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January 5, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Polian, Colts and Terre Haute were good for one another

Sentimentality seems alien in a discussion of Bill Polian.

That emotion rarely influenced his decisions in 14 seasons as the day-to-day boss of the Indianapolis Colts. He surely felt it, but seldom submitted to it. The NFL is a business, after all, with winning as its bottom line. Polian knew how to make that happen, and did. Anyone or anything threatening to divert the Colts from title contention could not linger. When it came to that mission, Polian functioned with all of the sentimentality of Joe Friday.

For that, Terre Haute owes Polian a sincere, albeit awkward, group hug. He could use it, after being fired by the club on Monday.

It was Polian’s “business-is-business” mentality that gave this city an improbable, once-in-a-lifetime perk. Shortly after taking over as club president, Polian went shopping in April 1998 for a summer camp site with more deluxe amenities than the pedestrian digs at Anderson University, where the Colts had been training since 1984. Polian had built an expensive payroll, topped by rookie quarterback Peyton Manning. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, with its brand new, $20-million Sports and Recreation Center, caught Polian’s attention. The Rose SRC could accommodate indoor practices, if weather turned nasty. Anderson offered no such option.

So, after a year of negotiations, the team moved its camp to Terre Haute from Anderson in 1999.

Nothing personal, Anderson. The switch just made good business sense.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t like the folks at Anderson; they’re nice people, but they didn’t have an indoor facility, and you can’t lose practices to bad weather,” Polian told the Tribune-Star in July of ’99.

Plus, Rose’s outdoor practice and playing surfaces were also superior to those at Anderson.

“We wanted to have the best possible fields,” Polian said then. “This year, the payroll [for players] is more than $65 million. We want to give them the best opportunities to perform.”

Thank you, Rose-Hulman. Thank you, Bill Polian.

As a result of his decision, this community became the summer home of an elite NFL franchise from 1999 to 2009. For a small parking fee, local folks got to watch and know Manning, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Bob Sanders, Joseph Addai, Dwight Freeney, Jeff Saturday, Adam Vinatieri, Dallas Clark and many other players. They constituted a historic cluster of talent, largely masterminded by Polian. During their 11-year run here, Indianapolis compiled 128 victories and just 48 losses. Four times, Manning went on to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award. Twice, their camps at Rose-Hulman led to Super Bowl appearances, following the 2006 and 2009 regular seasons.

The summer of 2007 — a few months after the Colts beat Chicago in Super Bowl XLI — turned into an amazing spectacle for this modest Hoosier town. Media from across the globe descended on the Rose campus. Celebrities strolled the sidelines. A record total of 27,340 fans attended the practices. The night scrimmages under the Cook Stadium lights provided unforgettable images of Manning delivering laser spirals to Wayne and Clark.

Most significantly, Polian sought and hired in 2002 a head coach who became a nationwide symbol of quiet class. The players respected Tony Dungy and his standards of behavior and performance. They played their guts out for him. The Colts worked hard in the sweltering heat at Rose-Hulman, yet Dungy never yielded his priorities in the process. A man of faith, Dungy scheduled no Sunday practices during camps. Polian (a control-driven, testy boss) let Dungy (Polian’s polar opposite in temperament) maintain his sublime, calm style.

And Terre Haute had a front-row seat to witness the annual fine-tuning of that intricate machine.

Colts owner Jim Irsay began a wholesale “rebuilding,” as he put it, of that machine this week. Lifting the hood after an ugly 2-14 season in which Manning stayed on the sidelines with a career-threatening neck injury, Irsay’s first renovation act was to oust Bill Polian, as club vice chairman, and Chris Polian, his son and the rookie VP-general manager. Obviously, the Polians did not handle this Manning-less season well, or in the same manner as the previous 13. Mistakes were made, starting with the $4-million Kerry Collins debacle. And, Bill Polian’s quirks — accepted and shrugged off by players and coaches (as well as people involved in the Terre Haute summer training camps) in times of success — were magnified and became unbearable in defeat.

So Irsay had to fire his friend, Polian. Nothing personal.

“I’ve always said there is a great loyalty in this business, because when I walk into the locker room with my team on opening Sunday, I’m expected to make sure that the circle that I’ve built is as strong as it can be for us to win,” Irsay said in a statement Monday. “Sentiment and those things can’t come between that.”

Polian probably uttered similar comments dozens of times in his role. After all, in spring of 2010, he and Rose-Hulman decided to end their training camp contract, so the Colts could move back to Anderson University. That college had pumped money into upgrading its athletic facilities. Anderson offered the Colts a sweet deal, and Polian took it.

This community holds unique memories, though. In the 15 seasons before Polian brought the camp to Rose-Hulman, the Colts compiled a cumulative 91-148 record with Anderson as their summer home. Since moving back to Anderson, they’re 12-20 the past two seasons.

Wrap your arms around that, Terre Haute.

 

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@ tribstar.com.

 

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