Jan/Feb 2011 Clay Meyer Coached Up

He’s the man who replaced the man. And that’s really all most people know about him. It’s an old axiom in coaching that you should never replace a popular coach because it will be difficult if not impossible to live up to their standard. Indianapolis Colts’ Head Coach Jim Caldwell stepped directly into that situation when his predecessor, Tony Dungy—possibly the most recognizable Christian coach of this era—removed his headset for the final time after the 2008 season.

So why did the Colts pick an unrecognizable and somewhat untested coach to replace a Super Bowl-winning national icon? Maybe a better question would be why anyone would want the responsibility of filling the position.

Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen both take part in the Colts’ coaches’ Bible study and have attended FCA Camps.
Colts’ Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen, a longtime friend and colleague of both Caldwell and Dungy, has a few reasons.

“Jim represented exactly what they were looking for: strong leadership and humility,” said Christensen, who coached with both men for seven years. “Coach Dungy brought a humility to the franchise, and that is how we have always tried to do things around here. Coach Caldwell epitomized all of that. He has that poise, calmness and humility that we stress and preach.”

In the same quiet-mannered style Indianapolis has learned to embrace, Caldwell and the Colts picked up where Dungy left off. They never skipped a beat in 2009, making it all the way to Super Bowl XLIV where they fell just short of the title, losing to the New Orleans Saints, 31-17.

Under the brightest of spotlights, Caldwell soon found himself in another new and humbling role: defeated Super Bowl coach. Later that month, however, he showcased his ability to put things in perspective during the team’s coaches’ Bible study.

“There were some solemn individuals in the room lamenting the loss and what it meant,” Caldwell said. “So I told them, ‘The last time I checked, the sun did rise again this morning and Jesus is still on the throne.’”

It was a statement that pinpointed the poise, calmness and leadership Christensen referenced about the head man, and it is the perspective that the Colts have come to expect from their head coaches. It’s also one thing Caldwell always plans to bring to the table regardless of how much people know—or don’t know—about him.

Beloit, Wis., a town of 35,000 situated on the state’s southern edge, served as the backdrop for Jim Caldwell’s childhood. The second of Willie and Mary Caldwell’s three children, he had plenty of Christian influences early on. His father was an ordained minister, and several of his cousins and uncles were and still are in ministry.

Caldwell and his family spent an enormous amount of time at church, and that was where he acquired many of the essential character traits he carries today.

“My mother and father gave us a good sense of what it meant to be committed to Christ,” Caldwell said. “They demonstrated how to live a life of holiness, which taught us discipline, integrity and how to live your life according to what Christ would desire. Those are lifelong tenets that have stayed with me.”

As a youngster, Caldwell was also no stranger to the sports scene. In almost every sport he tried he excelled, playing baseball, helping the basketball team to a state championship, starring as a sprinter, and earning all-state football honors as a defensive back.

Caldwell attributes much of his coaching success to his players, including All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning.
“Sports were a big part of my life growing up in our small hometown,” he said. “We didn’t have the specific sport focus like kids do today; we just did it all.”

After finding every kind of athletic success in high school, Caldwell zeroed in on football and accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Iowa where he started all four years from 1973-76. While he was there, his playing career came to a close, but something of lasting significance took place off the field for Caldwell in Iowa City.

At church one Sunday, Caldwell, then age 22, felt the Lord leading him into a deeper spiritual relationship during a pastor’s message from Acts 19. In this verse demons asked Jewish disciples, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” (v. 15, NIV).

The Scripture and the message struck a chord in Caldwell, and he began to question the depth of his relationship with the Lord.

“Those of us who have been involved in the church can talk about all of our relationships around us, but do we really know who God is?” Caldwell said. “That message really challenged me, and from that point on I developed a much stronger relationship with Christ.”

Coaching wasn’t exactly what Caldwell had in mind for his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. But when the university’s defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, who now serves in the same role for the Colts, offered him a graduate assistant position with the Hawkeyes, he accepted the role and began working with the defensive unit.

As Caldwell got more involved with the team, he began to see the impact he could have on athletes.

“I was always inspired by the impact coaches had on young people,” Caldwell said. “I saw it with my coaches, and I was amazed at the influence and, in a sense, the ministry they had. I was drawn to it because it was something I could do and have a profound impact on young people.”

After four months as a graduate assistant, he accepted his first coaching job by taking over the defensive backs at Southern Illinois University in 1978. He spent three years at SIU before hopping on the coaching carousel and beginning his turn through the industry.

By now, Caldwell was a husband and father, and each new stop involved major moves for his family. He served as an assistant coach at Northwestern, Colorado, Louisville and Penn State under some of the most prolific coaches in college football history, learning both the intricacies of the game and how to balance X’s and O’s with young children and a wife at home.

