I've never had to fire someone under my employment for 14 years. I've never had to tell a friend I've known for 30 years that, sorry, we just can't hang out in public together anymore. I've also never had to fire the son of my friend of 30 years, a son I've likely watched grow up right before my eyes.
On Monday, to the shock of many in the NFL, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay did all those things, firing his longtime friend and team personnel executive, Bill Polian. Also sent packing was Polian's eldest son, Colts general manager Chris Polian.
Black Monday in the NFL is the Monday after the regular season finale, and the day is often reserved for teams and owners that wish to make changes within their organization as quickly as possible. This year, Black Monday began with two coaching terminations that many expected: Steve Spanuolo in St. Louis and Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay.
Then, the news started trickling out of Indianapolis' West 56th Street complex that there would be "significant change" within the Colts organization.
For people wired into the team, the general feeling was something would happen in Indianapolis on Black Monday, but no one could agree on what. What folks did agree on was that the futures of Bill Polian, Chris Polian, and head coach Jim Caldwell were tenuous in Indianapolis, with Caldwell being the most likely to get served his walking papers on Monday.
By the end of the day, it was Bill and Chris who were shown the door rather unceremoniously, leaving Jim Caldwell amazingly still employed by the Colts as the head coach.
Why? Why did Jim Irsay fire his longtime chief personnel executive and friend? Why did he seemingly dump the man who resurrected his franchise from the bowels of irrelevancy in 1998 and transformed it into a pillar of the NFL? Was it because the Colts just had a bad year? Had Irsay gotten so spoiled by nine straight years of playoff appearances that one 2-14 season was enough to make him go all Dan Synder on Polian?
The truth is Jim Irsay wanted control of his franchise back. It's really just that simple.
For 14 years, the executive-type that was most frequently associated with the Colts was Bill Polian, a man defined by genius-level gifts of intellect and gargoyle-level fits of paranoid megalomania, all at once. Polian was both respected and loathed in league circles. Everyone praised his draft record and the fact that he helped rebuild not one, not two, but THREE NFL franchises.
Everyone also rolled their eyes and sighed whenever they had to talk about "that time" they had to deal with Polian face-to-face.
All throughout his career, Bill Polian had a less than fuzzy relationship with the media, especially if they were local press wired into the team. Polian was obsessed with information control, and in the modern age of Twitter, Facebook, and websites like this one, being a freak about every little word uttered by anyone within your organization is a recipe for disaster. For Polian, he saw new communications technology, and the local media in general, as a threat to himself and his team.
Literally, a threat.
There are famous stories of him once telling the Buffalo media (back when he was the G.M. there) that if they didn't like the way he did things, they could get the hell out of the building. Seriously, a man working in a small market like Buffalo was actually so pissed off at their tiny media there that he wanted them kicked out of the building.
In Indianapolis, the stories were similar. Local media often spoke with me about Polian refusing to even speak with the Colts beat writer who worked for the only major newspaper in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Star. This beat writer had covered the Colts since their move from Baltimore in 1984. For Polian, the writer was apparently to low-brow for his tastes. Polian refused to speak to the Star's columnist or even its featured online blogger. Polian would, however, talk to any one of his national media buddies, such as Chris Mortensen of ESPN (who broke the story yesterday of Polian's firing), S.I.'s Peter King, or anyone he was chummy with in major media outlets.
To Polian, these men weren't a threat because, unlike the local beat writers, they didn't track and follow his everyday nonsense around the Colts complex. They didn't know the times he publicly berated employees of the team for seemingly no reason at all. They weren't affected, as the beat writers often were, when Polian routinely blocked assistant coaches from speaking to the media. They weren't wired into his crass and belligerent behavior towards fans, often insulting them on his weekly call-in radio show.
Seriously, if you want to know just want kind of a crazy control freak Bill Polian was, the man had his own call-in radio show every Monday night after a game. He wanted to be the singlular voice for the team. Not his coach. Not his superstar, laser rocket-armed quarterback from Tennessee.
Him. And him alone.
And then there was Chris Polian, a man who rapidly ascended to the role of team general manager for reasons that many found baffling. Other than the fact that his last name was Polian, there was nothing about Chris that seemed ideally suited to take on the responsibilities of running a franchise. If anything, Chris was viewed as a toxic force within the organization, a person pressed upon people by his overbearing and odious father. It was Chris Polian who reportedly pushed several longtime, assistant coaches, scouts, and high-ranking personnel people out the door in Indianapolis, replacing them with friends and other trusted colleagues.
This had an affect on the team's draft performance in recent years. The Colts haven't had a hit in the first round since Jospeh Addai in 2006.
The true downfall of the Polians started then, and that downfall turned into an avalanche after the way they handled the now-infamous benching of starters during a Week 16 home game in 2009 against the New York Jets. The Colts were 14-0 at that time, and had sent out many mixed signals to fans and their own players about whether or not the team would go for a perfect season. Midway through the third quarter, Peyton Manning and several offensive players were pulled from the game. The Colts lost the lead, and a visibly frustrated Manning, his helmet still on, was often seen begging head coach Jim Caldwell and then-offensive coordinator Tom Moore to let him back in the game. Both said no. Both had gotten their marching orders from the Polians.
