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The Journal Gazette

Monday, January 01, 2018 1:00 am

Coach's final day meant a lot

Column by Mike Lopresti

INDIANAPOLIS – The man faced leukemia and came back to coach his team. Before we go one step further on the exit of Chuck Pagano, we need to remember that and never forget.

On this last Sunday of 2017 – and his last Sunday on the job – Pagano made one final trot off the field. He looked up in the stands and patted his heart, and then vanished into the tunnel. The Indianapolis Colts had just beaten the Houston Texans 22-13 in a game that meant little – except winning is better than losing, 4-12 is better than 3-13, and the Colts will be drafting third instead of second.

Not exactly the stakes Jim Irsay wanted to be playing for on Dec. 31.

But it meant a lot to Pagano, because on this last day, his team had not quit. It is impossible to exaggerate how important that is to a beleaguered coach. At the end, there were hugs all around, a brief celebration that has been so rare this star-crossed season.

“We do this for those five minutes,” Pagano would say later. “Those five minutes we just had were the best five minutes of my life.”

Then he was fired, less than two hours after the game. No one is surprised, and few will argue. If you put the Colts on a performance chart, the past three years would be like retail sales. There are numbers you can't get around, and they are a stark warning to the next coach about the revival task at hand.

Such as, no playoffs for three years running. You have to go back to 1994 – Peyton Manning's freshman season at Tennessee – to find that.

Such as, the 0-9 record during the Pagano years against Pittsburgh and New England. Indianapolis gave up an average of – good grief – 40.8 points in those nine defeats. Remember when the Colts and Patriots were considered fierce AFC rivals? Indianapolis has had 28 regular season defeats the past three seasons, New England nine.

Such as, Pagano started his Colts career by not losing two in a row in his first 33 games. He'll end it by not winning two in a row in his last 22.

But before he leaves, there are a couple other things to remember about Chuck Pagano.

How his downfall should always come with something of an asterisk, since he had to fight with one passing arm tied behind his back. Top quarterbacks are paid to be irreplaceable. If they weren't, why do they get all that money? Pagano needed Andrew Luck on the field, not in a doctor's office in Europe.

And how he waved from a box in 2012, as the crowd roared for the new coach who was knocking heads with cancer. Chuckstrong? Ring a bell? It gave the man a perspective no Super Bowl could match.

So there he stood Sunday, on Black Monday Eve, and let the grace and gratitude flow. This was goodbye.

“I don't know what tomorrow brings, I don't know what the next hour brings. But I do know I'm very grateful to Jim Irsay.” 

This is how the NFL works. Disappoint, and you're gone. Of the 31 head coaches around the league in Pagano's first season with the Colts in 2012, only nine were still on the job Sunday.

This is the way it ends with Colts head coaches. They win their final home games. Jim Caldwell did. Tony Dungy did. Jim Mora and Lindy Infante and Ted Marchibroda. Pagano made it six in a row.

His last postgame talk must have been powerful.

“He almost made everybody cry,” T.Y. Hilton said.

He told them the sky was the limit for them. He told them he had joy in his heart for the chance to coach them

“That's a real man there,” Jacoby Brissett said.

This probably had to be done. But Brissett's words should be the final words on Chuck Pagano. Not 4-12.


Mike Lopresti is a syndicated columnist and appears periodically in The Journal Gazette.