Coaches overcome detours to Super Bowl
When he was quarterbacking Wake Forest's football team in all those defeats, former Jazz point guard Rusty LaRue never imagined that his coach would someday direct the favored team in the Super Bowl.
While they were sharing an office at San Diego State, University of Utah offensive coordinator Dave Schramm was not picturing his co-worker as a potential world championship coach, either.
Yet here are Jim Caldwell and Sean Payton, preparing to meet in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
In a league where anything that happens once constitutes is a trend, the Super Bowl is back with another pair of fresh coaches. A year after Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin topped Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt, the matchup pits Caldwell and the Indianapolis Colts against Payton and the New Orleans Saints.
No more Belichicks, Shanahans or Holmgrens, at least for the moment.
LaRue and Schramm can now say they're not surprised about Caldwell and Payton, but they could not have seen this coming in the old days. Not when, as LaRue easily rattles off the records, Wake Forest was going 2-9, 3-8 and 1-10, winning a total of two Atlantic Coast Conference games. And not when San Diego State's head coach was fired, and his replacement kept Schramm and not Payton.
Asked about the traits Caldwell displayed at Wake Forest, LaRue joked, "I saw him get to handle losing a lot."
Actually, the way Caldwell weathered those tough times impressed LaRue, who was a full-time, two-sport athlete for the Demon Deacons and became John Stockton's backup with the Jazz in 2001-02.
"He demanded a lot out of us, but he was never profane or demeaning with his players," said LaRue, now an assistant basketball coach at the school. "That says a lot about somebody, when you're not winning games, to keep your cool. I'm sure the [Colts] respect him because he treats them well."
Caldwell allowed LaRue to throw the football 72 times against Duke (55 completions), which not even Peyton Manning gets to do. Wake Forest later went 7-5 under Caldwell, but dipped to 2-9 in his eighth season, resulting in his exit.
After joining coach Tony Dungy with Tampa Bay for one season, Caldwell followed him to Indianapolis. As Dungy's designated replacement, he took over the job this season and won his first 14 games before the Colts backed off, resting several starters as playoff-preparation strategy. It was controversial because Caldwell was forgoing an opportunity for an unbeaten season.
"That's the thing about this particular business, not everybody is going to agree with you," he said.
Payton said much the same thing in defending the Saints' approach to their last regular-season game, resulting in a third straight defeat after a 13-0 start. In keeping with his personality, he opened with a jab -- "So much for being rusty" -- after the Saints hammered Arizona in their first playoff game.
"He's very confident, believes in what he's doing," Schramm said. "He's a high-energy guy, an awesome person, works extremely hard. What you see on the sidelines, that's him."
Known for being somewhat controlling with the media, Payton once took that to an extreme in his SDSU days. When a mildly critical story about the Aztecs was published during a recruiting weekend, Payton hustled to the hotel where the prospects were staying and removed the newspapers in front of their doors, doing "everything he could to make sure they couldn't see it," Schramm said, laughing.
Having lost his job during SDSU's coaching transition from Al Luginbill to Ted Tollner, Payton landed at Miami of Ohio and soon broke into the NFL. After stints with Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Dallas, he was hired by New Orleans in 2006 and helped build a Super Bowl contender with the help of Bret Ingalls and Curtis Johnson, two other offensive assistants from SDSU.
"I'm fired up for those guys," Schramm said.
Like Caldwell's, their stories prove anybody can get to the Super Bowl sideline, but only after some detours.