For Colts coach Jim Caldwell, a protégé of Paterno and Dungy, 16--0 never meant as much as XLIV
This is an article from the Jan. 25, 2010 issue
One of Jim Caldwell's favorite literary passages speaks of lions, sheep and slaughterhouses, which means it speaks of playoff football. The passage is from "Persistence," a chapter of an inspirational book by American author Og Mandino. Joe Paterno read it to Caldwell when the latter was a Penn State assistant and the Nittany Lions were preparing to play Notre Dame.
"There are parts of it I remember to this day," says the first-year coach, whose team took apart the Ravens 20--3 on Saturday to advance to the AFC title game against the Jets and quell an uproar. "I will try, and try, and try again. Each obstacle I will consider as a mere detour to my goal and a challenge to my profession. I will persist and develop my skills as the mariner develops his, by learning to ride out the wrath of each storm."
After starting the season 14--0, the Colts endured a month of turbulence because of their decision to rest their starters for the final two games—both losses—rather than chase a perfect season. Frustrated and angry fans bombarded president Bill Polian's weekly radio show, and critics questioned the Colts' sense of history. Caldwell wasn't fazed. "We have to do what's in the best interest of the football team," he said last week. "Most important is putting the guys who play this game in the best position to win it all."
Says Polian, "It's hard to win three in a row, much less 14. It takes more out of you physically and psychologically than people realize. I think we've done everything right."
In punishing the Ravens on Caldwell's 55th birthday, the Colts looked like a team built to raise another Lombardi Trophy, perfect season be damned. While the defense bottled up running back Ray Rice, Peyton Manning patiently chewed up yards, proving that Indy can gum you to death as well as devour you in big bites. After the game Manning spoke of the victory in terms Caldwell would appreciate: "We've been talking about overcoming some storms."
As a player Caldwell crossed paths with Tony Dungy on the Big Ten gridiron—Caldwell was a four-year starter at defensive back for Iowa, Dungy a star quarterback at Minnesota. The Gophers had taken Floyd of Rosedale five straight times when the two met as seniors. "They beat us and kept us out of a bowl game," Dungy says.
While Dungy entered the NFL, Caldwell became a graduate assistant at Iowa and began a steady climb through the coaching ranks: Southern Illinois, Northwestern, Colorado, Louisville, then Penn State, where he served as an offensive assistant under Paterno from 1986 to '92, and where the two connected on more than football. "Jim was an English Lit major at Iowa, and I was an English Lit major at Brown," Paterno says. "We tend to categorize coaches without understanding how deep some of them are. If Jim had decided he wanted to be a great professor, he would have been one. Shakespeare said, 'To thine own self be true.' Jim has been the same way for more than 20 years."
Caldwell's only previous head-coaching stint, at Wake Forest, didn't translate into victories—he was fired after a 26--63 record in eight seasons. When Dungy needed a quarterbacks coach in Tampa in 2001, he turned to Caldwell, who'd come highly recommended by Dennis Green (under whom Caldwell worked at Northwestern) and quarterback Kerry Collins (who had played for Caldwell at Penn State). After the Bucs fired Dungy and the Colts hired him in 2002, Caldwell joined his staff. "There was no question he was a guy I wanted to lean on," Dungy says.
In December 2005 the Colts were shaken by the suicide of Dungy's 18-year-old son, James, and it was then that Caldwell showed he was NFL head-coach material. While Dungy took a leave, Caldwell assumed his duties. "[Caldwell] is never going to face more adversity than he did when the tragedy struck Tony's family," Polian says. "He had to deal with the players at a time when they were shaken and hurt, and he had to keep the ship on course." Says Dungy, "The week I was gone in '05, everyone on the team and in the building could see how he would function in times that weren't normal. [Owner] Jim [Irsay] and Bill got to see that too."
When Dungy retired following the 2008 season, the Colts already had their successor, and the players overwhelmingly endorsed Caldwell. "Some guys with egos would come in and say, 'I've been waiting to be a head coach my whole life—this is how we used to do it over in Timbuktu,'" says tight end Dallas Clark. "With the success we've had, he was smart by changing a few things but not rocking the boat." The most noticeable new wrinkles have been on defense. "More man-to-man coverage, more blitzing, less two-deep zone," says Dungy, now an NBC analyst, who regularly exchanges calls and texts with Caldwell. "But the principles of being aggressive, of speed, those fundamentals are the same."
But Caldwell threw a curveball at his players when he had the first-string offense face the first-string defense during the bye week, including a day in pads. Before this season the Colts had gone 0--3 following first-round byes. "In years past we would try to guess who we were going to play," Manning said. "[This time] we just worked Colts against Colts, starters against starters. It was good, competitive, enthusiastic, spirited practice. You're going against Dwight Freeney, you're going against Antoine Bethea. You're not going against a guy on the practice squad. It made both sides of the ball better."
Says Caldwell, "Often what you lose [during the bye] is game speed. When you work ones versus ones, they know the system and you get the game speed."
Caldwell recently watched Invictus, the movie about Nelson Mandela and the 1995 South African rugby team. The film's title comes from a poem of the same name by William Ernest Henley, an English author who battled chronic tuberculosis and whose left leg was amputated below the knee at age 12. The Colts' coach recites it, once again from memory:
"In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud/Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed."
So, too, are the Colts, two wins away from their second Super Bowl title in four seasons. Two wins from poetic justice.