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Steady hand at the reins

Transition from Dungy to Caldwell has been seamless for 8-0 Colts

New Colts coach Jim Caldwell may lose an argument with an official now and then, but he has yet to lose a game as an NFL head coach. The ever-humble mentor deflects the credit, however. New Colts coach Jim Caldwell may lose an argument with an official now and then, but he has yet to lose a game as an NFL head coach. The ever-humble mentor deflects the credit, however. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press
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By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’’ - Luke 14:11

INDIANAPOLIS - Jim Caldwell has never been one to glorify himself.

The message of Luke 14:11, which Caldwell often recites to keep himself grounded, was ingrained in the 54-year-old rookie coach of the Indianapolis Colts while he was growing up in Beloit, Wis. His parents, coaches, and teachers instilled in him the humility that, Caldwell says, “kept me on the right path.’’

Caldwell is off to an impressive 8-0 start as Tony Dungy’s successor in Year 1 A.D. (After Dungy). A disciple of Dungy, having served as an assistant under him one year in Tampa Bay (2001) and seven in Indianapolis as Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach, Caldwell assumed the reins Jan. 13, almost a year after Colts owner Jim Irsay designated him as the team’s head coach-in-waiting.

“It was about the fit,’’ says Irsay, explaining the decision he and team president Bill Polian reached, along with Dungy, to go with Caldwell. “You can go outside the organization, but it can be hard to find a guy who can have the humility and set aside the ego aspect of the job.

“As I always say, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. So you can go out and bring in the right guy, but in this case, when Bill and I had long talks about it, we felt like we had the right fit.

“It wasn’t a convenient hire, it was that this guy was the right guy.’’

Now, Caldwell stands on history’s threshold. Tied with Potsy Clark, who in 1931 won his first eight games with Portsmouth, Caldwell can become the first coach in NFL history to win his first nine games if he can guide the Colts over the Patriots in tonight’s AFC matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“I’m very pleased about that,’’ says Dungy, who established a culture of winning in his seven seasons with the Colts, compiling 85 regular-season victories and a 7-6 playoff mark, including a triumph in Super Bowl XLI. “When you know you’re going to step down - and in our situation it was pretty much going to be at the time I wanted - you want to see the next person have a chance to succeed.

“You do want to see it continue when you go, so to see them continue on and play the way they’re playing - in fact, it’s the best I’ve seen them play, other than ’05 - I am happy about that and I am happy for Jim.’’

Seamless transition
Predictably, Caldwell downplays his role in the Colts’ start.

“It’s a team-oriented game,’’ Caldwell says. “This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with my efforts and my work and those kinds of things. It’s a part of it, but it’s not exclusive.

“So therefore I refrain from talking about it a whole lot, but I do recognize that it is something of note, because it is hard to win one game in this league, let alone what our team has done.’’

Caldwell has taken a quiet, unassuming approach, almost on cue from his quiet and unassuming predecessor. It has helped the Colts make a seamless transition from Dungy to Caldwell, who last was a head coach at Wake Forest from 1993-2000, going 26-63.

“We know how we feel about him in this locker room,’’ Manning says. “I feel like we’re responding to his coaching. I think we’re getting to know him. I’ve known him as my quarterbacks coach the past seven years, but I’m getting to know him as a head coach and the things he’s about and what his fundamentals and principles are as a head coach.’’

Other players have appreciated Caldwell’s approach.

“It’s Coach Caldwell implementing some of the things Coach Dungy had, and not totally changing everything,’’ says tight end Dallas Clark. “So it’s a credit to him for keeping some things that worked, but also changing some things that he wanted to change, and the team’s been responding to the adjustments.’’

Among the adjustments Caldwell made was to bring in Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator and Ray Rychleski as special teams coordinator. But Caldwell’s promotion gave the team a certain sense of comfort. An outsider would likely have made more changes, but Caldwell has only tweaked things.

“Having Jim, he knows what’s going on and he knows how everything works, the ins and the outs,’’ says defensive end Dwight Freeney. “He’s been around and he’s seen the successes. He knows how to nurture relationships.

“He knows all of that, so he’s not going to come in and change a whole lot. He’s going to put his tweak on the team, or whatever, but from the grand scheme of things, it was comforting to know that he’s no stranger, he’s a family member.’’

Many similarities
Working as an assistant for Penn State’s Joe Paterno (1986-92), Louisville’s Howard Schnellenberger (1985), and Colorado’s Bill McCartney (1982-84) certainly had an influence on Caldwell, but the eight years with Dungy left a lasting imprint.

“He’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever been around in my life,’’ Caldwell says. “His ability to diagnose situations is extraordinary. I don’t think he gets enough credit for all the games that he’s won. He’s not one of those guys who will beat his chest and talk about how bright he is. He’s not a self-promoter.’’

In that sense, Caldwell and Dungy are cut from the same cloth.

“Jim is like me in a lot of ways,’’ Dungy says. “Before he speaks, he’s going to think through things and he’s going to respond in an encouraging way to most situations, so that’s like me.

“I think he’s a little more emotional and a little more fiery.

“You have a winning situation and you want to keep that going and not take a step backwards and that’s why everyone in the organization felt Jim would be the best man for the job.’’

Caldwell is almost an extension of Dungy.

“No question,’’ Irsay says. “One thing that’s the same: they’re very consistent. You get the same thing every day and every week.

“They’re not prone to panic. They believe in their core values. They’re also willing to be open-minded and adjust.

“They were similar in ways like that, both extremely intelligent and both have that quiet presence and, like Jim Caldwell said, he might even be a little more vocal than Tony.’’

Finding his own voice
Not that it would take much to exceed the decibel level of a Dungy pregame speech, but Irsay caught a glimpse of Caldwell’s personality before the season opener against Jacksonville Sept. 13. When Caldwell joined the team huddle, he needed to be heard as he addressed his players. Everyone moved in close.

“Then you heard the new man and the new voice step up,’’ Irsay says. “It was a little bit different being there for that and not hearing Tony. I really felt that with those two guys, there’s a lot of similar qualities, but this is Jim Caldwell’s team.’’

And Caldwell exults in being its humble servant.

“This is a team game,’’ says Caldwell, when asked about what mark he would like to make as head coach. “This is a ‘we’ and ‘us’ proposition. It doesn’t have anything to do with ‘me.’ That’s how I like to keep it and phrase it.

“The minute you start talking about goals for yourself and things of that nature, or what stamp you’d like to leave, I think that is selfish.

“We try to focus on the team, what the team has to do and really focus in on trying to win the next game.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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