Commentary

Caldwell the face of 10-0 Colts

Updated: November 25, 2009, 9:30 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Jim CaldwellJames Lang/US PresswireJim Caldwell became the Colts' head coach last January after Tony Dungy retired.

BALTIMORE -- Jim Caldwell doesn't want this story. It's too early. Maybe next year, he politely says through a public-relations person, almost as if he's putting off a root canal. Maybe never, and that would be just fine, too. He's said it before, that the NFL is about players, not coaches. Was the guy whose 78-year-old record he just broke (for the best start by a rookie coach) on the tip of anyone's tongue? Of course Potsy Clark wasn't, but then again, maybe Caldwell knew who he was. He has what some people describe as a photographic memory. He has no known hobbies. He has no time.

So please, allow the new head coach of the Indianapolis Colts to pull his cap down and do his job, planning PowerPoints, pushing 290-pound mountains, but somehow managing to stay out of the way. Don't ask Caldwell if it bothers him that critics have said that he darn well should be successful with Peyton Manning and eight other Pro Bowlers on his roster. You know the answer to that. Don't ask how he's managed to go 10-0 with a banged-up defense and four straight games that have gone down to the final minutes.

"I don't think he even cares if anybody says his name, that he's the head coach," says Colts safety Melvin Bullitt. "That's just the kind of guy he is."

Consider him invisible, hidden behind Manning's arm and Tony Dungy's legacy, a blur in the backdrop of kid coaches and cutoff hoodies. Caldwell's team knocked off the Patriots two weekends ago, a signature win for most first-year coaches, and all the postgame chatter centered on Bill Belichick. How do you write about Caldwell in that game? Belichick gambled on a fourth-and-2 at his own 28, then repeatedly ran his hands over his weary and defeated face. Caldwell could've been a statue, save for the moment at the end of the game when he raised a finger to instruct his team to go for one after the winning touchdown.

"I actually watched a TV copy of the game last weekend," says Colts guard Ryan Lilja, "just to kind of relive that feeling at the end a little bit. Everybody is jumping around and high-fiving, and he was, you know, 'Go for one.' He's just standing on the sideline.

"He hasn't succumbed to the roller coasters, and he's very even-keeled. I like that."

In the beginning …

The Web home page for the city of Beloit, Wis., touts a prestigious ranking by Golf Digest and gives details on the construction of three new roundabouts. There's nothing about its native son, Jim Caldwell, being 10-0.

Caldwell's childhood in the blue-collar southern Wisconsin town was far from extraordinary. He lived a block-and-a-half from an engine factory and met his future wife, Cheryl, when he was 15. His dad Willie worked at General Motors for 35 years, and his mom Mary was a nurse. They taught their three kids to practice humility, to set goals and to never let anyone squash them. In 1973, Caldwell left Beloit to play football for the University of Iowa and cracked the starting lineup as a freshman. These were not Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes -- Caldwell, a defensive back, never went to a bowl game and suffered through four rather miserable seasons. His freshman year, the Hawkeyes went 0-11.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
University of Iowa AthleticsCaldwell, shown here with co-captain Jim Hilgenberg, played defensive back for the Iowa Hawkeyes from 1973-76.

"Sometimes the best coaches come from situations like that," says former teammate Bob Elliott, "where you have to struggle and fight and claw and scratch for everything you've got. Nothing's ever given to you."

Caldwell was good enough to have played for a number of Big Ten teams, but by all accounts had no regrets when he left Iowa City with a degree in English.

He was known as a heady player, a guy who was always in the right spot and didn't make mistakes. He was wise and mature, Elliott says, and earned the respect of the team by his freshman year. He wasn't the hardest hitter but always managed to bring his opponents down.

He wasn't much of a talker, but made a decent amount of noise at night.

"Every time I see him," Elliott says, "I say, 'Jim, I'd have been a great player in the NFL had you not snored so hard on the nights before games.' I just put a pillow over my head and moved on."

