Bill Polian is in his 11th season as president of the Indianapolis Colts. When the Colts open training camp on July 24 at Rose-Human Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., it will mark his 20th camp as an NFL club president or general manager. Polian previously was GM of the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers. His teams have made 14 playoff and seven conference championship appearances, with his 2006 Colts winning Super Bowl XLI. The Sporting News has named him its NFL Executive of the Year five times, making him and the late George Young the only recipients of the honor five or more times.
As told to NFL.com Senior Columnist Vic Carucci
Bill Parcells once mentioned that he was like an old fire horse. When you hear the bell ring, you respond, no matter how long you've been doing it. That happens to me about the 15th of July. Your body starts to transition into a training-camp mode. You start to get the itch and get ready to go.
The day you arrive for training camp, you put away all of the family stuff and all of the vacations and all of the "normal life" that a person in the real world leads. It's now football 24/7, hopefully until the fifth of February.
It's a new beginning. Every season and every team has its own story, has its own take on things. As a result, you're anxious, as a general manager or club president, to see how it's going to work out. There are a lot of unexpected things. You have injuries, obviously. You have players not performing up to the level you might have thought, although, believe it or not, that's relatively rare. And you have players coming out of nowhere and performing far better than you ever expected they would. There are always one, two, sometimes three of those per camp.
It's an exciting time. It's a busy time. But, for me, it's non-pressurized. I guess it's very much different for the players, but for me, you really don't care about the wins and losses in the preseason. You're totally focused on building your team. When we were in Buffalo, Marv Levy and I used to always kid about the fact that we'd like to win the first preseason game, if at all possible, so we could do away with the idea that we wouldn't win any in the preseason.
In many respects, you're going through an orientation period in organized team activities and minicamp. You're getting a feel for what they can do in shorts and t-shirts, but you're not seeing them in the essence of the game, which is the contact and the competition. In training camp and in the preseason -- and the two are completely intertwined -- you get to see them in pads, in full contact, in competition. And that's really where you find out who can play.
Actually, there are probably more jobs up for grabs now than in the old days. Because the stars make so much money, you're always looking for young, relatively low-salaried players to balance your cap. Depending on the club, the turnover in the NFL per year is between 30 and 40 percent. That's a lot of jobs, so you have a lot of players having a realistic chance of making the squad of a relatively stable team as opposed to one that's in the building mode and practically every job is up for grabs.
The first thing I have to do is worry about infrastructure. We've got to give the players, coaches and support staff the best possible facility we can give them. We've got to try to do that at the lowest possible cost. If we can make a little money, via the marketing, that's fine and we'd love to do that. But the first priority is to give the players, coaches and support staff the best possible facility we can to get ready for the season. Fortunately, we've been able to do that virtually every place I've been and it's worked out fine.
The second thing we do, as a personnel staff, is evaluate the squad every day. We do it in a little different fashion than the coaches do. The coaches are looking at the micro picture; we're looking at the macro picture. The coaches are trying to determine whether or not the fourth running back is picking up the blitz as well as the fifth guy is or as well as the third guy is, or how fast they're picking up a new formation that they've installed.
We, on the other hand, are trying to measure ability compared with what we know it takes to win in the league and say, "OK, we're all right at the receiver position, but at the linebacker position, we're really short two guys." So, as training camp goes on, we need to develop a list of needs that have to be filled so that come Sept. 7, we can put the best 53 we possibly can on the field.
About 10:30 each night, the coaches meetings break and I get together with our head coach, Tony Dungy, and the rest of our staff. At that point, the trainers tell us who is injured and what the prognosis is. The team doctors are there and we're able to determine what we need to do roster-wise and how many people we have at a particular position and so forth. After that, the coaches break and start to put together the practice plan for the next day, and we get together from about 11 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. as a personnel staff to try to sort out how we would go about filling whatever roster spots we need to fill. With the 80-man roster, you're pretty much making a roster move about every other day because of injuries.
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If you have sons, training camp is the greatest bonding experience in the world because they're around every day. When I was in Buffalo, all three of my boys -- Chris, Brian, who is now an assistant football coach at Notre Dame, and Dennis, who is now director of quality control for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League -- worked for the equipment manager, Dave Hojnowski.
I told my boys, "Don't come crying to me about anything that Hojo asks you to do. That's why you're here. If you don't want to work, then you can go home and sweep out the garage every day. And I don't want to hear anything bad about you. If I do, you're in big trouble."
Fortunately, Hojo didn't tell me everything they did. I found out about it later, in dribs and drabs, usually at their bachelor parties. But having the boys around was a wonderful experience. They would always come into my room at night and put on a baseball game or just come in and talk, which was a lot of fun and something you'd otherwise have never been able to do during camp.
The other memories I have are of all the wonderful hyjinx that go on. You look back on it and the average person would say, "That's as sophomoric as can be." But that's kind of the atmosphere. Marv allowed the players to have golf carts at our camp in Fredonia, N.Y., because there was such a long distance to walk between the dormitories and the gymnasium, where they got dressed for practice. Marv sternly admonished them that there would be no untoward use of the golf carts. If they were going to do that, he would take the golf carts away from them.
The players pretty much behaved themselves during the two-a-days, but as camp stretched out, the players became more and more loose. One night, the player meetings broke early, around 8 o'clock, so it was still pretty light out. There was a grass courtyard, with a sidewalk surrounding it, right outside my office. Marv, whose office was down the hall from mine, happened to come into my office to ask about something.
All of a sudden, we looked out the window and saw about 30 players, mostly veteran guys, conducting what amounted to chariot races in the golf carts along the sidewalk. In each cart, there was a heavy guy, usually an offensive lineman, and a light guy, usually one of the skill-position players, to balance it out. And they were running around this oval, sort of Ben Hur-style. I opened up the window and said, "Hey, what the hell's going on out there?"
"We're sorry to disturb you," one of the players said. "We've just got one more race to go. It's the finals."
At our current training site in Terre Haute, Ind., there's a lake, a little swimming and fishing pond, right outside the student union, where we eat our meals and where the offices are. The players don't have golf carts, because Tony and I learned our lessons from previous stops, but all the staff do. And, as part of our camp tradition, we have a phantom golf cart thief, who somehow absconds with a golf cart -- usually belonging to a senior administrator, sometimes a coach -- and puts it on a raft in the middle of the lake. So when you come out of your dorm in the morning, you'll find your golf cart is gone and it can usually be found on the raft in the middle of the lake.
The thief is a player. I have my suspicions of who it is, but I haven't been able to prove it. I'm sure he has accomplices, but I think I know who the mastermind is. I have to catch him in the act, but he's far too smart for that.