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In ‘players’ leagues,’ coaches make all the difference

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Indianapolis Colts interim head coach Bruce Arians might have been like the rookie poker player who wins big the first time he sits at the table.

Handed the keys to the Colts while head coach Chuck Pagano goes through cancer treatments, Arians led Indianapolis to a 30-27 upset of the visiting Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

The Colts community reacted with a collective “wow.”

Don’t get too excited. Just as if he was sitting at a poker table, the sharks are in the water waiting for Arians to try again.

We tend to discount the value of head coaches at times until silly ownership decisions or health concerns or league disciplinary actions smack us in the face with the importance of the position. And I’m talking all sports.

After all, people would argue that Michael Jordan didn’t really need Phil Jackson? And wouldn’t Joe Montana have collected Super Bowl rings without Bill Walsh?

Pagano was chosen as the man to run the Colts for a reason. Without him, even for just part of this season, my bet is that the team is going to suffer big time, even with his system in place.

The stunning news of Pagano’s illness made me consider that head coaches don’t get their just due, and they probably will get less credit in the future as we morph into “players’ leagues.”

But as we move into that “I” generation, the need for quality head coaches is more important than ever.

Arians would be the first to say that Pagano’s system was responsible for the win against the Packers. As the Colts go down the road this season, and Pagano has less to do with everyday operations, we will see more of a disconnect with that system and therefore some tough times. The Colts go on the road to face a Jets squad Sunday that seems to have fallen apart offensively and is primed for a collapse. Don’t be surprised, though, if the Colts lay an egg.

There are some fun, exciting improvements on the Colts’ roster with new quarterback Andrew Luck, a more aggressive defense and some rookies who look like big time players. But the coaching factor is bigger than them all.

Want a few examples?

In the NFL, let’s look at the New Orleans Saints. Raise your hand if you think Sean Payton’s suspension for Bountygate is the biggest reason for the Saints’ 1-4 record. My hand is way up.

This is a team that has great personnel and a tradition of winning. They have been right there in all four of their losses but haven’t been able to finish off opponents. Fans are wearing paper bags over their heads. Hurry back, Sean.

Let’s go to college football and take a look at Arkansas. Here is a team that went 11-2 and was ranked No. 7 by the Associated Press. The Hogs won the Cotton Bowl over a very good Kansas State program.

Then Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle with his mistress, Jessica Dorrell, on the back. I’m sure when the university fired Petrino, it figured it might experience a little bit of a slip.

How about 2-4 with a 52-0 loss to Alabama and a 58-10 thumping by Texas A&M? And do you think anyone expected that loss to Louisiana Monroe? It could take years to repair the damage.

My personal favorite was the firing of Terry Francona by the Boston Red Sox. Here was a guy who managed the team to its first World Series since 1918 in 2004 and came back with another title in 2007. Plus, the Red Sox were consistently very good and fun to watch.

Then came the 2011 season in which Boston gave up a nine-game lead in the final month in the race for the wild card. Boston finished 90-72 to miss by a game.

Of course, lack of discipline had to be the reason because pitchers were ... gasp ... drinking beer on their off days while games were in progress. Players were eating fried chicken in the clubhouse. Oh my.

News flash — if the Red Sox had won one more game, nobody would have cared. Instead, Francona was fired in favor of disciplinarian Bobby Valentine.

Boston went 69-93 in 2012. Perhaps Francona was a little more in control than previously thought.

Yes, coaches do make a difference. And when you have a good one, hold on.

In the game of life, we all are rooting for Pagano to get healthy as soon as possible. In the game of football, the Colts and their fans need him back for a reason that will become obvious soon.

He makes a difference.

Jay Heater is the Republic sports editor. He can be reached at or 379-5632.

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