Colts and Pro Sports and Sports Business

Architect of Colts' success worked his way to the top

February 5, 2007

Bill Polian never took the straight line to anything or anywhere.

He never had that luxury.

The multi-sport schoolboy athlete from the Bronx never had the advantage of an inside track. So he broke into the National Football League the only way he knew how: by outworking and outsmarting the competition.

By all accounts, Polian, 64, is still at it.

As the franchise he now captains and its hometown fans basked in the glow of the Super Bowl, Polian had already begun his next line of attack.

Long before Marlin Jackson's interception sealed the Indianapolis Colts' trip to Super Bowl XLI, Polian was putting together his next team. In this free agency era, every year is a rebuilding year.

"There's 30-percent player turnover every year," Polian said. "Every four years, you lose 45 percent of your core players."

Polian's model of having 53 men on the roster capable of playing at a moment's notice adds more pressure to the system's architect.

"With Bill's system, there are no throwaway parts," said Marv Levy, who coached Polian's Buffalo Bills teams in the 1990s. "Some teams have players so deep on the depth charts, they'll never see the light of day. That's not the case with Bill's system."

The New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers are the only other teams to follow Polian's "53-man model," league experts said.

"That puts constant pressure on the personnel director to build and rebuild the team," said Levy, now the Buffalo Bills vice president of football operations.

Long before the spotlight shined on Miami, Polian was trying to re-sign defensive end Dwight Freeney and other key players who become free agents this off-season.

The run to the Super Bowl won't make Polian's job any easier.

"There's lots of cache with signing players who played in the Super Bowl, and there will be more demands from those players," Polian said.

Polian has become a master of balancing needs and wants, necessary expenses and frivolity. The Colts' $96 million player payroll is almost $15 million behind many of its competitors'. But rest assured--to keep its nucleus, the Colts will press nearer the league's $109 million salary cap in 2007.

High-wire act

Polian has been walking a tightrope his entire professional life. As a newlywed, he worked multiple jobs, coaching collegiately and scouting professionally on the side. He sold advertising for a farm publication, refereed basketball and did other odd jobs to make ends meet.

"Those are the things you won't find in the media guide," said C. Eric Lincoln, a former sportswriter for The New York Times and Newsday, who met Polian while both worked at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Long Island. "The early part of his journey was such a struggle."

The most amazing part about the journey was how long it took Polian to get discovered, Lincoln said.

"He just didn't know anybody to get his foot in the door," Lincoln said. "But he was the same brilliant person he is today."

His brilliance extended beyond football.

"Truth is, he would have made just as great a baseball coach or manager as he has an NFL executive," Lincoln said.

Inspirational sources

It's no surprise that Polian pulls inspiration from a number of sources. He culled team-building theories from legendary NFL owner Paul Brown, late basketball coach and owner Red Auerbach, and Indiana Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh. He learned management from Colts owner Jim Irsay and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and studied Bills owner Ralph Wilson's mastery of sports economics.

"Our business does not translate into a normal business model," Polian said. "It's like a Hollywood studio. Our product is talent. It's human, and subject to all the failings and foibles of human beings."

Borrowing from baseball's lexicon, Polian said batting .600 at his position is pretty good.

"You have to be lucky, too, to get this far," he said.

If that's the case, he's been luckier than most.

After joining the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, Polian took the team from the bottom of the AFC to Super Bowl contenders in one of the greatest single-season NFL turnarounds. But even amid success, there was struggle.

He went through coaching changes and player turnover, and Colts fans continued to question his personnel moves.

Even during some of his finest moments, Polian found himself in a morass of struggle. Heading into this season, he was criticized for letting running back Edgerrin James go. During the stretch run of this season, he was mocked for not retaining key defenders.

Knocking down doors

His journey has equipped him to meet the challenges, Lincoln said.

Polian paid the bills by selling advertising forr American Farmer magazine, but he followed his heart to jobs coaching football at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and scouting--for next to nothing--for the Canadian Football League's Montreal Allouettes.

In Montreal, Polian's work caught the eye of Levy, the Allouettes' coach at the time.

"I said, 'Who the hell is this Bill Polian?'" recalled Levy. "His notes were impeccable, well-detailed, and most importantly, his scouting reports were incredibly accurate."

At last, Polian had an ally inside professional football.

