INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chuck Pagano could blame New England for one of his most bitter football memories.
On the other hand, that loss also opened a new chapter in Pagano’s life.
Now, three years after that stinging 23-20 championship game loss against the Patriots, the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator is getting a second chance to earn a Super Bowl ticket at New England — this time as the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach.
“We wouldn’t be having this discussion right now had things transpired in a different way,” Pagano said as Indianapolis prepares for Sunday’s AFC championship game.
He has often contended that if the Ravens won that day — on Lee Evans’ near-touchdown catch with 27 seconds left or in overtime, if Billy Cundiff had made a 32-yard field goal with 15 seconds to go — that he never would have landed in Indy (13-5).
General manager Ryan Grigson didn’t go that far this week, though he did recall watching the game and going through some old notes about Pagano almost immediately after Cundiff’s kick sailed wide left. Within 24 hours, Grigson had contacted Ravens coach John Harbaugh for permission to interview Pagano, who was still angry.
“The bitterness was still emanating from him, even when we brought him in,” Grigson said. “So that game was his loss, but our gain because when he finally came in, it was evident to all of us in that room that this was the right guy.”
Three days after the game, Pagano accepted his first head coaching job.
At first, the outlook looked bleak.
The Colts were in the midst of a salary-cap purge and about embarked on one of the most ambitious rebuilding projects. They started by releasing a bevy of fan favorites including the seemingly untouchable Peyton Manning. Pagano now jokes that at one point he looked around his office and asked his wife, Tina, “what the heck did we just do?”
Grigson never asked the same question about a man he viewed as a leader that could pull the best out of his players.
Pagano proved to be everything Grigson envisioned and more, on and off the field.
He helped convince Reggie Wayne, one of his old college players, to stick around for a hometown discount. He helped recruit defensive tackle Arthur Jones and defensive end Cory Redding, both starters who were in the Ravens’ locker room that awful day in New England, as free agents. It didn’t take much of a push.
“I know what kind of guy he is, stand-up guy, shoots it straight to you, fun, energetic at practice, expects a lot out of you in the meeting rooms to know your stuff,” Redding said, explaining why he left a championship contender to join a team that went 2-14 the year before he came. “Knowing the system, knowing him, it was just easy for me to make the decision.”
It turned out the Colts’ incredible turnaround was about a lot more than just wins and losses.
Three games into Pagano’s tenure, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Pagano spent 25 days at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis as longtime friends Wayne, Redding and Bruce Arians and new friends such as Robert Mathis, Andrew Luck, Grigson and team owner Jim Irsay rallied the team. After returning home, the treatments continued for two more months.
The team responded to Pagano’s absence by winning nine times, none more electrifying than the second-half comeback against Green Bay when Wayne caught 13 passes for a career high 212 yards and the winning score with 35 seconds left. Irsay and Grigson hand-delivered the game ball to Pagano at the hospital.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else and having a city and a community embrace somebody they hardly know,” Pagano said when he returned to the team complex on Christmas Eve. “I just think that’s how we roll in this great state, this great city and this great community.”
And Pagano just kept winning.
Indy completed one its nine-game improvement over the 2011 season by winning in Pagano’s first game back on the sideline. The Colts have won 11 more regular-season games each of the past two seasons, the last two AFC South titles and here playoff games.
But those who were with Pagano in Baltimore know that’s not good enough yet.
“That loss lingered the whole offseason,” said Jones, who was part of Baltimore’s 2013 world championship team. “It was a tough way to end your year after making it that far. It bothers you.”
So this week with a second shot, Pagano is taking none at the Patriots.
He’s just focused on trying to get the biggest win — and best memory — of his coaching career.
“It’s about the game, it’s about the team, it’s about us doing our job,” Pagano said Monday. “We know how great a team we’re going to play. You’ve got a Hall of Fame coach, a Hall of Fame quarterback and a bunch of great players on both sides of the ball. It’s going to be a tall order.”