Chuck Pagano will forever be the answer to a trivia question.
After nearly 30 years in the collegiate and professional football coaching ranks, a journey that began in 1984 following four seasons as a strong safety for the Cowboys, Pagano became the first graduate in the University of Wyoming’s storied 125-year history to land an NFL head coaching job when he was named in January to lead the Indianapolis Colts.
“If you ask all my teammates and buddies from my days in Wyoming, I bet it’d probably strike them as crazy that I’m the first one,” Pagano says with a chuckle. “It is surreal. I just feel very fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity, and I’m always proud to represent the alma mater.”
While UW has produced several players who have found success in the NFL—Jim Kiick, Derrick Martin and Jay Novacek all have won Super Bowl rings and Malcom Floyd will enter the 2012 campaign as the No. 1 receiver for the San Diego Chargers—Pagano, 51, joins the late Fritz Shurmur and Gene Huey among a select few with ties to the university who have risen to prominence on the sidelines.
Another UW alum, Ted Gilmore, jumped to the NFL in February when he was hired as wide receivers coach for the Oakland Raiders. A 1991 graduate, Gilmore was a member of the Cowboys’ coaching staff from 1994-98 after playing two seasons as a receiver for UW.
In Indianapolis, Pagano inherits a franchise in transition. After winning seven AFC South championships in eight seasons, a remarkable stretch that included 108 wins in 144 games and highlighted by a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, the Colts won just two games last season while playing without star quarterback Peyton Manning, who was sidelined by multiple neck surgeries.
While Pagano classified the 2011 season as an “aberration,” the Colts’ collapse resulted in wholesale changes, including the dismissals of Bill Polian, the longtime club president who drafted Manning, and his son, Chris, the team’s general manager; the firings of Jim Caldwell as head coach and Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator; and the release of Manning, who had been the face of the franchise since being the first pick in the 1998 draft.
Pierre Garçon, the Colts’ top wide receiver the past two seasons; Dallas Clark, the starting tight end; and Jeff Saturday, the anchor of the offensive line since 1999, are also gone.
“There’s no doubt there’s been a ton of change, from the front office down, but this is a winning organization and we all expect to win,” says Pagano, who joined the Colts after four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, where he served as defensive secondary coach (2008-10) and defensive coordinator (2011).
One of his former players expects Pagano will win, too.
Martin, a special teams standout who began his NFL career in Baltimore and has played on the past two Super Bowl winning teams, says Pagano’s ability to connect with his players will help him guide the Colts back to relevance.
“I think he’s gonna do great,” says Martin, who, as of March 30, was an NFL free agent after helping the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. “He’s a very personable guy who really relates to his players and knows what he’s doing as a coach. In Baltimore, we had a lot of personalities on the defense, a lot of big names, and he got all of us on the same page and believing in him and believing in his system. If you can do that in the NFL, you’re gonna win a lot of games.”