new era within our program, a season of change.
By the final day of camp in August, the hot sun returned, an appropriate omen for the battles that loomed before us. A new season was about to begin, and it was clear that no one would be satisfied with a repeat of the previous year's performance, particularly our team's owner, Jim Irsay.
Mr. Irsay knows football like the back of his hand. He was twelve years old when his father, Robert Irsay, a Chicago businessman, purchased the Baltimore Colts in 1971. As a young boy, he cleaned locker rooms, picked up towels, ran errands, and learned the business from the ground up. He received a degree in broadcast journalism in 1982 from Southern Methodist University, where he played linebacker for the Mustangs. An ankle injury ended his playing career, but he never left the game.
When he finished college, Mr. Irsay joined the Colts' organization in 1982. Two years later, at age twenty-five, he was named vice president and general manager just weeks before the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis. He then became the team's chief operating officer after his father suffered a stroke in 1995. When his dad passed away in 1997, Mr. Irsay gained 100 percent control of the franchise. At age thirty-seven, he became the youngest team owner in the NFL.
After seeing his beloved Colts go 2 – 14 in 2011, Mr. Irsay took dramatic risks to implement a new season of winning ways. He made many personnel changes, one of which opened the way for me to be hired as head coach. In addition to betting on me to lead his team, Mr. Irsay also chose another rookie, thirty-nine-year-old Ryan Grigson, to be the team's general manager.
During his college days, Grigson played tight end and offensive tackle at Purdue. In the 1995 NFL draft, the 6-foot-5 college standout was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals. He later played for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and retired in 1997 due to a back injury. Ryan took a job as a pro scout for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and then worked as an assistant coach for McPherson (Kansas) College in 1998. After holding various scouting jobs in professional football, the Philadelphia Eagles hired him to be a scout in 2004, and in 2010 he was named director of player personnel, where he remained until he joined the Colts a few weeks before I arrived.
* * *
I'm well aware of the gamble Mr. Irsay took in hiring me as well. I am not what you'd call an overnight success story. In 1984, I earned my first job as a graduate assistant at the University of Southern California. Ted Tollner, my friend Bruce's father, was the Trojans' head coach and a great man to break me in. Coach Tollner inspired me to consider coaching as a career, saying, "Chuck, you keep working as hard as you can and pouring all you've got into the game of football. You've got what it takes to lead a team someday."
But I had a lot to learn. So I worked hard to break down game films, prepare scouting reports, coach the scout team, and generally assist the position coaches. As one of the four graduate assistants, I was also the team's gofer. I'd take the laundry out and pick up lunches. On Halloween I'd get pumpkins, and on Christmas I'd get Christmas trees. It was not a very glamorous job, and it involved a lot of grunt work. This is how you break into the business on the coaching side. So coaching became the way I sustained my love for football.
Before coming to Indianapolis, I had been coaching for twenty-eight years. During that time my family and I moved twelve times. After spending two years at USC, I served another year as a graduate assistant under the legendary Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami. The following two years, I coached linebackers at Boise State — and that's where I met my wife, Tina, who was born and raised in Idaho. In 1989, I coached defensive backs at East Carolina and then spent the next two years at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). In 1992, I went back to East Carolina for three years to coach defensive backs and linebackers, and from there back to the University of Miami, where I coached defensive backs and coordinated special teams for six years under head coach Butch Davis.
My first National Football League job was with the Cleveland Browns after Butch Davis was named head coach. He hired me to coach the defensive backs, which I did from 2001 to 2004. Next, I spent two years with the Oakland Raiders coaching defensive backs. When Butch Davis was named head coach of the University of North Carolina in 2007, he chose me to be the Tar Heels' defensive coordinator for one year, and then in 2008, I was hired by the Baltimore Ravens as a defensive backs coach. In 2011, I was promoted to be the Ravens' defensive coordinator — a job I carried out during a season in which we came within seconds and a few feet of a goalpost of earning a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens were 12 – 4 during the 2011 season and earned a bye going into the playoffs. Playing New England in the AFC championship game, we were down 23 – 20 late in the fourth quarter. Our quarterback, Joe Flacco, stepped back to pass and hit Lee Evans in the end zone — for the touchdown that would have sent us to the Super Bowl. The ball zipped straight into Lee's hands, but he couldn't secure the catch before a Patriots' defensive back knocked the ball away. Pass incomplete.
