Three years ago Indianapolis rallied around cancer-stricken coach Chuck Pagano as the Colts made a surprise run to the playoffs. Now the good vibes have been replaced by turmoil, and the community is left wondering what to think of the man who once inspired them
Editor’s Note: Angie Six is a writer, mother, blogger and Indianapolis Colts fan living in central Indiana. The MMQB asked her to convey the mood of her fellow Colts fans regarding the team’s troubles this year
BY ANGIE SIX
I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out that Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. I’d just dropped my son off at preschool and was driving home. Listening to sports talk radio, I heard of Pagano’s uphill battle. I pulled the car over and cried.
I wept for Pagano because I knew what he was facing. The Colts community wept for him, too. We surrounded him with prayers and support and then proceeded to have the most inspiring and magical football season I’ve witnessed as a fan.
I was familiar with Pagano's disease, acute myeloid leukemia (AML), on a personal and professional level. Thirteen years earlier my husband and I raised more than $2,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, in honor of his aunt Kathleen. We ran the Walt Disney World Marathon in her honor, and days after we took our completion medals to her in the hospital, she passed away from AML. A few afterward I began working in a medical laboratory that tested patients’ blood and bone marrow for leukemia and lymphoma. When I performed those tests, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know the person behind the specimen. My heart would always drop when I saw the proof of leukemia.
I don’t know Chuck Pagano, either. I certainly didn’t know much about him three years ago, when he was our coach for a mere 267 days before his diagnosis. Here’s what I do know about Chuck Pagano: that he’s a fighter. That he’s beloved by his players. That he believes in faith, family and football, in that order. And here’s what I know about myself and many other Colts fans: We don’t know how to separate the good feelings we have about Pagano the person from the bad ones we have about Pagano the coach.
Do we have it in our hearts to cut ties with the man we rallied around a few seasons ago? Warm fuzzies don’t win championships.
It’s been a long, strange trip since the AFC Championship Game last January. From the humiliating loss to the New England Patriots to the ridiculous circus of Deflategate, Colts fans were looking forward to moving on. We had every reason to be hopeful, with Andrew Luck getting better every season and an embarrassment of riches on offense. That hope has turned to bafflement. How did we get here? We were being mentioned as legitimate Super Bowl contenders at the start of the season. Now we're scratching our heads and thankful to be the winners of the losers in the weak AFC South.
We have all the puzzle pieces needed to be a great team, but when you try to put them together all, one piece just won’t fit. The problem is, no one is really sure which piece it is. Is it Andrew Luck, playing hurt or regressing in his development? Is it general manager Ryan Grigson, failing to draft the right players or inserting himself as the proverbial extra cook in a crowded kitchen? Is it offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, inexplicably calling the wrong plays for a quarterback and offensive players he’s known since his college days? Or is it Pagano, able to garner love and respect from his players, but not wins? And if it is Pagano, do we have it in our hearts to cut ties with the man we rallied around a few seasons ago?
In my own limited and informal poll of local Colts fans on Facebook, I was surprised to find that not a single fan wanted to fire Pagano and keep Grigson. Either they both go or Grigson goes first, with a few calling for Pep Hamilton’s head for good measure. There were also murmurs of what some of us think, but no one has the heart to say: We probably let the wrong guy leave when we bid goodbye to Bruce Arians, who served as interim coach in Pagano’s absence, at the end of that fabled 2012 season. Despite the protocol for the head coach to be the first to be fired when things aren’t going well, that doesn’t seem to be what many of the fans want here in Indianapolis. It’s hard to root for Grigson, who doesn’t do warm and fuzzy well. Stuck between the rock that is owner Jim Irsay and the hard place of a coach embraced by his players and his community, the easiest answer to the Colts’ problems is to blame management.
Three years later, I still don’t know Chuck Pagano, the man. But I feel that I’ve seen enough to know Chuck Pagano, the coach. Barring a miraculous turnaround this season, it’s time to let Pagano go. When I remove the fairness factor and take away the filter of his personal struggles that color his legacy, I see a man who is unable to lead a team of tremendous talent through four quarters of football to a win. I don’t like it, and it doesn’t feel good. But warm fuzzies don’t win championships. No matter how much we admire the man, Indianapolis needs a coach who can get us more than participation banners.