INDIANAPOLIS –Thirty-one seconds remained in a 60-minute battle last Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium and Chuck Pagano had yet another decision in his first home game as Colts head coach.
Indianapolis was at its 20-yard line having surrendered a 14-point lead to Minnesota. It had a youthful offense and a line in tatters. Play for overtime, or go for the win?
Pagano opted for the latter, showing courage as a leader and faith in his players.
Two quick-striking passes gained 40 yards. A penalty added five more. Pagano pointed kicker Adam Vinatieri toward the field, and the future Hall-of-Fame kicker boomed a 53-yard field goal making the Colts 23-20 victors over the Vikings.
It was a moment that could have gone either way for Pagano, but what never will sway in him is his dedication to those who expend all they have for the football cause.
In the celebratory locker room moments later, the affection players had for their new head coach was evident.
"First and foremost, he's a player's coach. He has the ability to make guys want to fight for him and make guys want to play hard for him," said cornerback Jerraud Powers. "He's like another player on the team. He's just as fired up as the players are on the sideline. He's involved in everything. He's a heck of a coach.
"He's been around a lot of winning programs, so he knows what a winning program feels like and what it's all about, just like a lot of guys in this locker room have been around a lot of winners also. You don't want to let him down because you know the hard work he puts in and the passion he coaches with. He makes players want to give everything they have for him."
The game-winning kick by Vinatieri was the 24th in his 17-year career, a career that has seen him play for legendary figures in the sport. At New England, Vinatieri played for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. In Indianapolis, he played for Tony Dungy.
Colts players held both affinity and regard for Dungy, as well as Dungy's successor, Jim Caldwell. It is rare in athletics when the two feelings relate to a coach, and it is a mix players hold for Pagano.
"His excitement in unmatchable, it really is," said Vinatieri. "He brings a fun-ness to it that we just want to win for him and play hard for him. He's awesome. Everything he brings to the table, you want to make sure you're not letting him down. You make sure to do everything he tells you to do, (if you do) you're going to be successful."
Reggie Wayne has known Pagano longer than any Colt. Wayne and Pagano first crossed paths collegiately at Miami. Wayne says Pagano has mellowed since that time around 1999-2000, but he likes both versions.
"He brings energy. He brings excitement. He brings football," said Wayne. "You want to do everything you can to go out and play your hardest for him. He's like one of us. You don't want to let him down. That's what he brings. He's toned down (since Miami), but has the same intensity. Either one, I still love him the same. I'm just glad we could go out there and get a 'W' for him."
Like Wayne and Vinatieri, safety Antoine Bethea played for Dungy and Caldwell. Both coaches were warm, genuine leaders who helped mold players into men. Bethea likes what he has now with his new head coach.
"He is very genuine. As a player, you love to play for someone like that," said Bethea. "He's a player's coach and as a player, you want to give him your all.
"We were happy to get this first one for him, and he has many more coming for this team, this city and for himself. It was a team win, and I'm happy to see him win and get his first game ball."
A player who has had to embrace a distinct difference in his role with the team since Pagano's arrival is Robert Mathis, who shifted from a defensive end position that produced four Pro Bowl nominations to a linebacker spot.
Just as Mathis has seen a change in his role, he has noticed a different tact by a more vocal coach, and he likes it.
"He's not afraid to jump in there and get in the mud pit and get dirty with us. We appreciate that," said Mathis. "He came up the hard way. He's excited and has a lot of fire.
"It's a different atmosphere coaching-wise. Coaches are effective in their own ways. He chooses the fire side. Guys will fight 60 minutes for him. They're not scared to put it on the line for him. He makes sure that he puts it on the line for you, too."
A coach who inspires these emotions from his players cannot be putting on a front that does not exist within. Pagano is true to the core.
"He's a genuine guy. He's not in it for the money. He's here because he loves football, he loves his job," said Powers. "When you see that from the top, you have players who want to follow his lead.
"No one is in here worried about anything but winning football games and going out there and giving it all for one another, for everybody on the team. It starts from the top. That's the type of guy Coach Pagano is, and that's the type of player's he is coaching."