Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell has been the subject of many jokes during his first year at the helm, but come Sunday, he'll be the one laughing if he becomes the third rookie head coach to win a Super Bowl.
The two men who have accomplished the aforementioned feat are Don McCafferty of the 1971 Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V and George Seifert of the 1989 San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV. Like Caldwell, both of them took over established franchises with star-studded rosters and elite quarterbacks. McCafferty had Johnny Unitas. Seifert had Joe Montana. Caldwell has the luxury of Peyton Manning leading his offense.
But for all of the grief and ribbing Caldwell has taken — such as that he never says anything into his headset and merely daydreams on the sidelines during games — it’s important to recognize that he is a seasoned and intelligent instructor.
Before teaming up with former Colts coach Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay in 2001, Caldwell spent a quarter of a century in the collegiate ranks. A four-year starter in the defensive backfield for the University of Iowa in the late 1970s, Caldwell became a graduate assistant for the Hawkeyes in 1977.
He then embarked on a remarkable streak of promotions. In 1978, he earned his first professional coaching position as the wide receivers coach for the University of Southern Illinois, and remained with the Salukis for the next three seasons. Caldwell later held similar positions at the University of Colorado from 1982 to 1984 and Louisville in 1985. He was an offensive assistant at Northwestern in 1981 and the quarterbacks coach at Penn State University from 1986 to 1992.
Thanks to that bevy of experience under the likes of Bill McCartney and Joe Paterno, Caldwell was awarded his first head coaching position at Wake Forest University in 1993. He remained at the helm of the Demon Deacons until 2001, amassing an overall record of 26-63. That ledger is decidedly unimpressive, but it was mostly the result of Caldwell’s shortcomings in the area of recruitment, rather than an indictment against his abilities as a coach.
At least, the venerable Dungy thought so when he added Caldwell to his Buccaneers’ staff as the quarterbacks coach in 2001. Dungy was so impressed with Caldwell that he brought him along to Indianapolis the following year. Caldwell was promoted to assistant head coach and retained his responsibilities with the signal-callers. When Dungy retired last year, there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt that Caldwell would succeed him in Indianapolis.
And Caldwell’s former superiors were thoroughly confident that he could handle the job.
"Jim was one of the best assistant coaches I've ever had at Penn State," Paterno told ESPN in January. "I thought he did a great job as the head coach at Wake Forest, and Jim will do a great job as the head coach of the Colts."
Most importantly, Caldwell earned a ringing endorsement from Dungy.
"We have a saying around here, next man up, and Jim is the next man up," Dungy said Monday. "He's not going to try and do it like I did it. He's worked for some great people, and he's going to put his stamp on this team, and they're going to win."
And win they have. The Colts went 14-2 in the regular season and are back in Super Bowl for the second time in four years. Part of the credit goes to Manning’s brilliance, some to the perennially ferocious pass-rush duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, and a good amount to the creativity and excellence of the front office led by Bill Polian.
But Caldwell deserves plenty as well.
The Colts have won despite a maligned running game, a pair of inexperienced wide receivers (Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie), two rookie cornerbacks (Jacob Lacey and Jerraud Powers), and the absence of one of the best defensive playmakers in football (Bob Sanders).
Overcoming those challenges takes resilience in the clubhouse, hard work on the practice field and maximum effort every Sunday. Bringing out those qualities inevitably requires great leadership and shrewd coaching. And Jim Caldwell has provided all of that and more.
Just ask middle linebacker Gary Brackett, a seven-year veteran who spent the previous six years of his career playing for Dungy. He has noticed no regression under Caldwell.
"He does a good job communicating effectively with us," Brackett told USA Today. "And what he's been as far as keeping our bodies fresh, what he does in practice the latter part of the season and his time management, has been excellent. He's a very smart man who knows what he is doing as far as taking care of his football team."
Caldwell may not be a vocal leader like the 49ers’ Mike Singletary, an emotional gallant like the Broncos’ Josh McDaniels or a brash smack-talker like the Jets’ Rex Ryan — three other head coaches who have enjoyed some level of success early in their tenures. But his Colts beat the 49ers 18-14 in Week 8, topped the Broncos 28-16 in Week 14, and avenged a widely lamented regular-season loss to the Jets by thrashing them 30-17 in the AFC Championship Game.
Now, Caldwell will ply his reserved style against the aggressive tactics of the Saints’ Sean Payton. Confidence abounds in the Colts’ clubhouse, despite the immense talent of their Super Bowl opponent. The Colts are favored in the game because, if they play the kind of polished football that Caldwell has preached all season, they are the best team in football.
If the Colts win Super Bowl XLIV, the doubters and critics will be silenced, and Jim Caldwell will be recognized as one of the NFL’s elite coaches.
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