INDIANAPOLIS — Here Frank Reich was, a 46-year-old intern who volunteered to work for free just to get a shot at becoming an NFL coach.
It was 2006, and the Indianapolis Colts were just coming off a gut-wrenching loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, putting to waste a record-setting 14-2 regular season performance that produced eight Pro Bowlers and seven All-Pros.
The Colts were right at the precipice of greatness, and Reich knew it. In his own 14-year playing career as an NFL quarterback, Reich’s Buffalo Bills went to four straight Super Bowls, appeared in five AFC Championship games and captured five division titles, but just weren’t quite able to get over that hump and win a title.
The Colts — and perhaps most notably their quarterback, Peyton Manning — were determined not to meet the same fate as those talented Bills teams of the early-1990s, however.
Manning by that time had hit the prime of a career that would lead to him being considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Heading into the 2006 season, No. 18 had earned two league Most Valuable Player awards, was named First-Team All-Pro three times and had been voted to six Pro Bowls in in eight seasons as the Colts’ signal caller.
Reich, meanwhile, had taken a few years off after wrapping up his playing career in 1998; before jumping into coaching, he wanted to spend more time with his family, and he also sparked a career in the ministry.
But by the mid-2000s, Reich had an itch to get back into the game of football. He contacted Bill Polian, his former general manager in Buffalo who was now in the same position with the Colts, as well as then-Colts head coach Tony Dungy, and expressed a desire to prove himself with a coaching internship — and he wanted to do it for free.
So in 2006, Polian, Dungy and the Colts hired Reich, who would stay in a nearby hotel, as an unpaid coaching intern.
Coaching interns are often tasked with the most tedious of tasks, and the Colts just happened to have the most tedious of quarterbacks leading their offense.
Reich recently caught up with The Buffalo News’ Vic Carucci for a fascinating, all-encompassing interview, which you can read by clicking here (BNblitz.com subscription required). But one of the more interesting points of conversation centered on Reich’s early relationship that year with Manning, and how it helped spark the now-Colts head coach’s current career.
Reich wanted to make sure he was still football-sharp after spending about eight years away from the game, and he said Manning ensured that would be the case.
“Peyton would always test you on projects,” Reich told Carucci. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for that. The game hadn’t passed me by. The game was still the game, but I wasn’t eating, sleeping and drinking football for about seven or eight years. Now, all of a sudden, you’re in there with Peyton Manning and it’s a crash course. And it’s the highest level of quarterback play that you can have, so you’d better you better catch on pretty quick.”
Reich said he sensed he had “instant credibility” with Manning, despite the fact he was just an intern at the time.
“There were many things that were great about Peyton, but here I am, a 46-year-old intern, and Peyton treated me the right way,” Reich said. “I mean, I still had to earn it, but because I played for 14 years, I think that that opened the door.”
Manning, Reich and the Colts would then finally get over that hump later in that 2006 season, defeating the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.
Reich quickly proved himself, and he began to move up the coaching ladder. In 2008, he was promoted to offensive assistant; in 2009 and 2010, he was the Colts’ quarterbacks coach; and in 2011, he was wide receivers coach.
Manning’s projects didn’t slow down, either.
“I had been away from the game for a few years and now I’m with the smartest player to ever play the game. You better not walk into a meeting and not know the answers,” Reich said. “It was like, as they say, drinking water from a fire hose with him. He had his way of testing me and challenging me and vetting me, especially after I was hired full-time as a quality control/assistant quarterback coach.”
Reich would eventually move on to become the wide receivers coach with the Arizona Cardinals in 2012 before joining the San Diego Chargers as their quarterbacks coach the following year. In 2014, he got his big break as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, and in 2016, he took on the same job with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 2017, the Eagles captured their first-ever Super Bowl title thanks in large part to Reich’s creativity on the offensive side of the ball. He was hired as the Colts’ head coach in February of 2018, and helped dig the team out of a 1-5 start last season to finish with a 10-6 record and earn Indy’s first playoff berth in four years.
Manning isn’t surprised at all in Reich’s fast rise among the coaching ranks.
“I really enjoyed just communicating with Frank — obviously being a former quarterback, he and I could speak the same language,” Manning told Colts.com last year. “A very detail-oriented, deep thinker, and I learned a lot from him and asked him a lot of questions. And you just knew that his communication skills, his ability to relate to players, was going to serve him well.”