After being hired as a scout with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978, when Levy was coaching there, Polian quickly distinguished himself. But still his path to greatness was anything but direct--and as slow as Booger McFarland in the 40-yard dash.

He bounced to the fledgling U.S. Football League's Chicago Blitz in 1982, and worked for the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers for two seasons. He arrived in Buffalo in 1985 on the heels of back-to-back 2-14 seasons as an unknown.

Fan interest in Buffalo was at an all-time low. And fans were not enthusiastic when Polian was promoted from director of player personnel to general manager.

His first move: Hire Levy as coach. The stoic Levy was a perfect contrast to the fiery Polian.

"People say Bill's very volatile," Levy said. "But it's almost always in defense of his people. What people don't see is how genuine he is, and that he has a very good sense of humor."

Lincoln saw up-close Polian's sense of humor and child-like enthusiasm for sports. Polian was once chased out of a restaurant for diagramming plays on a silk tablecloth. Levy recalls Polian's getting up to sing an Irish ballad along with a restaurant piano player.

But he was laser-focused when it came to his career pursuits.

Always saw the goal line

"He always had this view when it came to succeeding of, 'Get the hell out of my way,'" Lincoln said. "In the glimmer in his eye, he always saw the goal line. He wasn't sure how he was going to get there, but he knew for sure he would get there."

Polian built a powerhouse in Buffalo that went to three consecutive Super Bowls while he was there and a fourth the year after he left.

Polian quickly demonstrated his ability to surround himself with good people, said former Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Will Wolford, who played for the Bills when Polian reigned there.

"There's not much that goes on that Bill doesn't know about, but he's not a micromanager," said Wolford, who retired from playing in 1998 and now owns the Arena Football League's Louisville Fire. "He's always had an uncanny knack for recognizing and bringing in talent on and off the field. Then he lets people do their jobs."

At Buffalo, Polian lured quarterback Jim Kelly from the USFL. In 1987, Polian brokered one of the biggest Bills trades ever to bring defensive linebacker Cornelius Bennett to Buffalo. Without the luxury of a first-round draft pick in 1988, Polian brought in running back Thurman Thomas.

"He brings in quality people and willing workers, not just quality talent," Levy said.

The Bills went from doormat to playoff contender, reaching their first Super Bowl in 1991.

"The irony is, he appears to be an overnight success," Lincoln said.

Controversy magnet

Polian has always been an enigma.

The New York native's blue eyes and dimpled smile come together beneath his red hair to form a cherubic appearance. His loyalists paint him as someone who accepts much input before making decisions, even appearing diplomatic at times.

But controversy follows him.

On Feb. 4, 1993, after the Bills had appeared in--and lost-their third straight Super Bowl, Buffalo fired Polian. He lost his job, insiders said, because he couldn't get along with team Treasurer Jeff Littmann. Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Littmann and Polian would never discuss the matter.

Undaunted, Polian joined the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, taking them to the NFC Championship game the next year--faster than any other expansion franchise in NFL history. After his third season with Carolina, he left to join the Indianapolis Colts.

Polian collected his fifth NFL Executive of the Year Award in 1999 while turning the Colts into his third NFL power.

Even at Indianapolis, Polian can't avoid controversy. He engaged in a public argument with comedian-turned-sports-commentator Jay Mohr in 2001 that many--even some close to Polian--called idiotic. Polian argued with Mohr about the treatment of running back Edgerrin James' injury.

This year, Polian, upset because loudspeakers were too close to the field, reportedly accosted a New York Jets employee during a week-four game in New York.

"Sometimes, his intensity boils over," Wolford said. "Bill is all about winning, and doesn't worry too much about his public perception."

Polian, who has two years left on his contract, has no plans to retire.

Though the road to Super Bowl triumph has been arduous, Wolford doesn't think winning the coveted ring would have much impact on Polian.

Asked what would be left to do after reaching the pinnacle, Polian answered succinctly: "Win another Super Bowl."

Not that winning it even once wouldn't be meaningful.

"There isn't a day goes by that people with those Buffalo teams don't think about not winning the Super Bowl," Wolford said.

"He'd never tell you how much winning the Super Bowl would mean to him, but it'd be there in the glint of his eye," Lincoln said. "He'll embrace the moment with elegance and humility.

"And he'll pass the trophy to others as soon as he gets it."

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