The crowd rained booes down on the Colts in their home stadium that day. Afterwards, on his Monday call-in radio show, Polian was confronted, live and on-air, by several angry fans determined to rip him a new one. One caller, a woman, berated Polian for the decision, especially considering how many fans had gotten tickets to that game as Christmas gifts.
Polian responded by questioning the woman's authenticity, suggesting she was either not a real fan, or a reporter pretending to be one.
Polian's attacks on fans that night made national news due, in some way, to people like me who listened to the show on the Internet and posted highlights of the program the day of. The day after the radio show fiasco, Bill Polian ordered the local station that streamed his call-in show to pull it from the website. Only local people in Indianapolis with local, standard radios were now allowed to hear him talk, not outsiders. I remember speaking with the then head of the radio station in Indianapolis, asking him why Polian had done this.
"He's just kind of a crappy boss," the station manager said.
Polian's meltdown that night on the radio mirrored other meltdowns he'd been a part of, such as his famous verbal freakout in 2001 on a radio show in Indianapolis that featured guest comedian Jay Mohr. This past year, Polian called Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz a "rat" after Kravitz wrote an article critical of both Bill and Chris.
Polian also seemed to have personal feuds and grudges against specific players. He made sure that his first round pick in 2007, wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, was buried deep on the bench all season. No one knows the real reason why, but it's safe to assume it was because Gonalez was more vocal than others when it came to voicing his disapproval on things. Polian publicly chastised his punter, Pat McAfee, for not being better at directional punting. At the time, the rest of Bill's team was 0-13!
When you add all these up, Bill Polian's great record as a talent evaluator and his skill at roster building didn't justify keeping him when weighed against all the negativity the mere mention of his name would generate. Fans and media had taken to calling him NaPolian. For Jim, enough was probably enough.
At his press conference Monday, Irsay started off by conveying that things had run their course in Indy with the Polians, and that after 14 years, it was time for change:
"We’re moving in a different direction in regards to Bill and Chris Polian. It was a very tough decision for me. This is the tough part of this business. There is always a great loyalty in this business. It was time, it was the right decision to make. Fourteen years is a long time in this league. It’s an intuitive decision. A lot goes into it. This was a tough decision, and I made the decision this morning."
It's worth noting that, after 45 minutes of talking to reporters, and another 20 minutes as the featured guest on what would have been Bill Polian's regular Monday call-in radio show, Jim Irsay did not say one positive thing about Chris Polian.
He gushed about Bill.
Praised and talked-up Caldwell.
He even said encouraging words about Colts director of player personnel Tom Telesco, who was retained.
Nothing about Chris Polian.
In the end, Monday's firing was all about Irsay, not the Polians. Throughout the league, the perception had been growing that it was not Irsay who controlled the Colts. It was the Polians. This was best evidenced by how Chris Polian was thrust upon everyone within the organization, and how Chris used his new power to make some rather sweeping changes in 2011. He fired a longtime Irsay confidante in Clyde Powers, a man who'd worked in the Colts front office for more than 30 years. Chris Polian replaced Powers with his brother, Dennis Polian.
Chris demoted another longtime Irsay friend, public relations director Craig Kelley. Kelley was replaced by a friend of Chris Polian's, Avis Roper. Roper and the Polians worked together in Carolina back in the '90s.
It's long been speculated that Chris pushed coaches like offensive coordinator Tom Moore, running backs coach Gene Huey, and offensive line coach Howard Mudd out the door, replacing them with coaches that were more inclined to shut up and do what they are told.
These moves, coupled with a 2-14 regular season that saw the front office bungle all sorts of roster decisions (specifically at quarterback), compelled Irsay to take his team back. Adam Schefter of ESPN said as much when asked on SportsCenter, "Why were the Polians fired?" Schefter, a man who made a name for himself covering the Denver Broncos in the '80s and '90s, equated the moves to owner Pat Bowlen firing head coach Dan Reeves in 1991 after 14 years. When asked why he fired Reeves, Bowlen said, "I just wanted my team back."
Now, Jim Irsay has his team back. He also has the No. 1 overall pick which, if you were able to read through Irsay's language Monday, you'd know will be Stanford's Andrew Luck. Irsay said repeatedly that the pillars of a franchise were quarterback, head coach, and general manager. With the health of Peyton Manning still very much in question, the QB pillar is one Irsay, and Irsay himself, seems to want to address.
It's worth noting that, despite all the negative stories associated with Bill and Chris Polian, both men did great things for the Colts franchise and the NFL in general. Bill especially. Those achievements cannot, and should not, be ignored simply because they were jerks to the people they worked with. But, as Irsay stated, 14 years is a long time. Things had run their course.
And Jim Irsay simply wanted to take his team back and lead it into a new era.