Benner/Sports and Colts and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Sports Business

BENNER: A decade of successes is too easily forgotten

September 17, 2011

The night after the Indianapolis Colts’ season-opening debacle at Houston, I tuned into Bill Polian’s radio show to see how the Colts’ vice chairman would handle the angry steam rising from the apoplectic masses.

I need not have bothered. Evidently, Polian or someone from WFNI-AM 1070 had drafted an all-pro call-screener to protect Polian’s blind side. Unlike the crumbling pocket quarterback Kerry Collins encountered the previous day, the genteel questioners laid neither mad hand nor angry word on Polian.

Figuratively speaking, Polian’s uniform didn’t even get dirty.

That said, his reputation is being sullied, and we have been reminded again that the distance between genius and numbskull can be traveled in a nano-second, depending on the latest scoreboard.

In the minds of the outraged on sports radio and in blogs and chat rooms, Polian, architect of one of the most successful decades in NFL history and acknowledged miracle worker on not one, not two, but three NFL franchises, is now the Village Idiot.

Truth be told, the once-unassailable Polian has been wearing an increasingly larger bull’s-eye on his behind since December 2009, when he was viewed as the mastermind behind the decision to yank the starters from the game against the New York Jets and surrender the quest for an undefeated season.

The subsequent Super Bowl loss, increasing discontent with Coach Jim Caldwell (perceived by many as little more than Polian’s puppet), high draft choices (Tony Ugoh, Donald Brown, Jerry Hughes) that have not panned out and now, his alleged inability to have prepared for a potential season-ending injury to The Franchise, quarterback Peyton Manning, have brought upon Polian an unprecedented level of criticism.

Not that Polian cares what the critics say. Besides, such scrutiny—deserved or not—does come with the position.

We have seen it before. Without striking an instant mother lode like Manning—OK, he did draft Reggie Miller and not Steve Alford—General Manager Donnie Walsh slowly and carefully assembled the pieces that turned the Indiana Pacers into one of the NBA’s elite franchises for a 10-year period. Remember the skepticism about Rik Smits? (And, yes, I authored some of it.) Recall how Walsh deftly drafted or traded for Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey, Jalen Rose, Chris Mullin and the Davis boys, Dale and Antonio? Bringing in first Larry Brown, then Larry Bird, as coach?

Walsh rarely pushed a wrong button. Yet, by the time he surrendered the basketball reins to Bird, the franchise had floundered and Walsh was seen as having ultimately failed ... and then, Bird, too, for his inability to quickly turn around the battleship.

I’m not offering up sympathy for Polian, Walsh or Bird. Even in tough times, they still cash nice paychecks.

As for Polian, his personality is not one that invites warm-and-fuzzy interaction. He does not suffer fools, and that is pretty much what he considers anyone—media and fans—on the outside of the franchise. Other than their Tweet-friendly owner, Jim Irsay, the Colts have one of the tightest lids in sports.

The local sports media chafe at the lack of access and insist that Polian plays favorites among the national big-timers, notably ESPN’s Chris Mortensen.

I feel their frustration and am glad I am no longer part of the daily circus of covering a team, especially when there are so many competing for information. Beat writers like The Star’s Mike Chappell and Phil Richards, or Terre Haute’s Tom James—guys who are there every day covering the team and not out to lampoon the franchise—deserve better.

Then again, does the public in general—and fans and ticket-buyers in particular—even care where information comes from or who has it first?

I’ve gotten along well with Polian, but our interaction has been largely superficial. He is one smart, shrewd son of a … gun. As always, I try to place matters in some perspective and context, and Polian’s context with the Colts is nine straight playoff seasons, eight division titles, two AFC Championships, one Super Bowl victory and, oh yeah, Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf.

Lest we forget. Which, when it was 34-zip at flippin’ halftime, we did.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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