And so did Caldwell, to Northwestern, where he coached on Dennis Green's staff for a year, to the University of Colorado, as a member of Bill McCartney's original staff. McCartney says he was "fascinated" by the young coach who could memorize six different sets of directions for a recruiting trip to a town he'd never been to, never taking notes, never missing a turn.

"Now, this was almost 30 years ago," McCartney says, "but as I recall, he arranged a flight to bump into me. … He deliberately bumped into me, and then introduced himself and said he would like for me to consider him as an assistant coach. As soon as I started doing my homework, I realized this guy was special.

"All you've got to do is be around him for a few minutes, and you can tell. He's got a sparkle in his eye and a bounce in his step."

The program was in such a sad state when McCartney arrived in 1982 that it basically bottomed out. Gotta die to get better, McCartney would say. Caldwell showed up for work every morning with a smile, and, at 27, was unrelenting. He helped recruit a group of players who turned the program around in 1986, scoring a rare win against Nebraska.

Players loved Caldwell because he treated them with dignity. McCartney loved his balance, the way he absorbed every nugget of the game but still managed to devote all of his free time to his wife and their young children.

McCartney never told him this, but when Caldwell walked into his office after the '84 season and said he was leaving to take an assistant job at Louisville, it devastated him. Caldwell walked out, and McCartney closed the door to his office and sobbed.

"It was heartbreaking," McCartney says. "Gut-wrenching to lose him because he was so special. We were on a rocky road early on, we were having some turnover and whatnot, and he was the one guy I didn't want to lose.

"Yeah, I cried like a baby. But he didn't see it. I don't think I ever even told anybody that."

His early coaching years

So Part I of the Jim Caldwell head-coaching story goes like this. A young man with boundless energy went to Wake Forest in late 1992, a pedigreed assistant who had helped Penn State win a national championship and worked under the likes of Joe Paterno, Howard Schnellenberger, Green and McCartney, and everyone around him could sense that Caldwell was the next big thing.

Caldwell
Wake Forest University AthleticsCaldwell tinkered with the Wake Forest offense, but the Deacons still struggled in the win-loss column.

Caldwell tinkered with the Demon Deacons' offense, and the team went 2-9 in his first season. He switched to a two-back system from a one-back system, then decided to air it out with quarterback Rusty LaRue, who broke seven NCAA passing records in 1995. But the results weren't much different in the win-loss column.

"I mean, we were really bad," says LaRue. "And some of that was that he was a first-time head coach. I think he was learning a lot, as well. But he never broke down. He obviously expressed that the things we were doing weren't good enough, but he never demeaned us or put us down in any way."

What the stat sheets didn't say was that Wake Forest had possibly the worst football facilities in the ACC at the time, which didn't make recruiting easy for Caldwell. (Wake Forest has since undergone several facility upgrades.) But in eight years, he never complained, Wake athletic director Ron Wellman says, and did the best with what he had.

His 1999 team went 7-5, knocked off two Top 25 teams and beat Arizona State in the Aloha Bowl. That following spring, 23 of his seniors earned diplomas. Unfortunately for Caldwell, his career record at Wake was 26-63, leading to his dismissal after the 2000 season.

Wellman says firing Caldwell was easily "the most difficult day of my professional life." He was so visibly upset when he delivered the news that when their final meeting was over, Caldwell looked back at Wellman and asked if he was OK.

"He was as concerned for me as he was for himself at that point," Wellman says. "That's just who Jim Caldwell is."

The business approach

There was nothing earth-shattering about the Colts' announcement in January that Caldwell was replacing a retiring Dungy. To some, it was as if nothing was changing in Indianapolis. The two men had worked together for eight years, after all.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell & Tony Dungy
AP Photo/AJ MastIn January 2008, the Colts announced that Caldwell, an associate head coach at the time, would replace Tony Dungy, right, when Dungy retired.