But we still had a chance to tie the game. Our kicker, Billy Cundiff, had made this kick 99 out of 100 times — an "automatic" boot through the uprights. But not that day. The kick sailed wide to the left. Instead of the game going into overtime, the Ravens' season ended. We would not be going to the Super Bowl as we'd all hoped and expected. We were all devastated.
* * *
The day after our loss, head coach John Harbaugh summoned me to his office. "Chuck, the Colts' general manager Ryan Grigson called me and wants to talk to you. They're doing a head coach search, and they want you to go to Indianapolis for an interview."
I was totally surprised. I didn't even know they were looking for a head coach! I still had my blinders on. Our Ravens squad had been focused on one thing and one thing only — to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy. I was struck by the irony. If our receiver had held on to that ball in the end zone, or if we had made that field goal and gone on to win in overtime, I would be focused on preparing our defense for the Super Bowl and the Colts would likely have not called.
However, other circumstances prevailed, and I trusted God that they were for the best. I called Ryan, who said Mr. Irsay wanted to talk to me. Ryan had similar thoughts to my own. Right off the bat he said, "I know the loss to the Patriots stings for you and the Ravens. If Billy Cundiff had made that field goal and the Ravens had won, you'd be on your way to Indianapolis to play in the Super Bowl and this telephone conversation would not be happening."
Prior to my interview, Mr. Irsay had asked Ryan to do a background check on me. He made phone calls to several players and coaches who had worked with me over the years. In 2010, when Ryan was with the Philadelphia Eagles, they were interested in hiring me as their defensive coordinator, and by the time of the interview he had accumulated a sizable file on me. Mr. Irsay asked Ryan to sit in on the job interview, along with Pete Ward, chief operating officer and a thirty-year veteran with the organization, and Dan Emerson, a vice president and the Colts' general counsel.
I had little time to think through the interview and went to Indianapolis cold, not as prepared as I like to be. Opportunity rarely knocks under perfect conditions, though, and I was grateful for the meeting. We met in a boardroom, where Mr. Irsay and Ryan immediately made me feel comfortable. Mr. Irsay talked about faith, family, and football. He explained his vision for the future. He was very passionate about his team and very direct about what he expected in the near future.
Mr. Irsay also talked a lot about his family members and asked questions about mine. I was thoroughly impressed with how important family was to him. Similarly, Ryan Grigson and his wife, Cynthia, have five children, and it was obvious that his first priority was also his family. Pete Ward and Dan Emerson were clearly strong family men as well. We all shared the same values and clearly hit it off at that first meeting.
I did have one prepared question to ask: "The Colts are a great passing team. I'm a defensive coach. Why aren't you talking to a coach with an offensive background?"
"We know we'll have a great quarterback and a strong offense," Ryan answered. "We want a great defense to go with it. We want balance, and you've done a great job with the Ravens. Baltimore has such a strong defensive culture."
Mr. Irsay also said they liked my reputation for being able to connect with my players. "You have consistently developed a mutual respect with them over the course of your career," he said. "We're looking for a leader of men."
Near the end of our conversation, Ryan scribbled a note on his legal pad and put it in front of Pete Ward, the Colts' COO. Pete read the note and nodded. We finished the meeting, and Mr. Irsay called the next morning to offer me the job as head coach of the Colts. We talked about the details, and I asked him if I could have a little time. "I need to sit down with my wife and talk to her about this," I said. Mr. Irsay told me to take my time and call back after I talked with Tina.
* * *
After a couple of hours, I called Mr. Irsay back. When he answered the phone, all I said was, "Let's hunt." This was an expression used a lot during my time in Baltimore. It was our way of letting each other know it was time to go to work, time to eat! This phrase signaled it was time to get in the game and be as focused as possible. When I said, "Let's hunt" to Mr. Irsay, he knew I meant I was accepting the job, that I was ready to go to work.
