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Editor's Note, Oct. 15, 2013: This feature originally ran in the September 2007 issue. Jim Irsay tweaked both Bill Polian and Peyton Manning in speaking about the Colts' postseason productivity on during the Manning–Polian era.
There were no tirades on this evening. No beating on windows. Nothing like the fist-pounding rage in Foxborough during the 2003 postseason, or the histrionics that made his temper legendary around the league in the early ’90s with the Bills. On Sunday, January 21, Bill Polian spent much of the first hour of the American Football Conference Championship Game sitting in his cordoned-off area adjacent to the RCA Dome press box looking on in helpless disbelief, watching the magnificent machine he’d spent a decade building spin perilously out of control.
There went Corey Dillon, ripping through the line toward the end zone, exposing gaping holes in the Colts defense, just as Jacksonville had in a grievous December loss. Here was the best quarterback in the world, reduced to a mere mortal once again by the New England Patriots’ defense, throwing a pass that Assante Samuel intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
And suddenly the scoreboard read: New England 21, Indianapolis 3.
There is a deathly quiet unique to playoff games that infects a stadium when the home team falls too far behind. The air that’s sucked out of the building contains all the high hopes and whispered prayers of countless seasons of watching and cheering. All that’s left is a pervasive sense of disappointment, the prospect of a postgame traffic jam and work tomorrow—in short, all the things that we use football to get away from.
But Bill Polian’s football teams are a reflection of the man: gritty, intelligent, and incredibly resilient. In Indianapolis, he’d hired a coach who preached steadfast resolve in the face of all manner of adversity, then proved the ability—under the most tragic circumstances imaginable—to walk it like he talked it. The roster was filled with high-intelligence, high-character players who had made a habit of turning adversity into motivation.
So Polian remained unusually composed as he looked down on the field and saw an animated Tony Dungy pacing the bench area on the sidelines, piercing the gloom, getting into his players’ faces and exclaiming, “It’s still our time! There’s still plenty of time left!” Though they’d fallen 18 points behind their nemesis, a team that had won three of the previous five Super Bowls, the Colts were neither intimidated nor alarmed. Within a few minutes, the offense began a late second-quarter drive, and Polian leaned over to his good friend, longtime Colts player-personnel guru Dom Anile, and said, “If we can score here before the half—even a field goal—I think we’re going to be okay.”
Two hours later, following a dream second half during which Peyton Manning likely stamped his ticket to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the RCA Dome was a rollicking, blue-hued cacophony, and the Indianapolis Colts were the AFC champions. Through the din, up in the press box, a jubilant Polian hugged Anile and shouted, “You just got your ring!”
Which was a tremendously confident statement from a man who’d become as renowned for losing Super Bowls as he was for getting to them.
To fully understand how professional football was saved in Indianapolis you have to begin with the death of the man who brought it here in the first place. Robert Irsay passed away in January of 1997, leaving behind a franchise that had brought him heartbreak and infamy. Jim Irsay inherited his father’s football team but, thankfully, little of his obdurate, tact-free cluelessness. The younger Irsay had grown up with football, shagging balls in training camp as a youth, lifting weights with the team as he grew older. In the fall following his father’s death, as he watched his Colts limp through the 1997 season to a 3-13 record, Jim Irsay knew that he wanted to do something dramatic to signal a new era for the franchise. He also realized the stakes. His team needed to get better fast—and stay that way—lest he face the prospect of repeating the sad passage of his father, who under cover of darkness and blizzard conditions on the night of March 29, 1984, ordered a fleet of Mayflower moving vans to head west from Baltimore and not stop until they crossed the Maryland state line en route to Indiana. Of course, the elder Irsay had proved to be a meddling, incompetent owner wherever his franchise was located. Indianapolis hadn’t been known as a football town when the Colts arrived and, 13 years later, nothing had happened to change that perception.
By 1997, though, it was becoming harder than ever to do business in a small market that was largely indifferent to its football team. There was a new economic world order emerging in pro football, and it became increasingly clear that if Jim Irsay wasn’t able to replace his stadium—the smallest and least charming facility in the NFL—he would have only one choice, and that would be to find a better deal in yet another city.
Even though he was the only owner in the NFL with a ponytail, routinely spoke of his team’s fortunes in terms of “karma,” and was a collector whose greatest score was the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the new owner was a gray-flannel conservative when it came to football philosophy. If there ever was a person who didn’t want to move a franchise, it was Jim Irsay. To grow up with a love for football, and a father who was universally hated in one of the great football towns in the country, is to understand what a team can mean to a town. And also, incidentally, to understand that this team didn’t mean anything like that to this town.
Intent on changing all of that, Jim Irsay made his move. Within 24 hours after the end of the 1997 season, he fired general manager Bill Tobin and head coach Lindy Infante, and dealt a third-round draft choice to the Carolina Panthers, all so he could hire Bill Polian as his new president and general manager. And on that day, Dec. 20, 1997, the Indianapolis Colts gained an identity.
When the news broke, Peyton Manning was with his father, Archie, returning to New Orleans for the Christmas holiday, and taking a break from practice before his final college game, in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska.
“That’s a great move, right there,” Archie Manning told his son. “Polian’s smart, and he wins everywhere he goes.”
A decade later, Polian has done just that. No NFL team has won more regular-season games or made more playoff appearances in the past 10 years. Yet despite his weekly radio show on TK and his role as the first and most important cog in the Colts’ resurrection, Polian remains little-known to Indianapolis fans. This is no accident. He is shrewd, tough, engaging, and fiercely private. When I began our interview this summer with some slightly personal questions about his family, he showed genuine discomfort. “I don’t want to go into this,” he said at one point, visibly cringing on the couch in his office. “If you had told me this up front, I would have said no. I’m a very private person, and I do not like this.”
Asked to explain the unique, combustible nature of his father and his boss, Colts assistant general manager Chris Polian says, “I think some of it is competitiveness and some of it is upbringing. New Yorkers are New Yorkers. Some of it is the times we live in. I mean, 25 years ago, coaches used to be able to hit players. I don’t know that ‘mellow’ is the right word, but I think he’s adjusted with the times. That doesn’t mean he’s going to suffer fools.”
Ten years after making the hire, with a new Super Bowl ring on his finger and a new stadium going up in downtown Indianapolis, Jim Irsay is more sanguine about Polian’s idiosyncrasies: “I really love the guy, and yes, he can get volatile, so I gotta get him calmed down sometimes. But that’s fine, too. He’s brilliant at what he does. Like any mad genius, there’s some volatility and some things that come with it.”
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