Since Dungy couldn't be reached for this story, it's unclear how they initially hit it off in a coaching relationship that started in 2001, when Dungy hired Caldwell to be his quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay, carried on for seven seasons in Indianapolis, and ended in early 2009 when Caldwell took the reins as head coach. Dungy and Caldwell did play against each other in the Big Ten in the mid-1970s. And Caldwell's offense did rank in the Top 25 in passing for four seasons at Wake.

It has been said, on dozens of occasions, that Dungy and Caldwell are one and the same, from their Midwestern values to their religious beliefs to their even-keeled demeanors and guarded choice of words.

Caldwell talks about putting together 60-minute games. It sounds exactly like what Dungy would say. But there are noticeable differences, the Colts say. Caldwell blitzes more. He's more strict. Some of the players refer to him as a general. If practice is supposed to end at 3:30, Caldwell is bent on making sure the horn blows at 3:30. He's big on keeping players fresh. Caldwell has scaled back some of the physical elements of in-season practices, focusing more on the Colts' mental preparation.

"He's just a stern guy," Bullitt says. "That's just the way his approach is -- very quick, very sharp, and he gets straight to the point. No beating around the bush. He wants you to do your job and make sure you get it done."

Whenever Caldwell, 54, speaks during team meetings, the Colts leave with plenty to jot down in their notebooks. The night before they played at Baltimore this past Sunday, Caldwell left the team with one adage.

Winning is the residual of practice and preparation.

Indianapolis survived a late rally from a desperate Ravens defense and pulled out a 17-15 victory.

He tells the Colts that they're the hunters, and that they need to go out and take heads off and play a physical brand of football. He is animated in the pregame speech and subdued in the postgame when it's over and the Colts have done what he expected.

He doesn't micromanage, several Colts say, and does just the right amount of pushing on a team full of veterans.

"He's a little bit more animated than coach Dungy," says linebacker Freddy Keiaho. "He's just a really good manager. The days before the game, the moments before the game, he just comes out and shows his emotions. We really appreciate that as players."

'It's a pleasure to be here with you, Coach'

Perhaps it is too soon to write the book on Caldwell. It must be if Manning says so. His admiration for Dungy was unspoken and unwavering. The night before Dungy announced his retirement in January, he called Manning. The future Hall of Fame quarterback has enjoyed continuity with Caldwell, who tutored him for seven years, and in some ways, it's been a seamless transition. But as Manning stood at the postgame podium Sunday, he said he's still learning things about Caldwell.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell & Peyton Manning
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesQuarterback Peyton Manning says the Colts are playing hard for Caldwell.

"I can give you a better answer about coach Caldwell next year after I've known him for a full year as head coach," Manning says. "I don't know him as a head coach any better than anybody else. But players are playing hard for him; I will say that. Which, ultimately, is a great quality of a head coach."

In some ways, Caldwell is the face of this 10-0 team, unflinching, still somewhat unknown. Maybe Matt Stover can give the best view as a relative newcomer looking in. A month ago, Stover auditioned for the kicking job during the Colts' bye week after Adam Vinatieri injured his knee.

Caldwell watched Stover kick, then quickly said, "I want him. When can we get him signed up?"

Stover is 41, and before every game he shakes Caldwell's hand and tells him, "It's a pleasure to be here with you, Coach." Stover has been in the league long enough to notice things, and not take anything for granted.

He says his new teammates have faith in one another, the kind of belief he sees in teams that win close games and go to the Super Bowl. He says Caldwell is at the root of it.

"You can inherit [a good team] and still go 1-15," Stover says. "It's a matter of getting the right people, getting the right mind frame, being consistent yourself and creating an atmosphere that can be a winner. And he has done that.

"He's a good man. The NFL is about players, and he gets that. He understands his role is to direct and guide and to keep the guys focused on the task at hand. The players absolutely respect him, and he's created a great, level-headed team. A team that doesn't blink."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.