A coaching change, without the drama

January 19, 2009

By nature, coaching is a transient profession, increasingly so in these days of not-so-guaranteed contracts (by either the employer or employee) and the mentality of, "What have you done for us?" not lately, but, uh, like today. Or an hour ago.

For some, the only thing shorter than attention span is perspective.

So, for the coach, it's either hired to be fired, or hired to be hired by the next guys dangling more money and a better deal.

We don't often get to provide a proper farewell to coaches, usually because we're kicking them out the door. Gracious exits are hard to come by.

Think about some of the coaching stalwarts we've had here.

John Wooden left for UCLA long before he evolved into possibly the greatest college basketball coach ever. We didn't say goodbye as much as hello to the Wizard of Westwood.

Tony Hinkle, Butler University's man for all seasons, slipped more or less quietly into retirement.

Slick Leonard: OK, we did hang a banner for him in Conseco Fieldhouse and rightly so. But when he stopped coaching the Indiana Pacers, he was far removed from the glory days.

For Indiana University's Bob Knight, well, suffice it to say there's never been a more bitter divorce in intercollegiate athletics. And for some, the custody fight over the university's heart continues to this day.

Mike Davis, Knight's successor, quit under pressure. Kelvin Sampson, Davis' successor, left just ahead of the posse.

Larry Bird took the Pacers to the NBA Finals but, in his usual style, disdained any fanfare over his departure. Besides, Bird figured since he hadn't won the championship, there was nothing to celebrate.

Bird's predecessor, Larry Brown, left because Larry Brown always leaves.

Purdue University orchestrated farewell tours for both Gene Keady and Joe Tiller, but they each hit the wall during their victory laps. With the exception of Terry Hoeppner, who died, and Sam Wyche, who quit, IU football has been firing coaches since the days of Bo McMillan.

The Colts also had gone from one coaching dismissal to the next—Frank Kush, Rod Dowhower, Ron Meyer, Ted Marchibroda and Jim Mora all were dumped—until the arrival, and then the farewell, of Tony Dungy.

So perhaps that is the final testament to Dungy's tenure with the Colts—that he left on his own terms, pride and dignity intact, accepting only hugs and handshakes instead of a kick in the backside.

Yes, there is the "one-and-Dungy" crowd that is delighted to see him go, but they are a relative few. Most appreciate Dungy for what he was: a highly successful coach in an unforgiving profession; and what he is: a man of faith who, as hackneyed as it might sound, totally adhered to the philosophy of treating others as he would like to be treated.

Now, with the succession plan already in place, the reins are seamlessly passed to Jim Caldwell, a man largely known only to those who toil daily in the 56th Street complex. He's a Wisconsin native, a four-year starter at the University of Iowa (where he played against a Minnesota quarterback named Tony Dungy), and a coaching lifer whose pedigree includes parts of Joe Paterno, Bill McCartney, Denny Green, Howard Schnellenberger and Dungy.

He's also a marriage lifer who wed his high school sweetheart 31 years ago, has four children, and proudly proclaims himself to be, foremost, a Christian. Sound familiar?

It says plenty about how owner Jim Irsay and President Bill Polian feel about him that they locked him up a year ago and anointed him as the coach in waiting.

In his first round of interviews upon being introduced last week, Caldwell was impressive with his demeanor, confidence, candor and humor. He said all the right things and said them the right way. But in January, the only talk that really matters is from those whose teams still are in the playoffs.

I continue to insist that the Colts are anything but a broken franchise in dire need of a major overhaul. As we continue to see in these playoffs—hello Tennessee, Carolina, the Giants and, yes, the Colts—there are no guarantees.

Like all in his profession, he will have to measure up and Dungy has left a high standard. Here's hoping that, six, seven, 10 years from now-a span that could well include the exit of a certain quarterback-there's another emotional press conference where "bittersweet" is the operative word. 


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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