The Passion of Bill Polian
Tough, engaging, and fiercely private, the man who is perhaps most responsible for the Colts championship remains little known to Indianapolis fans. Yet Bill Polian’s brilliant mind and competitive zeal brought the city a title—and a new identity.
This article appeared in the September 2007 issue and is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s celebration of longform journalism.
I first interviewed Bill Polian while writing my book ‘America’s Game.’ During the 2003 season, Tony Dungy graciously let me spend a couple of days shadowing him on the Monday and Tuesday after a game. I’d been impressed with the Colts’ system, and the communication between Dungy and Polian, and touched on it at the end of my book. So when then-Indy Monthly editor David Zivan asked me a few years later if I wanted to write a profile of Polian, I jumped at the chance. As I mentioned in the story, Polian was initially quite reluctant to talk about anything that touched upon his personal life. But he was ultimately very accommodating. I think I made two separate trips to Indianapolis to spend time with him.
There was universal agreement that Bill was much more relaxed in the period of time between the draft (late April) and the beginning of training camps (late July). And I spoke to him during that fertile downtime, though the modern world of the NFL enjoys no truly dormant periods. But Bill was expansive and genial—and he loves talking baseball. One other thing: I was struck by the intensity of the rivalry between the Colts and the Patriots at the time. New England refused to let Scott Pioli speak to me for the story. I got the sense they didn’t want to give the Colts any bulletin-board material, but also didn’t want to spend any time singing his praises as perhaps the best general manager in football. He richly deserved his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. -Michael MacCambridge, author
Editor’s Note, January 31, 2015: The Pro Football Hall of Fame has announced that Bill Polian, Colts vice chairman from 2008 to 2011, has been voted into its Class of 2015. Previously, Jim Irsay tweaked both Polian and Peyton Manning in speaking about the Colts’ postseason productivity during the Manning–Polian era. This feature originally ran in the September 2007 issue.
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.
Archie Manning told his son, “Polian’s smart, and he wins everywhere he goes.”
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.”
It was a long road to Indianapolis.
In 1975, Marv Levy was in Montreal, where in addition to being the only head coach in professional football with a master’s degree in English literature, he’d guided the Alouettes to the Grey Cup, the championship of the Canadian Football League.
Football was a smaller business in those days, and the CFL was smaller still. But, at any level at any time, the lifeblood of a football team is its ability to find good football players. When Levy’s player-personnel director Bob Windish asked if he could pay a few people $500 each to provide some additional scouting reports for American players, Levy agreed.
A few months later, Levy was struck by one set of reports that were remarkably thorough and well-researched, far more informative and insightful than many of those generated by professionals in the field. After absorbing a particularly incisive document, he called Windish into his office and asked with sincere amazement, “Who is writing these reports? I want to meet this guy.”
And that’s how Bill Polian got his first break into pro football.
On that day, Windish told Levy all about his friend and former player: the Bronx-born, whip-smart, hard-working Polian had been a captain his senior season under Windish at New York University in the mid-’60s, and then bounced around the coaching ranks at Manhattan College, Columbia University, and the Merchant Marine Academy before leaving the profession in the early ’70s to better support his wife, Eileen (his childhood sweetheart), and their growing family. The son of an Irish immigrant with the ginger hair and short temper to prove it, Polian was someone who had given, in his own words, “no real thought of making a living out of professional football.” At the time, he was selling advertising for an agricultural trade magazine. But he couldn’t quite bear to give up on football. So he poured his energy into the scouting reports, keeping a connection to the game he loved.
“They were just so well-written and so well-presented,” Levy says. “He was able to distinguish what was significant from what wasn’t. And he wasn’t trying to fill up his reports by trying to impress you with all this malarkey.” (Among the reports was one on a versatile University of Minnesota quarterback named Tony Dungy.)
“Bill wears his emotions on his sleeve. He would get angry at circumstances, but he never got personal.”
