Bill Polian’s Hall of Fame career was shaped by great coaches

By Andrew Walker | Posted 1/28/2017

Bill Polian always stuck to his guns.

He built his Hall-of-Fame career as a personnel executive in the NFL by relying on those around him — as well as his own obvious skills and talents — to ensure the cupboards were never bare for his numerous great teams over the years.

Sure, taking a gamble on the obvious future superstars — the Peyton Mannings and Thurman Thomases of the world — likely weren’t among the tougher decisions of Polian’s career. But when outside voices expressed their opinions on what his teams should do with their other picks, Polian was, many times, looking in a completely different direction.

And, despite whatever criticism those outsiders had for Polian’s decisions, the results, as they say, speak for themselves.

Polian was a featured speaker on Saturday at USA Football’s 2017 National Conference at Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla., where he addressed hundreds of youth and high school football coaches, athletic directors, school administrators and other key youth football figures about that very attitude that eventually led to his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.

One of the best lessons Polian said he learned along the way came from his Hall of Fame head coach with the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy, who always harped that when things might seem tough, to “do less.” Not the opposite.

Polian followed that example throughout his entire career.

“When things get tough, when they go wrong, when there are issues: do less. Don’t do more,” Polian said. “The temptation is to reach into the playbook and to create new systems, change the defense, change the coordinator. The media screams and yells: you’ve got to do something different. No you don’t; you need to do less.”

The main focus of this weekend’s conference, of course, is the coaches, many of whom came to Orlando to get an exclusive opportunity to network with their peers, as well as learn from some of the top minds in the game, so that they can go back to their communities and make their own programs better.

Polian worked with some tremendous coaches throughout his illustrious NFL career. He started as a pro scout with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1978 to 1982 before moving on to the Buffalo Bills in 1984 as their Pro Personnel Director.

Just two years later, Polian had been promoted to be the team’s general manager, and it wouldn’t be long until his work building the Bills’ roster had led to their greatest era, one in which the team, under another Hall of Fame head coach, Marv Levy, would play in the Super Bowl four straight years (the last of which while Polian was working for the NFL).

Polian said Levy’s success was no surprise given his calm and collected manner with his players. In one particular scenario, as Levy’s team was getting ready to play one of its final preseason games and to determine the opening day roster, he reminded his players to bring their turf shoes the next day to the stadium.

Sound simple? Well, sure. But that’s not what the players took away from what Levy had to say that day.

“We want you to do your best. We want you to put your best foot forward. You’ve worked hard here for the last 10 days. Not everyone’s going to make the team. But we want you to give it your best shot … we want you to put your best foot forward. So remember, put your best foot forward: pack those turf shoes,” Polian said Levy told his team. “He didn’t yell at him. He was positive. … And I became a convert right then and there. … I had that eureka moment: ‘This is the way you coach.’ Not only the pros, but everybody.”

Polian then moved on to the expansion Carolina Panthers, and built a roster that immediately became a winner, as they advanced to the NFC Championship Game in just their second year in the NFL. That attracted the Indianapolis Colts and owner Jim Irsay, who hired Polian to be their general manager, and eventually team president, in 1997.

His work building the Colts is nearly unprecedented. From 2000 to 2009, the team won 115 games — the most-ever by an NFL team in a decade — and their 23 consecutive regular season wins across 2008 and 2009 are the most ever.

In Indianapolis from 1997 to 2011, the Colts advanced to the playoffs 11 times, won eight division titles and appeared in two Super Bowls, winning it all against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI with their Hall of Fame head coach, Dungy, at the helm.

It was Dungy’s aforementioned “do less; not more” approach that will always stick with Polian. When the Jacksonville Jaguars ran wild for 375 yards in a 44-17 win over the Colts late in the 2006 season, Dungy didn’t overreact.

“It was two weeks before the playoffs. The media, the fans were in a panic. Tony stood up and said, ‘I just looked at the film — everyrthing that went wrong is fixable,’” Polian said about Dungy, who had a very impressive 85-27 (.759) record in seven seasons in Indianapolis. “We’ll fix it. … We’ll be fine.’”

The Colts were just fine. They won the Super Bowl less than a couple months later.

One of Polian’s first draft picks with the Colts — Peyton Manning, whom was taken with the first-overall selection in 1998 — is, of course, his most famous. But he built the franchise by also taking future superstars all over the rest of his drafts, including running backs Joseph Addai and Edgerrin James, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, tight end Dallas Clark, safety Bob Sanders — and many, many more.

But Polian knows the work isn’t close to being done once the picks are made, or once an undrafted player is signed to the roster. He trusted his coaches to develop those players and to maximize their talents and abilities, which, of course, leads to team success.

“All the great coaches are great teachers, and they’re willing to teach,” he said. “They want to teach — if only you ask.”

Many of those key players over the years caught Polian’s eye, however, because of an obviously strong football upbringing.

He told the youth and high school coaches attending this weekend’s USA Football National Conference just how important the work they are doing really is.

“When you talk about a winning culture, (a) winning culture starts with you. Really in many respects, it ends with you — and your staff,” Polian said. “You are a teacher, counselor, role model, a surrogate parent, and in this day of age, that’s really important. … And you’ve got to be a disciplinarian. No question about that. So you wear a lot of different hats.”