Mr. Irsay told me I was exactly what the team needed to move forward. "Ryan and I had many discussions about what we wanted in our head coach. At one meeting Ryan asked me, 'Is there someone out there who can charge up the side of that hill with sword in hand and lead his men into battle? Someone who can take that hill and emerge victoriously — no matter the odds?' His question made an instant imprint in my mind of the kind of leader we needed. Someone who had that kind of charisma, leadership, and passion to fearlessly lead a charge, no matter the circumstances. We believe you fit that bill, Chuck. From the minute we sat down and talked to you, and from all the feedback we've gotten about you, we believe you have these unique and special traits we want in a leader. Dan and Pete were impressed by your passion — we all were."
I was speechless, humbled and honored by what he was saying.
After a short pause, Mr. Irsay continued. "We were looking for someone who truly cares about the players and wants the best for them. That's why we believe you are our man. I connected very quickly with you and knew I wanted you to be our next head coach. Your love for this great game was evident from the start, and your personality is one I know our players and fan base will identify with. Beyond your passion and skill as a coach, you're also a relatable guy!"
When Mr. Irsay said this to me, I knew I was at the right place. I also knew they had big expectations for me, and I would do whatever it took to not let them down. Later, after I arrived in Indianapolis, Ryan showed me what he had written on that note he handed Pete during my job interview. It read, "Players will run through a brick wall for this guy."
* * *
Having spent twenty-eight years in the football business following my college graduation, I was once asked if I had always wanted to be a head coach. This is a question I always ask when I interview an assistant coach. I want to hire coaches who are great teachers, love what they do, and strive to be the very best at their craft. Coaches who aren't afraid to fail, who are driven to one day lead their own teams. People who are dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in all they do, individuals committed to working together as part of a team to create something bigger than themselves. So in a sense, yes, I've always wanted to be a head coach, determined to work hard and keep reaching for the next level.
With these qualifications in mind, one of the first calls I made after taking the job was to my old friend and colleague Bruce Arians, the man I wanted as my offensive coordinator. Following a track that was similar to that of my own career, Bruce had spent his entire life in football, dating back to when he was a top scholastic quarterback at York Catholic High School in York, Pennsylvania. From 1972 to 1974 he was the starting quarterback for the Virginia Tech Hokies and stayed on as a graduate assistant for two years until he got an assistant coaching job at Mississippi State University, where he worked with running backs and wide receivers.
From there, Bruce coached running backs under the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant at the University of Alabama in 1981 – 82. Then from 1983 to 1988, he was the head coach at Temple University, where he compiled a 21 – 45 record. In 1989, he worked for two years as a running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs and then took a job as the offensive coordinator from 1993 to 1995 at Mississippi State. He spent a year as a tight ends coach with the New Orleans Saints, another year at Alabama as an offensive coordinator, and then two years as a quarterbacks coach with the Colts. During this period between 1998 and 2000, he was Peyton Manning's first quarterbacks coach in the NFL. From 2001 to 2003, Arians was a quarterbacks coach with the Browns while I was in Cleveland, and that's where we became good friends.
Bruce joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004 and worked as the wide receivers coach, and then for four years he was the Steelers' offensive coordinator. Having seen how he coached Ben Roethlisberger to so much success, I knew Bruce was the man we needed to help develop the young talent on this team and run our offense.
As we would discover several months later, Bruce's contribution to me and to the team would become more than either of us could've imagined.
* * *
I first began to notice something wasn't right toward the end of training camp. Feeling fatigued and exhausted, I assumed it was from the fifteen-hour days of meetings and two-a-day practice sessions. My excitement and adrenaline kept me going, but when I saw the unexplainable bruises on my torso, arms, and legs, I wondered what was going on. Maybe I'm not eating enough of the right foods or my body's running low on iron or some other vitamin or mineral, I thought. Like most coaches would do, I just kept plugging away and working to get better. I've yet to meet a player who wants to leave the game, and I wasn't about to do so either.
Overall, camp had gone really well, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be more hands-on. The hardest part of my first few months as head coach had been administrative. In addition to hiring Bruce, there were other coaching staff positions to fill, tasks to delegate, and information to learn about the organizational side of the team.
Excerpted from Sidelined by Chuck Pagano. Copyright © 2014 Chuck Pagano. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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