When Levy came to the NFL to become the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1979, he brought Polian on as a scout. The pay wasn’t enough to quit his day job, but the indefatigable Polian took on every task he could find—scouting college talent, running free-agent tryout camps, working as an advance pro scout to help coaches with game-plan preparation. Though Polian has modestly described himself as a “lousy” football player (he had been a safety at NYU), he quickly showed an intuitive sense for how a player at one level might perform at the next, as well as a range of other talents that made him leadership material. “I saw that he had great people skills, and they were natural, they weren’t affected,” Levy says. “He cared about the guy. He saw each person in an organization. And he didn’t see him as a face. He saw him as a story.”
Polian and Levy’s friendship deepened over the years, and they worked together again when Levy coached the Chicago Blitz in the United States Football League in 1984. Polian left Chicago to take the pro player-personnel director job with the Buffalo Bills, and by 1986 he had been promoted to general manager; when Hank Bullough was fired as head coach in the middle of the 1986 season, Polian convinced Bills owner Ralph Wilson to hire Levy. With a series of productive drafts and the pivotal signing of future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly (who had shunned Buffalo for the USFL back in 1983), Polian began assembling the team that would be a perennial contender for the better part of the next decade.
Along the way, he developed a reputation as a brilliant, energetic, thin-skinned, egotistical hothead, every bit as likely to blow up over a referee’s call during garbage time in an August exhibition game as in a January playoff in which the whole season was at stake. Asked to name Polian’s most memorable tantrum, Levy just laughs. “There are too many,” he says. “Bill wears his emotions on his sleeve. He would get angry at circumstances, but he never got personal. And it was almost always in defense of the people with whom he worked. I knew he wasn’t going to change. Sometimes, after he’d calmed down, he would laugh at himself.”
The Bills were the standard against which the rest of pro football was held in the early ’90s—the team managed a 49-15 regular-season record from 1990-1993—but their misfortunes in the Super Bowl were legion: Scott Norwood’s wide-right to end the Super Bowl XXV thriller against the Giants; Thurman Thomas’s portentous misplaced helmet at the start of the loss to the Redskins a year later in Minneapolis. Along the way, Polian tangled with Bills treasurer Jeff Littmann and Bills owner Ralph Wilson so many times that Wilson finally decided to let him go in 1992. Polian talked Wilson out of firing him then, but the two men agreed he would leave at the end of the season. The indomitable Bills bounced back that season and in the playoffs came from 32 points down to defeat Houston 41-38, in the greatest postseason rally in pro-football history, to earn their third straight Super Bowl trip, to Pasadena for Super Bowl XXVII.
The team’s performance there—they were dismantled, 52-17, by the Dallas Cowboys—was all the more devastating because Polian had known going in that it was to be his final game with the Bills. Toward the end, he could no longer bear to watch. Afterward, someone asked him if he was depressed.
“Depressed?” he answered. “Try wounded beyond recognition.”
Later that night, Levy went to Wilson’s hotel room and made a case for his friend, arguing that Polian was the best general manager in football, a superb personnel evaluator, a terrific negotiator, and one of the smartest people in the game. Wilson gave Levy a fatherly smile and said, “Marv, everything you said about Bill’s merits I agree with. But we just don’t get along.”
So Polian left (announcing his own firing at a press conference), and spent a year working at the league office before returning to competition as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers, where he would build from the ground up a team that went to the NFC Championship Game in its second season. And yet there was more discord in Carolina, where Polian was frustrated in his dealings with owner Jerry Richardson and his son Mark. It was a short honeymoon that was already souring by the end of Carolina’s third season.
That was when Polian found out he had another suitor.
Bill, this is Jim Irsay …
It has been 60 years since the Los Angeles Rams hired a man named Eddie Kotal to be the first traveling scout in professional football. Since then, the area of personnel evaluation has changed as much as any aspect of the game, growing exponentially in size and scope. But despite the multimillion-dollar budgets and large staffs (the Colts have 18 full-time employees in their football personnel department), scouting football players is still much more of an art than a science.
