Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians
Two Halves of One Terrific Coach
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Next man in. It’s not just for players anymore.
By all accounts, 2012 shaped up as an unavoidable rebuilding year in Indianapolis. The organization, still smarting from a 2-14 collapse, spent the offseason turning the page and beginning a new chapter in its history. Rookie quarterback. First-year head coach. Reconfigured roster and staff. And for the first time since 1997, Peyton Manning was no longer around to serve as the face of the franchise. The Colts were starting anew, with even a .500 finish thought to be well beyond their grasp. Funny how football has this uncanny knack of making preseason assumptions look uninformed.
The reshaping of the Colts by owner Jim Irsay began with the hirings of head coach Chuck Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson. For Pagano, it was the pinnacle of a career dotted with jobs as a defensive assistant in the NFL and the college ranks. One of his first key decisions was to hire close friend Bruce Arians to be his offensive coordinator. Arians had a reputation for molding young quarterbacks, including Manning more than a decade earlier, so his addition made perfect sense since Andrew Luck was expected to be chosen in April’s NFL Draft with the No. 1 overall pick.
Its nine-year postseason streak snapped, Indianapolis set off to gradually execute a lengthy blueprint for a return to contention. Patience was recommended. A little prayer, it turns out, would be needed as well. On Sept. 26, three games into the year, the NFL world was rocked by the news that Pagano had been diagnosed with leukemia. In a flash, breathing life into a franchise was supplanted by the goal of simply staying alive. Pagano took an indefinite leave of absence to immediately begin three months of intensive chemotherapy treatment. Arians was instantly handed the reins of the Colts.
Indianapolis’ storybook campaign had its first storybook moment in Week 4, Arians’ first game as the interim head coach. With Pagano watching from his hospital bed at IU Simon Cancer Center, the Colts rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to stun Green Bay in front of a delighted Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. The game-winner with 35 seconds left came on a four-yard slant from Luck to Reggie Wayne, whose outstretched hand was appropriately decked in orange for leukemia awareness fundraising. Call it a harbinger of things to come for Indy.
“It was a surreal moment,” said a thoughtful Pagano. “It wasn’t so much that we came back and won, because I knew what those players were made of. It’s just that I couldn’t be there to enjoy it with my team, and I realized it was going to be the first of many games I was going to miss.”
Arians, whose only other head coaching gig was at Temple a quarter-century earlier, proved quickly to be the right man to take the baton from Pagano, and build upon his friend’s offseason work. The pair meshed impeccably well, the head coach providing wisdom and encouragement from a hospital room, while the interim coach masterfully conveyed the boss’ messages to the players. Pagano rightfully drew most of the attention throughout the fall. But Indianapolis’ 2012 tale would have had a very different ending had it not been for the leadership, passion and versatility of Arians every step of the way.
After getting dumped by the New York Jets, 35-9, a week after the thrilling upset of the Packers, the Colts gradually began to mature and find a groove under Arians. In fact, Indianapolis would lose just two more times during the regular season, at New England and at Houston. It developed a grittiness and resiliency that matched the persona of the staff, saving its finest flashes for the latter stages of tight games; the Colts played in nine games under Arians that were decided by a touchdown or less … and won all of them.
Fighting parallel battles, with starkly different consequences, the Colts were gaining a head of steam on turf just as Pagano was doing the same on linen. The head coach, faced with the most important challenge of his life, displayed the dignity, toughness and positive outlook that had become synonymous with his personality throughout his career. In a poetically symmetrical development, Pagano was inspiring a team and a city just as that team and that city were lifting his spirits.
“Bruce was tremendous, as was the rest of the staff,” beamed an appreciative Pagano, with obvious pride in his voice. “He stayed in constant communication with me, and stopped by the hospital every week. We’d text back and forth, and I’d monitor practice tape from my hospital bed with the help of an iPad. Remaining as close to the situation as possible really helped get me through my darkest days.”
On Nov. 5, Pagano received news that would trump any result that could ever occur on a Sunday afternoon in the fall—the cancer was in remission. The love of a city, the support of team and the care of a hospital system was working. Meanwhile, Arians was busy keeping the Colts in the playoff hunt, padlocking a once-improbable wild card berth with a Dec. 23 victory over Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. The miracle season was complete, save for one final emotional verse.
A week after the clincher, Arians, now 9-3 at the helm, happily handed the keys to the Colts back to Pagano, who was miraculously healthy enough to coach his players in the regular season finale versus the Houston Texans. Indy won. The locals rejoiced, many of them with tears in their eyes. And Pagano was given the game ball by Irsay during the post-game celebration. A triumphant ending to a tumultuous transition year, but in many ways a new beginning as well for an organization that remains excited about the future.
“We couldn’t have asked for two better coaches to lead us last year,” stated Indianapolis DE Cory Redding. “Chuck is a player’s coach, a great teacher and mentor. He truly understands the game, and allows players to become their own people on the field. He was so easy to rally around, and is the kind of guy you don’t ever want to disappoint. Bruce? Man, he is one heck of a coach. He’s just like Chuck in so many ways, which is why they complemented each other so well. Bruce challenged everyone once Chuck went in for treatments, and made sure that his points were always understood.”
Back in the summer, there was trepidation and a palpable uneasiness around Naptown about the local football team. For well over a decade, Indianapolis was not truly a Colts town; it was more of a Peyton Manning town. And Peyton was now attempting to resurrect his career 1,000 miles away in Denver. Strange how this game has the ability to flip the script without warning, producing stories fit for a Hollywood set. Peyton was gone, replaced on some emotional level by “CHUCKSTRONG”, the movement and rallying cry for a man and an organization determined to beat the odds together.
“When I think of “CHUCKSTRONG”, it reminds me that it’s in our toughest moments that the best in people often gets revealed,” waxed Pagano. “It also reminds me of all of the great people in Indianapolis, the state of Indiana and the Colts organization. The way everyone embraced me and my family was simply unbelievable.”
The Colts kicked off a new era in 2012, with the modest expectations that come with a top-to-bottom facelift. They ended the season galvanized, hopeful and, rather unexpectedly, in the postseason. In between, Indianapolis authored one of the most memorable stories of the year, capturing the hearts of a city and a league. Pagano and Arians, now the Arizona Cardinals head coach, share the 24th Greasy Neale Professional Coach of the Year Award, because it took a collaborative, tag-team effort to maximize all of the blended parts on this year’s roster. The inspiration of one coach, who stared down mortality, combined with the tireless execution of another, who seamlessly kept the Colts from derailing, revealed a model for thriving during crisis, and for overcoming tall odds.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.