Benner/Sports and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: 'Nice' doesn't earn you a place on the sideline

January 21, 2012

Let the record show I renewed my Indianapolis Colts season tickets before Jim Caldwell was fired as head coach.

But I do feel a sense of affirmation.

It has been said that Caldwell never lost his team during that dearly departed 2-14 season. Maybe so. But he lost the folks who dive deeply into their bank accounts and credit card balances to support the franchise.

The temperature of the town was not lukewarm toward Caldwell. It was, with a few exceptions, icy cold. And even from my distant perch in Lucas Oil Stadium, I, for one, did not want to see Caldwell on the sidelines when the Colts resume play in August.

Nothing against him personally, but if the Colts were really serious about all this movement in a new direction, keeping Caldwell would have been throwing it in neutral at best, reverse at worst.

I go back to Tweetmeister owner Jim Irsay’s message to fans in the hours after the Colts’ season ended and before he canned Bill Polian and Chris Polian:

“Your concerns have been heard and noted.”

And, again, acted upon.

Certainly, I don’t believe Irsay is ready to let fans make roster decisions, though I believe a preponderance of paying customers want to see Peyton Manning—if healthy—remain at quarterback. But I do believe Irsay is rare among owners in his desire to be more in tune and in touch with ticket-buyers.

I also think he has a genuine regard for the Colts as a public trust. Then again, the taxpayers did hand him the keys to—and most of the control of—a $700 million playpen for his team. It would be nice to make the local populace not feel as if they are only to be seen and not heard.

Given the overwhelming revenue from TV rights, Irsay could easily maintain his lavish yet quirky lifestyle and not give a whit about poor records and empty seats. See: Bengals. But I think he truly cares—and is willing to invest in—a winning product that is embraced and supported by Average Guy and Gal.

So Caldwell—also known as Tony Dungy Lite—is out, and it is perhaps no coincidence that he was let go on one of the breeziest days of the year, having been left to twist in the wind since the Polians were ousted. Irsay said then that he wanted his new general manager, who turned out to be Ryan Grigson, to weigh in on the coaching decision.

Fine and good, but curiously Caldwell was dismissed one day after interviewing a candidate for defensive coordinator.

Even in taking the Colts to a Super Bowl in his first year, Caldwell never got credit for being much more than the beneficiary of the foundation built by Dungy and the singular greatness of Manning. And there always was the strong sense that he was Bill Polian’s Topo Gigio (that’s a “puppet” for all of you too young to know the reference) who acquiesced to the order to surrender the pursuit of an unbeaten season.

Bottom line, Caldwell is a nice guy. But nice guys who finish last get fired in the NFL. And lest we forget, he’ll walk away with a year left on his contract. A $2-million-plus severance package isn’t the stuff of sympathy.

So we look forward. By the time you read this, the new guy might already be on the job. I can think of one name I wouldn’t want: Jim Tressel. As part of his image rehab, the former Ohio State University coach was given replay overseer duties by Caldwell, but he would not play well here as the man in charge. Plus, the Colts don’t need a college coach.

And while all of us admired Dungy’s quiet strength (with Caldwell exhibiting the same “quiet” if not the same strength), it is time—in these new-direction days—to bring a different personality and demeanor to the locker room and sidelines.

That’s not saying the Colts need a fire-breather, but it wouldn’t be bad to see a little smoke coming from the sideline from time to time.

And as in any determination of the team’s future, there is that issue of Manning, who once famously promised he would never play for anyone other than the Colts.

Of course, that was then, and this is now.

This is a way new kind of now.•

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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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