When Polian arrived in 1997, he found a team with a handful of standouts (Marshall Faulk, Marvin Harrison, the promising rookie Tarik Glenn) and the remaining roster densely populated with the sort of players about whom scouts like to say, with a flatly dismissive air, “He’s just a guy.”
“I was astounded by the fact that Peyton threw a heavier ball with many more revolutions per second than Leaf.”
But Indianapolis did have the first pick in the 1998 draft, and with it an enormous opportunity. Polian’s ultimate decision may seem obvious in retrospect, but at the time the choice could not have been more in doubt, with personnel directors throughout the league split on the relative merits of two blue-chip quarterbacks. On one hand, there was the Tennessee All-American Peyton Manning, a coach on the field and well-known beast in the film room, whose stock fell slightly as a senior simply because his team didn’t win the national title, and he didn’t win the Heisman Trophy. Then there was Washington State’s fast-rising Ryan Leaf, who had the prototypical physique for a pro pocket-passer, and was considered by many scouts to be less polished but with a significantly higher upside.
Had they gone solely on game-scouting from the previous fall, the Colts likely would have selected Leaf. But in the months leading up to the draft, Polian hunkered down in his new office and spent most of his time, roughly 500 hours, watching film and analyzing the comparative strengths of the two quarterbacks. He and his staff watched each of Manning’s 1,505 college passes, and each of Leaf’s 880 throws, then viewed the passes from the 1997 season twice over again. From that epic instance of overanalysis came a deeper level of understanding.
“From a pure scouting standpoint, you would have taken Leaf in a heartbeat,” says Polian. “Now, as it turns out, when you really got into analysis, even the physical, there were perceptions about Manning that were untrue. There were perceptions about Leaf that were untrue. But your eye sees what it sees and your ear hears what it hears, so scouts came back and said, ‘Manning has a weak arm.’ When you analyzed every pass they threw for the years that they were in school, that wasn’t true. But no scout has the ability to do that. You can only do that in the off-season when you can put together all the film. I remember remarking to Tom Moore [the Colts’ longtime offensive coordinator] how astounded I was by the fact that Peyton threw a heavier ball with many more revolutions per second than Leaf. Even in the physical part of it, the initial reports were wrong. And the conventional wisdom and hype was 100 percent wrong.”
And, of course, Polian’s selection was 100 percent right. Manning was a starter from his first game, and though the Colts went 3-13 again, it was clear that Indianapolis had the single most important element in building a team, a franchise quarterback. (Leaf turned out to be a monumental bust, and out of pro football in four years.)
In that first season together, both Polian and Manning had to get used to the city of Indianapolis, which was playing hard to get.
“I remember when I got here,” says Manning, laughing ruefully at the memory. “This guy explained to me, he said, ‘Let me make one thing clear: It’s basketball, basketball, basketball, car racing, and then football.’ I said, ‘Well, okay… I’m glad we’re in the top five.’”
The Manning pick was a tribute to Polian’s thoroughness in a single case, but after the ’98 draft he began the monumental task of overhauling the team’s scouting system. To do so, he brought in the experienced Anile, a longtime friend (they coached against each other in the early ‘70s) who had worked with Polian in Carolina. The changes would prove to be an immense amount of work. “I get up to Indianapolis,” recalls Anile, “and I think, What the hell? Can I get my job back in Carolina? The film setup was a mess. There were cans of reels in the hallways. We didn’t have a computer guy. It was just behind.”
Together, Polian and Anile constructed a system that owed its roots to the Dallas Cowboys’ highly influential computer scouting system from the ’60s, with a keen emphasis on tangible physical abilities, or “measurables.” They also drew from the concept of video profiling, an innovation of the late Bill Walsh when he was coaching the San Francisco 49ers, condensing several games of tape on a player to his best and worst 15 plays, in an attempt to get a gauge on a player’s potential, as well as a sense of what kind of mistakes he was consistently making.
