INDIANAPOLIS – Owner and CEO Jim Irsay dramatically changed the course of the Indianapolis Colts in December of 1997 when he hired Bill Polian to be team president.
At the conclusion of a 2011 regular season that saw the team post a 2-14 record, Irsay started a new era by announcing Polian no longer will serve as vice chairman of the club, and Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian no longer will serve with the team.
"We are moving in a different direction in terms of Bill and Chris Polian," said Irsay. "I talked to them both this afternoon. It was a very tough decision for me. (I) had a chance to express to them, and Bill in particular, how hard it was and the appreciation the franchise has for all that's been done by Bill.
"He and I go back 30 years. This is difficult. This is the tough part of this business. I've always said there is a great loyalty in this business because when I walk into the locker room with my team on opening Sunday, I'm expected to make sure the circle that I've built is as strong as it can be for us to win. Sentiment and those things can't come between that. That's the way I've always looked at it in seeing this business for over 40 years."
Decisions of this nature are difficult for all parties, and it was not an easy one for Irsay.
"It was difficult," said Irsay. "It was time. It was the right decision to make. Fourteen years is a long time in this league. (There are) a lot of great memories. I've been through a lot with Bill and treasure all those memories, but it was time. I think in terms of how do you make a decision like this as an owner? It's an intuitive decision."
Irsay has presided over a Colts team that has achieved a sustained period of success. The Colts have made the playoffs 11 times in the last 13 seasons, reaching the divisional, conference or league title round in six of the past nine years and to the Super Bowl twice since 2006. In 2010, the club tied the NFL record with a ninth consecutive playoff appearance and the Colts were only team with 10 victories and playoff berths annually from 2002-10. Since 1999, the club has a 140-68 (.673) mark, one of the NFL's winningest regular-season teams.
The Colts have won eight division titles (1999, 2003-07, 09-10) under Irsay's stewardship. The Colts also earned 23 consecutive regular-season victories during 2008-09, the NFL record. The team amassed 115 regular-season victories from 2000-09, the most successful decade in NFL history.
From 2003-09, Indianapolis set the NFL marks with seven consecutive seasons with 11 (6, Dallas, 1976-81) and 12 victories (4, Dallas, 1992-95). From 2004-09, Indianapolis was the only team to win seven or more consecutive regular-season games in six straight seasons, closing that span by becoming then just the third team (now fourth) to open a season with 14 victories and winning the AFC Championship. In 2006, the Colts captured a fourth World Championship with a 29-17 victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI. It was the club's first title appearance in 36 years.
Polian played a major role in the club's numerous accomplishments. His blueprint helped establish the Colts among the league's elite teams, and his acumen produced talent gleaned through the draft, veteran free agency and rookie free agency.
"Bill is a Hall of Fame general manager," said Irsay. "I hope to be there in Canton when he gets inducted. Certainly, a Ring of Honor individual in our stadium, in our town."
In 24 seasons as a general manager or president with Indianapolis, Carolina and Buffalo, his teams made 17 playoff, eight championship game and five Super Bowl appearances, while winning a World Championship.
"Bill has had a magical, very rare talent of evaluating players and having an intuitive feel for greatness," said Irsay. "It's been shown in Buffalo and Carolina and here, and that's a very big component to have in our business."
Chris Polian served 14 seasons with the Colts. The 2011 season was his fourth his current capacity. He had been involved in every phase of the club's football operations since joining the franchise in 1998. Polian spent the 2004 season as assistant general manager/football operations and pro personnel. He served from 2001-03 as assistant director of football operations. Polian was the club's director of pro scouting from 1998-2000.
A time of change creates the opportunity for new direction. Irsay acknowledges the excitement of the moment and that the process will start immediately.
"I'm excited about our new direction. It's a new era," said Irsay. "We're moving into exciting times by my estimation. I think that in terms of the search for the new general manager that begins immediately. I have not contacted any teams yet. I have not talked to any general mangers yet. That will be happening as early as this evening.
"This is going to be a more extensive search (than when Polian was hired to replace Bill Tobin). It's going to take more time. It could take multiple weeks."
Irsay reached the decision to make the changes Monday morning. He indicated Head Coach Jim Caldwell is under consideration to continue with the team, but the matter is fluid.
"In terms of the coaching staff, I met with Jim Caldwell. Right now, that's still under evaluation," said Irsay. "I anticipate the general manger being here when I make a final decision on the coaching staff and the head coach. I'm not saying that's definitely the way it's going to be. That's probably how it will go. Jim Caldwell could very well be back this year. That is not out of the realm of possibilities."