Mike Hart on Jim Caldwell: "Do what you’re supposed to do off the field, do what you’re supposed to do on the field. He’s big on that." (Joe Robbins / Getty Images)
Quarterback Peyton Manning was hardly a finished product when Jim Caldwell arrived in Indianapolis in 2002.
In Manning’s first four seasons with the Colts, he finished with interception totals of 28, 15, 15 and 23, but after Caldwell became his quarterbacks coach, he never threw 20 picks again, not in his next nine seasons in Indianapolis or his most recent two in Denver.
“He was Peyton’s coach,” said Marlin Jackson, former Colts defensive back. “Peyton didn’t come into the league fully polished, and during his time with coach Caldwell, I think coach Caldwell can really be credited a lot with the success of Peyton Manning and the growth of Peyton Manning.
“He’s a great player in his own right, but he also had a great coach who was able to bring the best out of him.”
After hiring Caldwell to be their 26th head coach Tuesday, the Lions hope he can do the same with quarterback Matthew Stafford and lead what many consider a talented roster over the proverbial hump.
With Caldwell as his position coach, Manning led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 2006. Caldwell took over for Tony Dungy as head coach in 2009, and the Colts went 14-2 in his first season and lost Super Bowl XLIV to the New Orleans Saints.
“It was a smooth, easy transition with him taking over, which is why that first year we went right to the Super Bowl,” Jackson said. “He just took over a great team that respected him and his leadership as a coach.”
The Colts went 10-6 the following season, but fell to 2-14 in 2011 after Manning missed the entire season with a neck injury. Even though the two-win season led to Caldwell’s firing, players on the team fondly recalled how he led the team.
Caldwell was soft spoken but highly competitive, and wanted his players to perform as well off the field as on it.
“If you look at one overall word, it’d be ‘discipline,’ ” former Colts running back Mike Hart said of Caldwell’s coaching style. “Do what you’re supposed to do off the field, do what you’re supposed to do on the field. He’s big on that. Don’t lose the game for stupid reasons. Don’t lose the game for penalties, don’t lose the game for turnovers. Give yourself every chance you have to win the game.”
In many ways, Caldwell is the antithesis of Jim Schwartz, who was fired as Lions head coach on Dec. 30. Caldwell comes to Detroit with head coaching experience. His coaching background is primarily on offense, not defense as Schwartz’s was. And while Schwartz was brash and confrontational, Caldwell is mellow and mild-mannered.
“He is a man that I will always respect as a football coach, leader and a friend,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said in a statement. Flacco won a Super Bowl with Caldwell as offensive coordinator in 2012.
“Through his calming influence and extensive knowledge of the game, he was an integral part of our success over the past few years.”
Doug Olstead will never forget the day he met Caldwell.
In eighth grade, the two played football for rival junior high schools in Beloit, Wis., and Caldwell tied the score in the final minute.
“I punted the ball with 30 seconds left, and we were up 6-0,” Olstead said. “And he returned it for a touchdown.”
In addition to being an A student, Caldwell became a standout athlete at Beloit Memorial. He played three years of varsity football, primarily as a defensive back but some as a running back, and during his senior season his team went 9-0 and lost the 1972 state championship by one vote.
“He was a very competitive young man, soft spoken,” said John Heineke, Caldwell’s high school football coach. “He performed with a quiet stick. He never said much, but when he was told what he (should) do, he did it.”
Caldwell played guard for the varsity basketball team that won the state title in 1973. He was also a member of the track team and could run the 100-meter dash in less than 10 seconds.
While in high school, Caldwell kept to himself outside of school and sports, Olstead said. He later married his high school sweetheart, Cheryl Johnson, and the two have four children.
“I can tell you honestly I don’t know of anybody with better moral character than Mr. Jim Caldwell,” Olstead said.
Beloit is a blue-collar town on the northern border of Illinois with about 36,000 people. Most in town cheer for the Green Bay Packers, some for the Chicago Bears, but when Caldwell coached in Indianapolis, many became Colts fans.
In 2011, he was inducted into the Beloit Memorial Hall of Fame, and after the ceremony Olstead said Caldwell signed an autograph for everyone that wanted one.
“I don’t think he ever puts himself ahead of anybody,” Olstead said. “What you see in Jimmy, there’s no agenda that he’s trying to get something from you for nothing.”
After high school, Caldwell went to Iowa and was a four-year starter at defensive back. Olstead and Heineke said he could’ve played in the NFL, but suffered an injury in his final season.
That’s when he turned to coaching.
Caldwell’s first coaching job was as a graduate assistant with the Hawkeyes in 1977. He then spent time on the staffs at Southern Illinois, Northwestern, Colorado and Louisville before landing a job at Penn State.
Caldwell went to Penn State to coach wide receivers in 1986, and the Nittany Lions won the national championship in his first season. From 1987-92, he coached Penn State's receivers and quarterbacks, including three years with quarterback Kerry Collins, who became a two-time Pro Bowler in the NFL.
Caldwell landed his first head coaching job at Wake Forest in 1993.
Rarely competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Wake Forest struggled under Caldwell and didn’t win more than three games in any of his first four seasons. But in 1999 the Demon Deacons went 7-5 and won the Aloha Bowl, the university’s third bowl appearance since 1948.
After a 2-9 finish in 2000, Caldwell was fired with a 26-63 record over eight seasons.
“There’s no more of a fine gentleman than he is,” said Bill Faircloth, Wake Forest’s assistant athletic director for football operations. “The record here didn’t speak as good as the kind of job he did here. It’s kind of a tough place to have a team, but he did a good job.”
Caldwell’s achievements at Wake Forest extended to the classroom, and Faircloth said the Demon Deacons football team was one of the nation’s best academically in his final season.
“He was a demanding coach, but everybody thought the world of him,” Faircloth said. “He was a person that, to me, knew how to deal with people, knew how to bring the best out in people and all types of players.”
Defensive back Eric King missed his junior season of high school, and his first Division I offer came from Caldwell in 2000.
King, who eventually played six seasons in the NFL including two with the Lions, committed to play for Caldwell before he was fired, but Caldwell left a lasting impression. During his three seasons with the Titans — who played the Colts twice a season — King remembers searching for Caldwell on the field after games to thank him for the opportunity. And as a native of Baltimore, King said he and his father occasionally met with Caldwell when he was a Ravens assistant from 2012-13.
“A great leader, very stoic and just a great all-around guy,” King said. “I think he’s a great players’ coach. I think the players will be able to relate very well to Jim Caldwell. He just has a great feel and a great aura about him when you step into his office or you step into the facility and he’s leading the organization.”