What they added was their own scale, in which draftable players were ranked on a scale from 5.00 to 7.00. (“The numbers themselves are irrelevant,” points out Chris Polian, “but this was what Dom used in Cleveland, so this is what we use.”) Added to this was a greater reliance on psychological testing, and more intensive regression analysis to study the correlation between test results and pro performance. They also honed the system of letter-typing, by which players with potential red flags were more easily classified. Minor scrapes with the law would get a small “c,” while more-serious or more-persistent violations would receive a large “C,” the scarlet letter of personnel evaluation.
In 10 drafts with Polian in charge, the Colts have never drafted a player with a large “C” designation. “It became a good shorthand,” says Anile. “You’d learn to stay away from a player, no matter how good he was, if he had the whole alphabet behind his grade.” Thus a player who was a pure 6.56 would be drafted by the Colts ahead of a more-talented player whose 6.64cxt indicated concerns about character, durability, and psychological makeup.
The new system was largely in place on the day of the 1999 draft, when Polian dealt the team’s best and most productive player, Marshall Faulk, to the St. Louis Rams (he dreaded the effect of Faulk’s inevitable holdout on the young team), and then, with the fourth pick in the first round, passed up Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in favor of the lesser-known running back Edgerrin James, eliciting yowls of outrage from Gary to Evansville. It was the most controversial draft choice Polian had ever made, but as with the year before, its wisdom was soon proved out. It wasn’t merely that James was a better fit for the Colts’ offensive system; he was a better all-around player than Williams (whose career sputtered after a series of positive drug tests earned him a year’s suspension from the league). In 1999, Polian’s second season at the helm, the Colts improved from 3-13 to 13-3, the biggest one-season swing in league history, and he won the NFL’s General Manager of the Year Award for a record fifth time. Asked to name the best bit of football advice he ever received from his father, Chris Polian doesn’t hesitate: “Do the right thing, not the popular thing.”
After back-to-back playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000, Indy slipped to a 6-10 record in 2001. During that season, Polian became increasingly frustrated by the philosophical differences he had with head coach Jim Mora, whose defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, employed a sophisticated system that required high-priced talent in the interior line, as well as experienced players throughout. The problem was that the Colts had constructed the most potent offense in the league, leaving them without the resources in the salary-cap era to give Fangio the sort of players he needed.
When the Bucs cast Dungy aside, Indy suddenly had a chance at a head coach who would be an ideal fit.
“As we were evolving,” says Polian, “it became clear to me that we couldn’t have the kind of offensive system we had and still use that defensive system, and still make it fit under the cap. We couldn’t do it.” When Mora predictably refused to fire Fangio, Polian reluctantly fired both men, and set about finding a new head coach.
Shortly after the end of the 2001 season, he presented a list of potential candidates to Jim Irsay, who looked at the six names and asked about one name that wasn’t on it: “What if Tony Dungy were to become available?”
“Then all bets are off,” said Polian, who had worked for three years with Dungy on the NFL’s influential Competition Committee. “Because he’s our guy.”
Polian wanted his defense to get younger, faster, and less expensive, which meant he wanted a defense modeled on the Cover-2 scheme, whose modern incarnation was largely the brainchild of Dungy, who’d spent the previous six seasons resurrecting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When the Bucs cast Dungy aside to hire hot young coach Jon Gruden, Indy suddenly had a chance at a head coach who would be an ideal fit for the defensive system.
As it turned out, the fit was ideal in so many more respects. Polian flew down to Tampa and had a secret daylong meeting with Dungy. “I could feel his passion,” Dungy remembers. “You felt after meeting with him that whatever you needed to win, if it was humanly possible, he was going to get it for you.” Polian returned to Indianapolis and told his son Chris that he had met with Dungy for five hours, and it felt like five minutes. “My neck is sore from nodding my head yes in agreement so often,” he said.