“God put him in the position He did to prepare Dad to be the head coach of one of the top teams in the NFL,” said Natalie Caldwell, pictured above with her father after last year’s Super Bowl.

“Those guys were a huge influence on me,” said Caldwell, specifically referencing SIU’s Ray Dempsey and Colorado’s Bill McCartney. “They showed me how they blended their professional lives with faith being first, family being second, and football being third, without compromise.”

Caldwell’s daughter, Natalie, the youngest of his and Cheryl’s four children, grew up traveling across the nation with the family following her father’s budding coaching career. Now an event coordinator at a sports marketing firm in Phoenix, Natalie recalls witnessing her father’s ability to keep his faith and family atop his priority list.

“My dad was always a father first and didn’t bring ‘Coach Caldwell’ home,” she said. “He was always just ‘Dad’ to us. He and my mother helped lay the foundation of faith for me and my three brothers.”

Soon, Natalie watched her dad land his first head coaching job when he took over at Wake Forest University in 1993 and became the first African-American head coach in the ACC.

After eight years and only one winning season at Wake Forest, though, Caldwell was released in November 2000. The Caldwells hopped back on the spinning carousel and trusted that the Lord would open a position. Never did they anticipate that their next stop would come courtesy of an old college opponent.

Back at Iowa, Caldwell the athlete had faced off every season against the University of Minnesota and their star quarterback, Tony Dungy. Over the course of their playing careers, the pair had become acquainted, and they followed each others’ paths as Caldwell made his way through the college coaching ranks and Dungy worked his way through the NFL’s.

As the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was Dungy, looking for a quarterbacks coach, who hired Caldwell prior to the 2001 season. The duo coached together in Tampa Bay for just one season before Dungy was fired by the Bucs and picked up by the Colts. He brought Caldwell along to coach the quarterbacks, and, after several years of winning seasons, they celebrated their first Super Bowl victory together on Feb. 4, 2007.

While the championship and wins were great for the résumés and trophy cases, Caldwell was more interested in adopting Dungy’s mastery of combining faith and football. The most valuable lessons he learned from his predecessor came from the two coaches’ time spent together outside of the game. Caldwell also adopted the same one-year Bible-reading plan Dungy used and took part in the Tuesday morning coaches’ Bible studies, which are still part of the Colts organization under Caldwell’s direction.

“Coach Dungy was just a tremendous example of how to live your life and how to blend family into the profession,” Caldwell said. “He didn’t fit what most people think of in our very competitive environment. He didn’t use profanity, and in eight years I never once heard him raise his voice or say a cross word about anybody. He treated people with integrity and honor, and, not only that, he was also great at what he did. He was an outstanding football coach who loved God and was a great family man.”


The FCA ties run deep through the Indianapolis Colts organization. Every season they host an FCA Game Day Rally that draws nearly 1,000 kids onto the field after the game to hear players and coaches talk about their faith. Several of the coaches have also been featured guests at banquets, including Caldwell, who made his first public appearance as the Colts’ head coach at the 2008 FCA Night of Champions banquet.

“Coach Caldwell’s name alone brought people to our event, and he did a terrific job of sharing the greatest message ever: the gospel of Christ,” said Brad Long, East Central Indiana FCA area director. “It was wonderful to see Coach utilize his platform to share about Christ.” Caldwell also acknowledged how FCA has impacted his family and the student-athletes he’s coached at various colleges. “FCA’s given us a great place to fellowship” he said. “Throughout my career, it’s been a safe haven where we can share with other believers about Christ.”

Members of the Colts’ staff including Caldwell and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen have been regularly involved with the local ministry and have made trips to FCA’s Black Mountain (N.C.) coaches camp each summer to be spiritually fed prior to the season. “FCA’s been a great avenue for all of us as coaches,” Christensen said. “The one thing that has been consistent in my, Coach Dungy and Coach Caldwell’s life has been FCA. I have always said Black Mountain is our hometown because we have moved around so much as coaches.”

The ministry’s mission is to minister to coaches and athletes, but Long often feels it is he and the FCA staff who are the ones being encouraged.

“They are very gracious in helping the ministry not only in Central Indiana, but throughout the country,” he said. “It may get overlooked, but they minister to us, too. It has been a real blessing to us as a staff to see their ministry hearts as they go about their work.”

“Someone would have a hard time telling the difference if Coach Caldwell would have won the Super Bowl or lost it,” he said. “I have seen him in both situations, and you can’t tell the difference. He has the ability at the end of the year to assess it and move on. He’s grateful for it, but he’s not going to change.”

