INDIANAPOLIS –One of the first words out of Chuck Pagano's mouth on January 25 when he was named head coach of the Colts was "relationships."
Over 28 previous years in coaching, he came across the notion and honed his special ways in bonding with players to help them grow as men and produce as winners on the playing field.
It was something cited by Owner and CEO Jim Irsay and General Manager Ryan Grigson that dark, cold night, too.
Over the eight months since then, Pagano has crafted his team into selfless performers, and his catch phrase was "60 minutes. One play at a time. All you got."
On Sunday, Pagano's charges nearly had to fight beyond 60 minutes, but kicker Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard field goal with eight seconds left decided a compelling contest, sending Pagano, his coaches and players and 63,912 full-throated partisans in Lucas Oil Stadium into a frenzy with a 23-20 victory over Minnesota.
Afterward, a joyous locker room celebrated the moment, and they were all happy for their field leader.
"He has a way of bringing this team together as a family. From day one, that was the approach we wanted to take here. Today, you saw it," said Grigson. "We fought hard for four quarters just like last week. This time we came out with a 'W.' We fought to the end. It was great to see the family truly come together."
The Colts assumed a 17-6 halftime lead with 10 points in the final two minutes of the first half. Indianapolis extended the lead to 20-6 and held that advantage until Minnesota shaved its deficit in half with a touchdown with five minutes to go. The Vikings took possession and drove again, tying the game, 20-20, with 31 seconds left in regulation.
With an offense featuring a rookie quarterback, two rookie tight ends, a free agent wide receiver in his second Colts game and an offensive line that started the game down two starters then lost a third that caused two players to shift positions, Pagano had a decision – play for overtime or fight for 60 minutes, and perhaps beyond.
Pagano chose the fight he has espoused. Indianapolis moved from its 20 to the Vikings' 40 with two 20-yard completions by Andrew Luck. After a Minnesota penalty, he had Luck spike the ball, then sent Vinatieri onto the field to go for the win. Vinatieri nailed his 24th game-deciding kick, earning a wild win for Pagano and his program.
Pagano was quick to pass credit around.
"I feel great for all our assistant coaches and our players, all the time and trust and belief they put into this whole thing," said Pagano. "It feels great, obviously. What a great crowd. What a great crowd. My hat goes off to our fans. They hung in there. When we needed them the most, they were there, and they were loud. It was an electric atmosphere.
"I get to enjoy this like everybody else for a couple of hours, then back to the grind. It is pretty special."
The nature of the win by coming back after a double-digit lead at home dissipated was key for the growth led by Pagano. In a word, he found it "huge."
"It's huge. It's what you're trying to sell," said Pagano. "Everything that we started from culture, to offensive and defensive system, to special teams, everything you're trying to sell to your kids from a confidence standpoint. To find a way to win that thing at the end (was huge).
"It would have been a devastating deal on many levels for every kid in that locker room (if we had lost), especially the young ones. To be able to come out with a victory is a testament to them. It will go a long way moving forward."
Pagano is the son of a very prominent high school head coach who won multiple state championships in Colorado. He has served in winning programs in college and the NFL over his career, including stint at Miami when Reggie Wayne was a Hurricane receiver. Wayne caught the second 20-yard reception on the final drive.
Wayne has known Pagano the longest of any Colt, and he noted what it is about Pagano that stands out.
"He brings energy. He brings excitement. He brings football," said Wayne, the longest-tenured player with Indianapolis. "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."
The player who capped Pagano's first win, Vinatieri, has played under prominent coaches during his 17-year career – Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy. Vinatieri finds Pagano a coach for whom he enjoys playing.
"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."
Grigson helped do the math with Irsay that led to Pagano's arrival, and the notion that the players will work so hard for a head coach was one of the deciding factors.
"Yep, that's the plan, and that's why he's here," said Grigson. "That's what comes natural to him, bringing these guys together. They love him, and they'll fight to the death for him. We all will."