Carolina was offering Dungy more money than you can shake a stick at, plus the stick. But Dungy ultimately decided to come to Indianapolis, and in doing so, the discord that had marked the end of the Mora era—dating at least as far back as the 2001 draft, when rather than restocking their defense the Colts traded down in the first round to select wide receiver Reggie Wayne—disappeared. “Tony was like a breath of fresh air,” says one Colts staffer. “The morale improved immediately.”
The Dungy hiring brought about the latest chapter in the evolution of the scouting system. The Colts had to modify their personnel department to get the sort of players that fit in the Dungy defense. But in doing so, they found a coach who spoke their language, and who was able to articulate exactly what sort of player he was looking for at each position on the defense, and why. “As it turns out,” says Polian, “Dom and I were intrinsically attracted to the same kind of player as Tony. There were players who fit [the new system] because we liked guys like that, we liked athletic players, we liked speed. Size wasn’t something we got hung up on. We didn’t want midgets, but if a guy could run, and he was athletic, and he could rush the passer, we were attracted to him.” Which was how Polian and Dungy agreed, to a chorus of scoffing from personnel people around the league, to draft undersized Syracuse rush end Dwight Freeney in the 2002 draft. (Freeney went to his third straight Pro Bowl last season, and recently signed a six-year, $72 million contract, making him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history.)
In 2003, the team turned a corner, winning its first playoff games in the Polian era, and advancing to the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough, where the seasoned, savvy Patriots, en route to winning the second of their three Super Bowl titles, intercepted Manning four times and won 24-14. The Patriots’ secondary pushed Indianapolis’ receivers all over the field, confident that the illegal-contact rule (which prohibits a defender from impeding a receiver once he’s five yards beyond the line of scrimmage on his route) would be called sparingly. The Patriots were right about the officiating, Polian in turn was livid about the officiating, and the Colts were eliminated.
That game was the genesis for what has become pro football’s hottest rivalry.
During the 2004 offseason, Polian supported a move in the Competition Committee to make strict enforcement of the illegal-contact rule a renewed “point of emphasis” for game officials. Polian’s rationale made sense—passing yardage per game had hit an 11-year low in the ’03 season—though from where the New England Patriots sat, there was plenty of grumbling about his longstanding membership on the committee and his close ties to the league office (“Bill’s definitely the commissioner’s fair-haired boy,” is how one fellow GM put it at the time). The point of emphasis didn’t change the outcome of the 2004 season, where the Colts were still subdued in the chilly New England air, losing to the Patriots 20-3 in the divisional playoffs.
Then came the heartbreaking season of 2005, which began with a 13-0 record and then was jolted by the tragic news of James Dungy’s suicide. It was Polian who decided to fly the entire team down to Tampa to be there when Tony Dungy buried his son, a move that further cemented the bond between the coach and his players. Though Dungy returned to his job in time for the Colts’ last regular-season game, the team was flat and tentative for its devastating upset playoff loss at home to Pittsburgh two weeks later. For the third year in a row, the Colts had been eliminated by the eventual Super Bowl champion. And even as the criticism of the team grew, Bill Polian remained steadfast and exhorted the troops, all the while confident that, sooner or later, the team would break through.
“That’s where I think Bill really did some of his best work,” says Dungy. “Something from those losses came through well for us. Because I’m down, I’m disappointed, everyone was. But Bill said, ‘It’s a tough loss. You know what we have to do? We have to get ready for next year. We have to get better.’ I think bouncing back from his own Super Bowl losses helped him.”
The 2006 offseason was marked by the highly publicized release of Mike Vanderjagt and signing of former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, which further added to the perception, as one league executive put it, that “the Pats and Polian don’t like each other. I mean really don’t like each other.” (Patriots GM Scott Pioli declined to be interviewed for this story.)