Caldwell continued to be promoted within the Colts coaching staff and was elevated to assistant head coach prior to the 2005 season. The organization lauded him for stepping in when Dungy took time away that year to deal with his son’s suicide, and it was during that time that Caldwell proved he was capable of leading the team.

Before the 2008 season began, Caldwell was promoted to associate head coach and effectively named the “head-coach- inwaiting.” Following Dungy’s retirement that season, the transition became official when Caldwell was named the Colts’ head coach on January 13, 2009.

The press surrounding Caldwell’s promotion paled in comparison to the publicity regarding Dungy’s retirement. The country knew little about the assistant-turned-head-coach and didn’t seem to ask. But the Caldwell family celebrated the promotion and reflected on the path the coach had taken all the way from Beloit.

“It was all part of God’s plan,” Natalie said. “God put him in the position He did to prepare Dad to be the head coach of one of the top teams in the NFL. It was truly a blessing to our family to see how God honored our faithfulness.”

With Caldwell holding the reins, the Colts stampeded through their first 14 games of the 2009 regular season, clinching another division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their 14 straight wins to open the season put Caldwell in the NFL record books for earning the most wins to start a head coaching career. The Colts went on to win the AFC and reach Super Bowl XLIV, which marked another milestone for Caldwell as he became just the fifth rookie head coach to make it to the big game.

“The season was a real blessing, and getting started that way as a coach was highly unusual,” he said. “Obviously losing the Super Bowl was very disappointing, but you have to be able to put it behind you and move on. Football is a game we love. It’s competitive, and we want to win, but certainly, as the saying goes, ‘This too shall pass.’ I try to keep everything in perspective and know that each season we’ll go out and see if we can get back there again.”

Even Christensen noted that although the taste of defeat was bitter Caldwell’s attitude never faltered.

Caldwell humbly agrees with the media opinion that his early NFL head coaching success stemmed largely from the system he inherited from Dungy. He doesn’t mind; he considers it a blessing.

“The Colts are a great organization with great ownership and an outstanding staff of guys who understand the game, coach it well and are men of integrity,” Caldwell said. “I also have to attribute our success to a group of great players who do a tremendous job. They know how to win, and I am certainly thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Passing on the praise adds just one more dimension to this unknown, humble successor. In preseason, regular seasons or Super Bowls, Caldwell’s approach to the game, his faith and his family are set, even down to his morning routine with the Lord and his Bible.

“We always talk about setting priorities, and what I have tried to do is maintain those in my life by putting God first,” Caldwell said. “It says in Matthew 6:33 (KJV), ‘…seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ I believe that. Reading the Word each morning gives me a perspective on the day. It renews my spirit and gives me strength.”

Caldwell is still establishing his own name in relation to football and his faith. And even as it takes folks time to learn more about him, he has proven that his steadfast style—one of poise, calmness and humility—will not be compromised.

Caldwell addressed the crowd at the 2008 FCA Night of Champions banquet in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell grew up in the Christian faith, but everything seemed to fall into place when he heard Acts 19:15 during church as a 22-year-old.

In that passage of Scripture, a group of Jewish believers attempted to drive out demons in the name of Jesus Christ. The demons replied, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize—but who are you?”

Think about that question. Do you really know who you are? If someone were to ask you that question right now, what would you say? Would you tell them about your role as an athlete, coach or student? Would you define yourself by your job, your possessions or your relationships?

Overwhelmingly, most of our humanly answers reveal cases of mistaken identity. Our athletic career might be what we do, but it isn’t who we are. Our family and friends might be who we associate with, but they don’t hold the keys to our souls. The only thing in which we can find true identity that won’t eventually be taken away is our status as children of God.

Our athletic career can be stripped by injury or age. We can lose our jobs. Our family and friends can walk away. But it is our position as a beloved child of the Creator that will never change. He is the only constant. If we aren’t rooted in His eternal love and acceptance, though, we will eventually find out the hard way that all things of this earth will fail us.

If, however, we know the truth about the One who loves us with an everlasting, unconditional love, we will be free to live in the knowledge that we are eternally secure and accepted, and that no matter what happens we have a home in Heaven with God.

So, just what is that truth? It is this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV).

Because we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of holy perfection (Romans 3:23), the only way to secure our eternity is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who paid the price for our sins when He died on the cross. Once we believe that, according to 1 John 1:9 (NIV), “…he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Does eternal security sound good to you? Do you want to be free from the pressure of maintaining false identity and, instead, have the peace to know that you are loved and valued regardless of what comes and goes in life? Call out to God and ask for His forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Then begin living in relationship with Him every day and walking in His guidance and love.

Have questions about starting a relationship with Christ? Call FCA’s National Support Center (1-800-289-0909) or go online to morethanwinning.org.

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here. 

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts; Chris Coddington; Natalie Caldwell