INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – His Indianapolis Colts finished, just as their coach insisted they would.
Shortly thereafter, Chuck Pagano was finished as well.
A 22-13 victory over the Houston Texans Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium became a historical footnote roughly 90 minutes later when the team fired the coach who wore his emotions on his sleeve, helped bring it back from that horrendous 2011 abyss but, in the end, was unable to sustain the success.
Pagano offered what was every bit a farewell speech with the media, then he and wife Tina shared a 45-minute meeting with owner Jim Irsay at the stadium.
That’s when the decision was made, and delivered.
Just like that, it was over.
The Pagano-Colts divorce had been a topic of speculation since last January when Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson, replaced him with Ballard and opted to retain Pagano, signed through 2019, with the caveat Ballard would evaluate all football operations at the end of the season.
Sunday, the divorce became final.
“Chuck Pagano provided Colts fans with many exciting wins and memories as head coach of the Colts,’’ Irsay said in a statement. “Throughout his tenure in Indianapolis, he impacted the lives of the players he coached, those who he worked with in the organization and Colts fans across the globe.
“Chuck’s first season was one of the more inspirational stories in NFL history as he courageously battled and overcame leukemia. As a result, his CHUCKSTRONG Foundation has raised millions for cancer research.
“We are thankful for Chuck’s contributions to our franchise and community and wish him, Tina and the entire Pagano family nothing but the best moving forward.’’
The Colts now embark on a coaching search that Ballard undoubtedly will spearhead. The possible candidates: Kansas City special teams coach Dave Toub, Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy and Chiefs assistant head coach Brad Childress; Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur; New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels; Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich; and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.
Pagano exits with a ton of critics in the local market, but as the fifth-winningest coach in team history: 56-46 with three playoff appearances after the Colts’ 2-14 finish in ’11.
“Blessed beyond measure,’’ he said.
After the win over the Texans, Pagano shared an emotional meeting with his players in the locker room.
“If I never coach another day, another down, I’m good because of you guys,’’ he said in a video posted on Colts.com.
He frequently paused to wipe away a tear.
“You’re warriors,’’ he said. “Never been so damned proud. We fell short. We fell short, but not today. I hope you all feel as good as I feel right now.’’
Irsay stepped up and presented the game ball to Pagano. One last time.
“This man here has kept you guys fighting every time,’’ he said. “I’ve been around this game for 50 years and that’s a rare thing. You guys fight for him because he’s special.
“Chuck, we love ya . . . you kept us coming back and getting this guys ready to fight and compete every week and never crumbling. He is a man we would follow through any fire . . . He’s our leader.
“The love I have for him I can’t tell you. I love you to death, brother.’’
Pagano then handled his normal – and last – presser with the media. Again, his emotions bubbled just below the surface.
“I don’t know what tomorrow brings. I don’t know what the next hour brings,’’ he said. “But I do know that I’m very grateful to Mr. Irsay, very grateful to the Irsay family. His unwavering commitment is second to none to football. He gave us everything we needed. Gave me everything that I needed over the last six years to be successful.
“Nobody has more passion and love for the game than Jim Irsay. Chris Ballard, you know, is one of the finest men I’ve ever worked with. Was a great football mind. He was unbelievable and he was with us through thick and thin. I’ve had a great year working with him.’’
Pagano’s job security waned after leading the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 records and playoff berths, highlighted by a trip to the AFC Championship game after the 2014 season. The team finished 8-8 in 2015 and ’16, then plummeted to 4-12 this season as injuries – Andrew Luck missed the entire season with his balky right shoulder – took a toll.
The anti-Pagano camp had ample ammunition in its demand for change. Despite the overall winning record since 2012, the Colts:
- are 0-9 against Pittsburgh and New England, and the average score in the losses was 40.7-18.6. The Steelers and Patriots piled up at least 45 points in six of the nine games.
- seldom fielded a reliable defense under the defensive-minded Pagano. In yards per game allowed, they ranked 30th, 30th, 26th, 11th, 20th and 26th. In points per game, they ranked 31st, 22nd, 25th, 19th, 9th and 21st.
- just 6-9 in the AFC South after setting an NFL record by winning 16 straight division games. The turnaround began with a 51-16 throttling at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
- lost 17 games by at least 17 points and seven by at least 30.
There also were frequent in-game guffaws, none more epic than the failed fake punt in the 34-27 loss to the Patriots in 2015.
Through it all, Pagano persevered. That included his rookie season as a head coach in 2012 when he waged his battle – and won it – with leukemia.
“This community, the fans, they’re unbelievable,’’ Pagano said. “All that I’ve been through. They brought me through the fire back in 2012. I’ve got great love and respect for our fans and this community.
“We’ll always be Hoosiers no matter what happens. Again, I don’t know what tomorrow brings, or the next hour. I just know right now I have a lot of job in my heart just knowing how these guys finished.’’
Coaching a football team, he added, always is “about relationships. It’s always been about love with me. It’s always been about connection, and the price of love is sometimes you have to say goodbye.’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.