“We felt like we’d sort of overcome some demons in that game,” says Peyton Manning.
“There are reasons for it,” says Ernie Accorsi, the newly retired longtime GM of the Giants, Browns, and Baltimore Colts. “Besides the fact that they’re battling every year for the Super Bowl berth. It’s two different religions. Belichick wants to beat the hell out of the receivers, and Polian wants to keep them untouched. That’s where it starts. Believe me, if they both weren’t good, it wouldn’t matter. You’re talking two pretty strong personalities here.”
All of this is incontrovertible, and yet Polian denies all of it. He speaks of his immense respect for the Patriots (he pronounces it “Pay-tree-OTTS,” hitting the last syllable hard) and their organization. He speaks of his personal regard for Patriots owner Bob Kraft as well as Scott Pioli, who came up under Anile in Cleveland in the ’90s. And yet there can be no doubt that, once the Colts finally conquered the Patriots to win the AFC title, it meant a little bit more.
“I remember seeing Bill up on stage after the championship game,” says Peyton Manning. “I’m sure the Bears felt the same way, but once we won that game, we felt like this was going to be our year to win the Super Bowl. We felt like we’d sort of overcome some demons in that game. And I remember seeing Bill and sharing a hug and some eye contact in the middle of all that chaos, and knowing that the job still wasn’t finished, but that we both felt like we were in a pretty good position to do what we set out to do.”
A few days before Super Bowl XLI, riding on a bus back from practice, Chris Polian was speaking with Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck, winner of two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos in the ’90s. Teerlinck mentioned that he had never been to a Super Bowl loser’s party, and always wondered what one was like.
“It’s like a wake,” the younger Polian said, “except you don’t have any good stories about the guy who died, or any fond reminiscences.”
Bill Polian didn’t want to attend any more football wakes.
After his first Super Bowl loss, the Bills’ narrow defeat by the Giants in 1991, Polian went up to his hotel room and took every piece of Super Bowl XXV–themed merchandise he’d received from his week in Tampa—shirts and duffel bags, posters and jackets—and threw them all into the trash. Then he sat down on his bed, put his head in his hands and cried. After a few minutes, he wiped his eyes, stood up, and went down to the Buffalo Bills team party, where he spent the rest of the evening comforting his employees and urging them to appreciate and celebrate their considerable achievements.
There was an otherworldly quality to the game, a sense that the Colts would under no circumstances lose this game to this team.
But the Super Bowl hangover hits everyone. “It’s crushing for the first 10 days or two weeks,” says Marv Levy, “but if you let it go beyond that, then you really are a loser.”
The week the Colts arrived in Miami, Polian was feeling guardedly optimistic. A few minutes before kickoff on the rainy Super Bowl Sunday, he made his way to a covered open-air booth in the upper tier of the club level at Dolphins Stadium, overlooking the 20-yard line. Watching along with him were his three sons, Chris, Brian (an assistant football coach at Notre Dame), and Dennis (who works with the Arena Football League), as well as Colts director of football operations Steve Champlin.
There was an otherworldly quality to the game, a sense that the Colts, while not exactly toying with the Chicago Bears, would under no circumstances lose this game to this team. Even as Devin Hester was running the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, even as the Colts were stumbling out of the gate and falling behind 14-6, they never had the look of a team in danger. By the start of the fourth quarter, as the defense continued to harass Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, the Colts possessed what felt like the safest five-point lead in Super Bowl history. When Kelvin Hayden intercepted Grossman’s pass and returned it for a touchdown, making the score 28-16, the celebrating began.
Polian remembers having “about four seconds” to hug his wife, daughter and grandchildren when he got down to the field, before being overrun by the surreal experience of a victorious Super Bowl postgame. When he got back to his hotel room, there was a phone message from Marv Levy: “Hey, Bill, this is Marv. I didn’t get a chance to watch the game. How’d you guys come out?”
