By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — It’s been quite a whirlwind year for Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
From the time that he was elevated from associate head coach to the top job on Jan. 12, 2009 to now, leading the Colts into tonight’s AFC divisional playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens, Caldwell has barely had time to catch his breath.
He is no longer just Tony Dungy’s hand-picked successor. And he is not a caretaker coach either, running someone else’s show. This is Jim Caldwell’s team. And it has been from the time that he officially took over the reins of the program from Dungy.
Sometimes perception is reality. And sometimes it’s not. Caldwell is a lot like his successor in some important of ways. Quiet, reserved, diplomatic. But he is also very much his own man.
That much was evident within a few days of taking over as the head coach. The former Iowa safety made a couple of important changes to his coaching staff, placing defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and special teams coach Russ Purnell. New to the staff were Larry Coyer (taking over the defense) and Ray Rychelski (special teams).
Coyer had been Caldwell’s position coach in college. Rychelski has been on the same coaching staff as Caldwell at Penn State and had been an assistant working for Caldwell at Wake Forest.
Eyebrows were raised at the time, but the moves made sense to the new Colts head coach. He hit the ground running and he hasn’t looked back since.
Caldwell led Indianapolis to a 14-2 regular-season record, an AFC South title and the number one seed in the AFC playoffs this year. He is also a candidate for the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, which is scheduled to be announced today by the Associated Press. Not a bad way to start off a professional head coaching career.
“I’m not sure there were any huge shifts, certainly none in terms of personality, none in terms of the way in which I’ve worked my entire life. I don’t think there was much of a shift there,” he said earlier this week.
“Obviously, anytime you’re involved in something so challenging, it does require maybe a bit more focus and energy just in terms of managing a team and personalities. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Caldwell admits that the toughest part of his job so far as been making personnel decisions, whether it has been on his coaching staff or on the team’s roster of players.
“Anytime that you’re in a position where you are dealing with someone’s future — anytime you have to release someone for whatever reason — that’s probably the toughest thing. Obviously, when you look at that person, you’re not just seeing the individual as an employee. You’re looking at someone who has a family, someone who people depend on. Sometimes things happen where you have not a whole lot of control because circumstances just require you to take certain actions,” he explained.
“That’s probably the toughest thing. I’m not certain you’ll ever get accustomed to that. I don’t want to ever get used to it. I don’t want to ever become insensitive. I do have compassion. I do have empathy. But nevertheless I have a job to do and that’s probably one of the tougher parts of my job.”
Caldwell has had several good role models to learn from, beginning with Dungy and Penn State coach Joe Paterno.
“When I first went to work for [Dungy] at Tampa, they had fired us. I walked into his office and told him, ‘Hey, I was sorry about what happened.’ He apologized to me because I had just gotten there literally and he was kind of feeling sorry for me in that kind of situation. But it was a great experience for me then. I told him that I used to think I had poise until I met him. I used to think I had a sense of self-control until I met him. I used to think I was somewhat unflappable until I met him. There a lot of things he does that there’s no way I can emulate because it’s just not my character. But there are some things that come very naturally to me,” he said.
“But the biggest thing, I think overall, that I probably learned from him is one thing he told me one day. In terms of making decisions, etc., he said, ‘It’s not about me.’ Oftentimes, head coaches really try and draw a line in the sand sometimes and you pound on the podium and sort of demonstrate your control with certain actions. He never wanted to step out into the spotlight where it became about him. It was all about the team. And I think I’ve tried to keep that going. I think some of that is natural for me. I don’t seek publicity or anything of that nature. Not that I’m not comfortable with it. I just think there are more important things going on around here than what I do. I think the guys who play this game are the ones who make the difference.”
His last statement is very telling. Caldwell would prefer to pass on any praise that he receives for his leadership of the Colts on to his players. He really doesn’t mind being in the background.
“As a team, [he’s most proud of] how our guys play. They find ways to win. They’re extremely resourceful. They fight to the bitter end. We’ve won some games through the year that are absolutely incredible. Great comebacks. The fighting spirit of this team is one thing I’m very, very proud of. That would probably be the most important thing overall,” he said.
“[But] I think the real key is what you do this time of year. That’s the difference. I think that’s how everybody is judged in this league. I’d like to be judged that exact same way. Can you get your team to the biggest game and vie for the most coveted trophy there is in professional team sports? And can you win it? Not just get there, but can you win it? But the road, obviously, to getting there is tough. First things first. We have a real tough challenge ahead of us this weekend.”
• Everybody probable — For possibly the first-time all season, there are no players listed as questionable or doubtful for the Colts heading into a game.
Indianapolis’ injury list remains the same as it’s been all week:
Defensive end Ervin Baldwin (groin), middle linebacker Gary Brackett (quad), defensive end Raheem Brock (hip), safety Melvin Bullitt (shoulder), defensive end Keyunta Dawson (knee), offensive tackle Ryan Diem (elbow), safety Aaron Francisco (quad), defensive end Dwight Freeney (foot), wide receiver Pierre Garcon (hand), cornerback Tim Jennings (knee), defensive tackle Antonio Johnson (shoulder), offensive tackle Charlie Johnson (foot), defensive end Robert Mathis (shoulder), defensive tackle Daniel Muir (shoulder), quarterback Curtis Painter (ankle), cornerback Jerraud Powers (hamstring), offensive guard Jamey Richard (shoulder), tight end Gijon Robinson (knee), weak side linebacker Clint Session (knee), offensive tackle Tony Ugoh (knee), wide receiver Reggie Wayne (knee) and placekicker Adam Vinatieri (right hip).
With the probable exception of Vinatieri, the remainder of the team’s injury list should be able to play against the Ravens tonight.
• Cam expects more Freeney, Mathis — Former Terre Haute South Vigo football and basketball standout Cam Cameron is in his second season as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator.
Cameron knows that Baltimore’s offense will see a lot more of Colts’ defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis than they did in the regular-season meeting between the two teams on Nov. 22. Freeney and Mathis both saw limited work in that game due to injuries.
“Yeah, you would assume they’re 100 percent. They played sparingly in our last game, so we really didn’t get to see them a lot. But you go against those guys over the years,” he said this week.
“You know, I got to know them a little bit at the Pro Bowl last year. And the Colts for quite some time now have been one of the great pass-rushing defenses in probably the history of the league.So,we’ve got our hands full.”
• Expect Ravens fans at the game — Baltimore fans have been trying to buy up as many available tickets to this evening’s game as possible.
While most observers don’t believe that the rush to buy tickets by purple-clad Ravens faithful will be as successful as it was for Tennessee Titans fans for an AFC divisional playoff game, they will be noisy once they enter Lucas Oil Stadium.
• Few hotel rooms available — Purchasing tickets, though, is one thing. Finding a place to stay in downtown Indianapolis this weekend is something else.
It seems as if many of the city’s major hotels have already been booked by those people participating and attending JAMFest Super Nationals, a youth cheerleading competition, at the Indiana Convention Center.
JAMFest began Thursday and concludes this afternoon.
• Haiti donations tonight — CBS and FOX will air a 30-second NFL public-service announcement during the AFC and NFC divisional playoff games this weekend promoting earthquake relief efforts. Also, all four home teams (Colts, Chargers, Vikings and Saints) will promote the Red Cross’ text-to-give message via video board and public-address announcements.
Colts ownership has kicked off their fundraising effort with a $10,000 contribution to the American Red Cross.