Bill Polian may well hold the secret to the success of the Indianapolis Colts, whether or not Peyton Manning is pitching or Marvin Harrison is catching. No matter, Polian might well be the last living testament to the idea that Horatio Alger can still succeed. Maybe the Colts will follow?
By C. Eric Lincoln
Overheard recently was a network sportscaster as he questioned the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts sanity as well as his wisdom: “When it comes to Peyton Manning, just who is Bill Polian to make any judgments.”
I knew immediately that the poor soul could not have known the Bill Polian who has been my friend for the past 30 years. I wasn’t so sure that the sap had even seen the Colts play football. Perhaps the network nabob had just slept through a decade or so of NFL tournaments.
Bill Polian is not exactly a household name in the same stratosphere as Parcells and Jerry Jones or Belichick or a half dozen other gents of the gridiron. For a man who revered Vincent Lombardi, however, some folks think Polian arrived just a few nights ago on the midnight train from Reno. None of these perceptions matter.
Strictly speaking as a friend — buyer beware — William Francis Polian has one of the most distinguished resumes in National Football League history, and may just be a candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Bill Polian is a Bronx Tale, a red head with blue eyes who has the cherubic expression of a New York altar boy, which he was some 50 years ago. Those same eyes have been known to shoot darts through the hearts of those who seemingly care less than he does for his beloved game of football.
The Kansas City Chiefs made him a pro scout in 1978. He went to the ill-fated USFL and then to Canada where his team won the Grey Cup, all before he arrived as an overnight sucess in Buffalo.
Appointed general manager of the Bills in 1985 he turned a moribund franchise into a powerhouse that appeared in three consecutive Super Bowls — absolutely unprecedented— and a fourth Super Bowl after he stepped down.
In Carolina he guided an expansion franchise to the NFC championship game — the fastest rise to a championship match in pro sports history — after just two seasons in the NFL.And now in Indianapolis he has overseen the Colts rise to dominance, after coolly drafting the likes of Manning and Harrison, and most of the offensive line. The Colts have made the playoffs six times in the last seven seasons.
Does anyone see a pattern here?
In Buffalo, Carolina and now with the Colts, Polian’s teams have a combined record of 177-126, a pattern.
Considering the manner in which Polian evolved into one of the most respected men in the game, his back story is seldom talked about.
Bill Polian scuffled, and scuffled hard.
Most people would have given up. The legend of Horatio Alger is absolutely applicable here. Bootstraps? Bill Polian just reached down and hiked them up. And he never complained. Just dreamed. And dreamed on.
We met after I took a coaching job at one of New York City’s tony prep schools. We became good and fast friends. He taught me football and he taught me baseball, the game I was supposed to be coaching.
If you had dinner with Bill, surely he would end up diagramming plays on napkins. One night, in a high class eatery on New York’s East Side, Bill was chased by a French maitre d’ for ruining a silk tablecloth with a special teams play. Bill really knew how to scuffle.
Bill Polian supported his growing family by coaching one high school team, a college team, and then officiating basketball games, one and two games a night.
Bill doesn’t allow anything to get in his way.
A former Buffalo Bill employee says: “At first we didn’t get Bill. He could look at you and you knew something was wrong. We figured it out after awhile. If we lost, he didn’t like people laughing around the water cooler, or acting as though nothing had happened.
“Losing meant we had to do better and he let us know over and over again that losing was just unacceptable. He didn’t want anyone in the organization who tolerated (losing).”
And then there’s Bill Polian, the enigma.
Apparently all the scuffling has allowed Bill Polian to appreciate the little guy, the common man, and even some of his draft choices reflect this part of his nature.
A grandfather now, Bill Polian has looked after the people who followed him, supported him, befriended him on that winding road. His first son Chris, whom I saw toddle along the locker room floor back in the days when we were all young, is now the Colts vice president of player personnel. Another son Brian, is special teams coach for the University of Notre Dame.
One Colt staffer said of Bill Polian: “He has not mellowed in his love for the game and no one resents him for bringing his son on board or bringing in old friends and acquaintances.
“Bill is straight forward. If his son does the job, he’s pleased. If not, well…”
Bill Polian never had typical NFL advantages, which for him makes it all the more important to reach out to family and friends.
Bill tells a story on himself that reveals a lot about his public image. He invited his mother to call in to his radio show in Buffalo back in the 1980s. Not clear on what her son wanted to discuss, and unaware that she was on live radio, Bill Polian’s mother said: ” Did you really get a job in radio or are you still looking for a job in football.”
He had his dream job, and speaking very personally, if Scott Norwood’s kick had not sailed wide right, so much of Bill Polian’s life would have changed. Buffalo would have changed. And back home in the Bronx, Bill Polian`s mother would have known that her son was the general manager of the Super Bowl champions.
A dream that becomes more tantalizing every year.
Maybe this year, Bill.
The old crowd always keeps a good thought. It’s personal this season, I figure. The friends of Bill Polian are plainly rooting for Bill Polian.
C. Eric Lincoln is a former sportswriter for Newsday and the New York Times