It was 1984, and Colorado football coach Bill McCartney wanted his offensive assistants to find a new offense for a team that went 2-8-1 and 4-7 his first two seasons.
Jim Caldwell, Les Miles, Gary Barnett and Gerry DiNardo spent a handful of days driving to different colleges — Maryland, Pittsburgh and West Virginia among them — to pick the brains of coaches like Bobby Ross, Ralph Friedgen, Don Nehlen, Foge Fazio and Joe Moore.
"We tried to figure out how we could watch film in the car if we could get enough power out of the cigarette lighter socket," said DiNardo, now a Big Ten analyst.
One guy would drive, and the other three would take notes on the film they watched in the car. With a low budget, the group even called Colorado alumni trying to borrow cars.
The group didn't know each would have multiple jobs in their future — Caldwell with the Lions, Colts and Wake Forest; DiNardo with Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana; Miles with LSU and Oklahoma State; and Barnett with Northwestern and Colorado. DiNardo, Caldwell and Miles arrived in Colorado in 1982, McCartney's first season, and Barnett joined them in 1984.
"I don't think it was a job for any of us," DiNardo said. "It was kind of our passion."
Since he started coaching, Caldwell has been on a mission to learn as much as he can about football. He took guidance from peers and bosses and sought out opportunities to coach under legendary coaches. He used to write letters to coaches he admired, such as Bear Bryant and Tom Osborne, seeking advice. He'd write his question, leave a blank at the bottom for a response and include a self-addressed envelope.
Each coach Caldwell worked with since 1982 — McCartney, Howard Schnellenberger, Joe Paterno, Tony Dungy and John Harbaugh — has at least one Division I national title or Super Bowl to his name. He coached alongside several future coaches while he was an assistant, including Mike Tomlin, Rod Marinelli, Leslie Frazier, and Greg Schiano. Lou Tepper and Ron Dickerson were on that Colorado staff, too.
"I think he's learned from a lot of people, and that's kind of the essence of Jim Caldwell," Dungy said.
At Colorado, Miles said McCartney created chances for the assistants to research and learn from coaches around the country, including the Broncos. McCartney also harbored an environment in which the assistants could be competitive with their units.
When Mike Shanahan joined the Broncos as an assistant, Caldwell said the future Denver and Washington coach let him stay in the dorms during camp and watch him coach a young John Elway.
"Every summer, I tried to do study and research," Caldwell said. "And so, oftentimes, I'd try to dig around, if there was something I thought I was weak in I'd study it; I'd find the film of the best teams in the country that were experts in that area. I'd go visit that school or try to get every bit of information I could."
Caldwell would try to take at least three "reconnaissance missions" to different colleges or pro teams to learn about the game.
Al Davis hosted him at a Raiders practice, and he visited the Chiefs to learn about bump-and-run coverage. He visited the Cowboys twice under Jimmy Johnson and checked in with the Falcons while he was at Wake Forest.
And because he said there was plenty of good coaching outside the NFL and Division I, he visited Division III Wisconsin schools in Whitewater and Stevens Point.
"I went all over," he said. "I was one of those guys I just had a hunger and a desire to get as much information as I could."
Through all that schooling, though, Caldwell didn't have much early success.
"Sometimes you find out pretty early what you want to do, what you love and so it gave me a way to stay involved in it," said Caldwell, who was a four-year starter at cornerback at Iowa.
As a graduate assistant under Bob Commings in 1977, Iowa went 5-6. Rey Dempsey hired Caldwell as a wide receivers coach at Southern Illinois after a recommendation from then-Iowa assistant Richard Solomon, and Caldwell's teams went 7-4, 8-3 and 3-8.
Dennis Green, an assistant at Iowa when Caldwell was a player, hired him at Northwestern in 1981 — and the team went 0-11 in Green's first season.
From there, Caldwell went to Colorado, and between 1982-84, the Buffaloes went 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10.
"We were struggling, and I know he helped me fight through the struggles of day-to-day coaching," said DiNardo, who added that Caldwell and Miles, who already had left Colorado, played a role in developing a program that won the national title in 1990.
In 1985, Caldwell took an opportunity to coach for Schnellenberger in his first season at Louisville, which DiNardo recalls Caldwell wanting to do to learn the West Coast offense. The Cardinals went 2-9.
"The winning and losing is not much of an indication of what happened in the mind and learning process," Schnellenberger said. "Sometimes you learn more when you're losing than you do when you're winning. And sometimes you're a better coach when you're losing than when you're winning."
Gains by losing
Finally, in 1986, Caldwell experienced the pinnacle of winning as Penn State went 12-0 and won the national title in his first season as quarterbacks coach under Paterno. Caldwell stayed there until 1992, when he landed his first head coaching job.
"He always had a pretty clear path of what he had to do to become a head coach," DiNardo said. "Nothing was ever done by accident with Jim."
But the losses piled up again at Wake Forest, where his Caldwell's best record during his 1993-2000 run was 7-5 in 1999.
Perhaps those losing years shaped Caldwell into the victory-hungry coach he is today. Since the Lions hired him in 2014, he's regularly discussed the pursuit of a championship and his interview responses regularly come back to the process of winning games.
"In this business, (if) you play potential and you're hoping, you'll be looking for a job in a short period of time," he said.
After Wake Forest fired Caldwell, Green recommended him to Dungy, who was looking for a quarterbacks coach with the Buccaneers in 2001. Former Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins, playing for the Giants, was in Tampa Bay that January preparing for the Super Bowl. Dungy sat down with Collins, who told him how Caldwell prepared him for college football, the NFL and as a person.
"I think the thing that grew on me was he had an impact on everybody, not just the quarterbacks, not just the people that he worked with personally, but on everybody in the building," Dungy said.
Miles witnessed that at Colorado, too.
"He was well versed in a number of life's lessons that were really pointed out to our team through what was some very, very specific quotes and scripture," Miles said.
Those life lessons are commonplace in Caldwell's coaching, and Dungy, who brought Caldwell with him to Indianapolis in 2002, said he used to sit in for the start of quarterback meetings to hear daily inspiration. An avid reader, Caldwell regularly quoted political leaders, philosophers, football coaches and others — and still does with the Lions.
"He respects everyone the same, and trust me, it's hard for coaches to do that," Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "But he maintains that, and guys respect him even more for doing so."
In 2014, the Lions went 11-5, and Caldwell became the third first-year coach to lead the franchise to the postseason (Bobby Ross, 1997; George Wilson, 1957). They were 6-2 in games decided by eight points or less, and Dungy believes that ability to persevere came from the coach.
And though he's on his third head coaching job, people from Caldwell's past don't expect him to stop researching ways to improve.
"He'll study the game forever until he finds the answer," DiNardo said.
Jim Caldwell's coaching career
1977: Iowa, graduate assistant
1978–80: Southern Illinois, receivers
1981: Northwestern, assistant (offense )
1982–84: Colorado, receivers
1985: Louisville, receivers
1986–92: Penn State, quarterbacks
1993–2000: Wake Forest, head coach
2001, Tampa Bay, quarterbacks
2002–08: Indianapolis, quarterbacks/assistant head coach
2009–11: Indianapolis, head coach
2012–13: Baltimore, quarterbacks/offensive coordinator
2014–present: Detroit, head coach