LAKE FOREST – It’s easy to say that what he’ll go through on Saturday will be like any other coach that’s lost their job in one place then returned there with another team.
It’s just not that simple with Chuck Pagano and Indianapolis. The memories go beyond what happened at Lucas Oil Stadium and the big business that is professional football.
This was a life situation, this was personal, and makes this visit back to his former place of employment so much different from others in the league.
“You always hear about ‘Hoosier Hospitality,’ but until you live it like I had an opportunity to live it, you can’t appreciate it like I appreciate it. Just really, really good people,” said Pagano.
He found that out immediately in September of 2012, the first month of Pagano’s tenure as head coach of the coach when he was diagnosed with Leukemia during the Colts’ off week. The city immediately rallied around him, making “Chuckstrong” banners and merchandise while sending their support through various mediums over the next three months.
Pagano would beat the disease and return for the Colts’ regular season finale against the Texans on December 30th. With Bruce Arians leading the team in his absence, the Colts stunned the NFL with an 11-5 record and a Wild Card berth. The following week, Pagano coached his first playoff game in Indianapolis, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, the team he was with the year before, in the AFC Wild Card round.
That support which came so quickly after he arrived made an impression on the coach, one he kept with him throughout his time with the Colts.
“It was incredible,” said Pagano of the community support. “I was only there a short time before I was diagnosed; and then for that city and that community, the organization to embrace me and support me and my family through that whole journey. It just speaks to what we just talked about – that ‘Hoosier Hospitality.’ Again, living it like we lived it was truly amazing because they didn’t have to do that.
“There’s a lot more good in this world than bad, and you know, really, really good people. I was fortunate to be where I was at that time.”
Certainly, that will be on his mind when he steps onto Lucas Oil Stadium wearing the blue and orange for the first time. He hasn’t been there since he was fired in 2017 after three seasons without a playoff appearance. There’s a job for Pagano to do with the Bears, and that’s to help one of the best defenses in the NFL have a seamless transition between defensive coordinators.
Yet it’s hard for him not to look around and remember that hospitality he was shown in this place, a positive that outweighs any negatives that happened after.
“I’m sure once we get down there and step out onto the field and go through all the pregame stuff and see a lot of old faces and shake a lot of hands, high-fives and all that stuff, it’s business trip,” said Pagano. “We’ve got a game to play and all that stuff; there’s a lot on the line for a lot of these players. So our focus and energy and everything has been, you know, in our preparation for the game.
“But certainly I spent six great years there and a lot of fond memories so it will be pretty cool.”
Maybe he’ll get a little more “Hoosier Hospitality” from the fans on Saturday, even if he’s on a different sideline.