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There's more to Colts' quiet leader than meets the eye

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Find a pulse. It's in there somewhere. You just need to be patient. At some point, Jim Caldwell will provide evidence that it exists. That stone face will crack into a beaming smile. That gentle voice will boom with an expression of joy. Just wait. It's going to happen ... some day.

How about in the aftermath of the biggest victory of his head-coaching career? Caldwell had to be pretty charged up after his Indianapolis Colts beat the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game, right?

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Well, if he was, it wasn't obvious. There was the dinner with his wife, their four children, his parents, and about nine other people. The NFC title game, between New Orleans and Minnesota, was on television in the background. "We enjoyed ourselves for a couple of hours," the 55-year-old Caldwell recalled for reporters in Indianapolis last week.

But the mood hardly could be described as unbridled celebration. Caldwell has always seen big wins as "very fleeting experiences; they leave you quickly." This one was gone pretty much the moment he looked up at the screen and began watching the game that would determine the Colts' opponent in Super Bowl XLIV.

"As I was sitting down having dinner with my folks and my wife and kids and watching the ballgame, I started analyzing that game just like I was working," Caldwell said. "It doesn't take long. All of a sudden, you see what problems you may have, what problems may occur. It doesn't take long for us to get focused on that next ballgame."

Last January, no one really knew what to expect when Tony Dungy retired and Caldwell, in keeping with a succession plan that had been put in place four years earlier, was promoted from associate head coach to take his place. That's because no one really knew Caldwell beyond what his biography in the Colts' media guide said: Defensive back at the University of Iowa, where he also was a graduate assistant coach; assistant-coaching stints at five other colleges, including Penn State; head coach for eight seasons at Wake Forest; quarterbacks coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for one year before joining the Colts in the same capacity in 2002 and beginning a climb that would lead to his current job.

Caldwell was so quiet and unassuming that his role in the Colts' 14-2 regular season and impressive playoff wins over Baltimore and the Jets were easy to overlook. Peyton Manning won a record fourth NFL Most Valuable Player award in a landslide. Caldwell finished a distant fourth in Associated Press Coach-of-the-Year voting behind Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, New Orleans' Sean Payton, and San Diego's Norv Turner.

Many on the AP media panel simply assumed that Caldwell merely inherited an outstanding team from Dungy, that Manning serves as both the Colts' quarterback and coach, and that Caldwell is, for all practical purposes, a bystander.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Talk with any Colts player or administrator, and you'll find out that Caldwell clearly has had a significant hand in the team's success.

"Believe me, he's tuned in and on top of virtually every detail," Colts president Bill Polian said. "He's a copious note-taker. He's very focused on what he wants this team to achieve. He's very clear in his annunciation of those goals and how to achieve them. And he's very strong in his beliefs as to how to go about it. This sounds like the ultimate cliché, because it's the title of Tony's book, but he is the epitome of quiet strength."

In that regard, Caldwell is often described as being sort of a Dungy clone. They share an understated approach that isn't typical in the hard-bitten, in-your-face world of football coaching.

Unlike Dungy, however, Caldwell usually has plenty to say to his players. He constantly talks with them throughout the practice week, and the subject doesn't always involve Xs and Os or the next game. Most of the time, Caldwell seeks to find out how they're feeling. He's persistent in his pursuit of straight answers, which he almost always will eventually get, because the information is vital to his practice plan -- and to the Colts' fortunes.

Fresh players perform far better than tired ones. That's a lesson Caldwell learned in his first job as a full-time assistant coach, at Southern Illinois. Caldwell never forgot how much he marveled at the tremendous speed a player, who had been sidelined only a few days while recovering from an injury, displayed once he returned to practice. Caldwell also closely observed the way Penn State coach Joe Paterno focused on keeping players as fresh as possible by concentrating on quality, rather than quantity, in practice. He vowed to take the same approach when he was running the show.

"Some guys can run all day long, so I ask them, 'Hey, how do your legs feel?'" Caldwell said. "If he tells me that he is a little tired or whatever, I'm trying to match things up to what I see. You'll be watching a guy and it may look like he's not feeling real good. Maybe there is a limp there, maybe he just tweaked it and his leg is feeling fine. Now, I think I have a pretty good gauge. I try to draw that information out of them as I talk to them. I think that's an important part, trying to gauge them and making certain that they can perform at the optimal level."

Caldwell considers it a priority that his players are as relaxed as possible before games. He'll do it through conversation that tends to disarm them rather than cause them to worry too much about the challenge ahead.

"His job isn't to make everybody happy, but he tends to keep guys always comfortable," linebacker Clint Session told reporters last week. "He doesn't like guys all nervous and uptight. He keeps guys loose. He lets you be you."

Every now and then, Caldwell likes to hit his team with little sayings that become rallying cries. The one that had the biggest impact this season was, "Be the hunter, not the hunted." Caldwell's point was, because of the Colts' consistent winning, most opponents presumably have additional motivation to beat them. For the other team, especially if it is struggling, it's a chance to gain some extra satisfaction from beating a perennial contender.

"Well, I like to reverse that and say, 'Hey, we want to be the hunters and not the hunted,' so we have something to shoot for, too," Caldwell said. "We have something to go after them for, just in terms of making certain that we play hard and we're aggressive. And I do think, overall when you watch them play, they do get it, they do understand it.

"A lot of them will relate it to the lion and the gazelle or whatever it might be -- whatever strikes their interest and gets them to kind of focus in on what we're trying to get accomplished."

His knack for doing that is one of the qualities that stuck with Polian when, while evaluating college players as general manager of the Carolina Panthers, he watched how Caldwell handled himself as a head coach at Wake Forest from 1993 to 2000. Had Polian only focused on Caldwell's 26-63 record, he could have easily assumed he was a failure.

Polian looked beyond the seven losing seasons. What he saw was someone who was exceptional at his job.

"I saw his teams play, I saw his teams practice," Polian said. "I knew what kind of program it was and what kind of talent gap there was between what they had and what others in the ACC had at the time; Mack Brown (who now coaches Texas) and the (North) Carolina Tar Heels were riding high at that point in time. There was a gigantic gulf between the programs, so the question you ask is, 'Are they getting the maximum out of what they've got and are they building a program?' And the fact they were doing those things, at least to me, was obvious."

Polian and Dungy knew they had the perfect replacement when Dungy decided to call it quits.

Dungy was so determined to help make for the smoothest possible transition to his successor that, during the 2008 season, he gave Caldwell complete access to his head-coaching domain. That is almost unheard of.

"During Tony's last year, Jim was intimately involved in every major decision, in every major discussion, whether it was salary cap or discipline or draft strategy or player evaluation," Polian recalled. "He was involved in everything, so all that happened was that he moved into a different office and Tony wasn't there anymore."

Caldwell and Dungy communicate weekly, either through phone calls or text messages. Although Caldwell was on the coaching staff at the time, he no doubt will talk with his predecessor about the way he handled the Colts' previous Super Bowl experience, which also took place in South Florida.

Given Caldwell's big-wins-are-very-fleeting mentality, there isn't a whole lot about that win over the Chicago Bears in the pouring rain that he remembers beyond the enjoyment it brought to the people around him.

"My father was there in the rain," Caldwell said. "He was the happiest, soaked, 75-year-old that I've ever seen. That's what pops into my mind."

He couldn't help but smile while describing the scene. Yes, we do have a pulse.

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