Chuck Pagano’s battle with leukemia that began in 2012 changed him, as any personal cataclysm would a person. But in many ways, the important ways, it didn’t.
The Bears defensive coordinator, who this week returns to Indianapolis where he coached the Colts to a 53-43 record and three playoff appearances between 2012-17, experienced the changes in perspectives that accompanied the cancer fight, which began not long after he’d landed his dream job of being an NFL head coach, with the Colts in 2012. His on- and off-field perspectives have already registered with members of the NFL-leading defense that he inherits from former coordinator Vic Fangio, who left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos.
“You can tell [Pagano] is seasoned in the game,” said linebacker Khalil Mack. “He knows everything. There are different intangibles that he has brought that I had never even thought about when it comes to football.”
With few exceptions, teams associated with Pagano have consistently risen to be among the elites. Pagano broke into NFL coaching with stints in Cleveland and Oakland before joining the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, where he reunited with defensive greats Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Pagano had worked with both while an assistant at the University of Miami, with the Hurricanes winning bowl games four of Pagano’s final five years there (1996-2000).
The Ravens reached the postseason and won at least one playoff game in all four of Pagano’s years there (2008-11). The Colts went to the postseason in Pagano’s first three seasons (2012-14), winning first-round games in ’12 and ’14 and losing only to eventual Super Bowl winners (Baltimore, New England).
In between those first two Indianapolis seasons was the 2013 postseason in which Pagano’s Colts overcame a 28-point deficit in the second half to win a divisional-round game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Pagano’s defense allowed just two field goals over the final six possessions for Kansas City and first-time quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy.
When injuries cost Pagano quarterback Andrew Luck for 10 of 32 games in 2016-17, the Colts missed the playoffs with consecutive 8-8 seasons. Luck then missed all of 2018, the Colts finished 4-12 and Pagano was fired from what had been his dream job, which he said left him overall “better, not bitter.”
Pagano, 58, spent 2018 as a “gap” year, as a consultant for NFL officials and SVP of officiating Al Riveron. When Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos, the Bears called and Pagano was hired Jan. 11, 2019. And as for yearning to return as a head coach, “I'm not,” he said. “I've done it.”
Pagano talked with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bears columnist John “Moon” Mullin about the job he has come into, including the somewhat unusual situation of a coach needing to prove himself to players instead of vice versa.
NBCSC: Did the experience of dealing with the cancer change you as a coach, how you just went about your day-to-day job? Or did it have any effect?
CP: The day-to-day grind, not really. I think anytime you go through something like that, it makes lifestyle changes. You can’t change the grind of the National Football League, the hours, expectations, pressures.
But from a perspective standpoint, I’ve never really taken anything for granted. I’ve always been grateful for everything that’s come my way, family-wise, professionally, all that stuff. From a perspective standpoint it did put things in line for me as far as the pressures and expectations of the job. Those things I’ve tried to share with the team.
NBCSC: From their different comments to myself and others, it’s very clear that players are indeed listening, both football-wise and beyond.
CP: We all know what we sign up for when we take these jobs, whether you play or coach in the National Football League. The expectations are always going to be there.
But there’s real-life stuff out there, as we all know. It’s going on. And it’s a privilege to coach or play in this league, and that’s kept me grounded and put things in perspective. It made it a little easier to deal with some of the other things that come your way on the coaching side of it.
NBCSC: Did all of it ever cause you to think about giving it all up and moving on?
CP: No. No. I’d just landed the dream job [in Indianapolis] and all of a sudden got hit with the [cancer] setback. So it became my vision to beat cancer and be around for a long time with my wife, kids and grandkids, and to get back to the job I’d just taken five or six months prior.
NBCSC: After leaving Indianapolis, you spent last year as a consultant for the league. What was that like for you?
CP: I did some things with the officials, Al Riveron and those guys. I really enjoyed it, to tell the truth. It was my football ‘fix.’ Anytime you coach for 33, 34 years and then you all of a sudden don’t have it, nothing to do in the Fall, it was my football ‘fix’ to have the ability to be around the game in some capacity. It wasn’t coaching but I was able to watch a bunch of tape on all the games, and to learn the roles and how difficult the officiating part is.
Everybody’s got really tough jobs. You get a great appreciation for the jobs those guys have to do. It helped me understand the rules a little bit better, especially replay and all that kind of stuff. So it was good for me.
NBCSC: And it’ll make you nicer to officials now, right?
CP: [Laughs] Yeah, they deserve it. It’s a tough gig they’ve got.”
NBCSC: Players always have to prove themselves to the coach. Coming into this team, this defense, do you have a feeling coming into a unit like this, that it was a little of the opposite, that you have to prove yourself to the players?
CP: No doubt about it. There’s going to be high expectations for anybody coming into this. But absolutely. And I have great respect for coach Fangio. I’ve known Vic for a long time and he’s done a phenomenal job for a long time, calling defenses, building this defense, working with coach Nagy.
But anytime you come in, you’ve got to look at, ‘Here’s what the expectations are and I’ve gotta prove myself.’ I think it’s a challenge we all face and address and embrace. It’s not the thing that keeps you up at night, but I understand what the expectations are.
And we’ve got a bunch of really good football players and assistant coaches, and if we keep working like we’ve been working, get lucky and stay healthy, things’ll work out.
NBCSC: How did coming to the Bears feel compared to when you went into Baltimore, as DB coach? There you knew Ray [Lewis] and Ed [Reed] from ‘The U’ [Miami], but here you don’t know the guys. Easier to go into that group, vs. now coming in as the D-coordinator, the top guy?
CP: Going into that situation with coach [John] Harbaugh back in 2008, I did know Ed from coaching him in college, plus Samari Rolle, Chris McAlister. They had a bunch of great players on that entire defense on the back end.
Coming into that situation, I did have to earn the trust and respect of that unit, just like I do now. It’s what you do day in and day out. Talk is cheap unless you walk the walk, unless you earn their respect and trust, build relationships. They’re looking to see, ‘OK, can this guy help me? Help me get to that next contract, get to a championship level?’ whatever the question may be.
It’s definitely a process. I had to do it in Baltimore at the highest level and it’s no different here. You’ve gotta earn their respect, earn their trust.