There was a good deal of relief mixed with elation. “It had been such a long haul, through the heartbreak of the previous season,” says Polian. “I did very much want for Tony and Peyton to win it. Tony because he deserved to be the first African-American coach to win. And clearly I wanted it for Peyton; my thoughts were for those two guys. It had been a long time coming.”
Of course, it had been an even longer time coming for Bill Polian.
“It’s we, not me,” he says. “It was for all of the people that have gone into putting this team on the field. I want it to be about the people.”
He’s 65 now, and if he quit today, Bill Polian would be a serious candidate for the Hall of Fame. Asked how much longer he wants to stay in the job, he says he doesn’t know, but allows that he’d certainly like to be here through the 2008 season, when the new stadium opens. “After that,” he says, “we’ll see.”
After the occasionally fractious relations with owners in Buffalo and Carolina, he appreciates that he’s carved out the perfect niche for himself in Indianapolis. Having a situation in which the owner, the general manager, and the coach are all on the same page is surprisingly rare in the modern NFL, and the consistency is a key to the Colts success.
And it doesn’t hurt that his son is down the hall.
When the time comes, it’s possible that the successor to follow Polian will be yet another Polian. Dom Anile calls Chris Polian “the best research-and-development guy I’ve ever seen.” In recent years, his duties have grown to include contract negotiations, and he has helped modernize the team’s personnel department, aiding the transition to computers in a way that not only streamlined the college scouting process but helped merge it with the pro player-personnel system into one seamless whole.
When the Miami Dolphins came calling two years ago with an opportunity in their front office, owner Jim Irsay stepped up to convince the younger Polian to stay in Indianapolis. After talking with his wife about the possible new job, Chris Polian didn’t need much convincing. “I was talking with her on the phone and she said, ‘If your name was Joe Blow, and you were somewhere else, and had a chance to work with Bill Polian and Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, what would you do?’ I said, ‘We’d put the house up for sale and we’d get our ass up there.’ That settled it. One, she was right. Two, I guess other people’s interest in me confirmed that I had some competency. I’ve kind of made my peace with the fact that I’ve only worked for my father.”
“I stayed out of it,” says Bill Polian. “And kept his mother out of it, which was not easy. There’s no question he’s capable of doing my job today. I don’t think the organization would miss a beat.”
Perhaps that time is coming soon. For all his dedication, Bill Polian has always been someone whose world extends beyond football. He reads books. During the offseason, he’s more likely to be attending a new play than drawing one up. On game-day mornings, he’ll watch Face the Nation rather than any of the network pregame shows. And on the right night, in the right Irish pub, you might find Polian grabbing the microphone and singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” (“You’d be surprised,” says Levy. “He’s really got a pretty good voice.”) These days, he’s as often as not singing “Kiss Me, Kate” to his newest grandchild, Chris’ infant daughter Kate Polian. None of the intensity is gone, but lately there’s a lightness to Polian that was once missing. Winning the Super Bowl may have had something to do with it.
“He’s not a terribly sentimental guy,” says Chris Polian. “He’s not an outwardly sentimental guy on a daily basis. But it’s there, and it comes out on certain occasions. I think it’s one of those things when you look back, winning makes the sacrifice worthwhile. It does take away the thought of “What If …? “ because, it has. But the calendar and competing doesn’t allow for a tremendous amount of reflection, either at the time or afterward. It kind of has to be a fleeting moment of fulfillment.”
The day after the Super Bowl, the team celebrated its world championship with a parade in downtown Indianapolis and a triumphant celebration in a packed Dome. The following morning, Polian and his staff were back in the Colts complex to begin work on the coming season. But the moment, blissfully, is not fleeting for the city of Indianapolis, which finally has a Lombardi Trophy, an abiding love for the Colts, and a reputation as a football town. Bill Polian did his job.
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the September 2007 issue.