The two-a-day practices were always fun because there was so much for an 8-year-old to do. There were cones to set up, tackling dummies to wrestle with, footballs to gather and water bottles to squirt. Young Chuck Pagano did it all for his father, spending hours under the Colorado sun.
But some of the boy's best nights — and fondest memories — came when his father, a football lifer if there ever was one, returned home in the early evening, carrying a projector in one hand and game film in the other. Chuck and his younger brother, John, were entertained for hours.
"I'd bring the heavy projector home, put a sheet up on the wall and they'd watch film," said Sam Pagano. "I'd just let them go. That was their foundation. That's what they wanted to do."
Sam Pagano coached for 21 years at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., and for several more seasons in Europe. He warned his oldest son many times about the demands of the profession, about the highs and the lows and the immense pressure. He also knew there was no use standing in his way.
Chuck Pagano was hooked. He wanted to be a football coach, largely because he loved taking on challenges like the one he and his proud defense will face Sunday. As the Ravens prepare to take on the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium with the AFC Championship and a berth in the Super Bowl on the line, it will be largely up to Pagano, the team's first-year defensive coordinator, to find a way to slow down quarterback Tom Brady and his high-powered offense.
"Our guys understand what lies ahead of us," Pagano said today. "I would definitely have to say, this is the No.1 [challenge]."
Those who know Pagano, who have crossed paths or worked with him during his near three decades as a coach at nine different stops at the pro and college levels, maintain that he's just the man for the job.
"When you watch the film, you don't get any reinforcements. It's intense. Brady is always completing balls, he's always getting the guys in the best possible play that they can be in," said Larry Coyer, a long-time NFL coach who was relieved of his duties as the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator in late November. Coyer coached with Pagano at East Carolina University in 1992. "This becomes a deal where you have to battle it out and go with your gut, and that's Chucky's strength. He'll do it. He's going to be fired up and ready to go."
Pagano, 51, has spent the week watching hours of video, being extremely vocal at practice and joking around with coaches and players. In other words, he's been himself despite his admission Thursday that "there's a lot of people in New England right now keeping me up at night."
"He's still got his sense of humor, he's still got his biting wit. I don't think Chuck is going to change regardless of the game," said Ravens assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who also coached with Pagano in Cleveland. "It could be a junior high game and he'd be the same way. He'd be coaching hard and making comments that get your attention."
Under Pagano's leadership, the Ravens have maintained their standard of defensive excellence. They finished the regular season ranked third overall in total defense, second in rush defense, fourth in pass defense, third in points allowed per game and first in red-zone defense. They also ranked first in the AFC with 48 sacks, 21 more than they had last season under defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who left following the season to take a job at the University of Michigan.
At his introductory news conference in January, Pagano, the Ravens' secondary coach the previous three seasons, promised to "wreak havoc" and the team has responded to his aggressive and up-tempo style. In a 20-13 victory over the Houston Texans last week, the Ravens forced four turnovers and pitched a shutout in the second half. But Pagano and the Ravens' defense know that they are going to have to play even better Sunday.
"Chuck expects us to do great things," said safety Bernard Pollard. "He's taking this moment, man. We don't get this a lot. You don't get to play in this AFC championship all the time. He's taking this opportunity and he's running with it."
Butch Davis, who had Pagano on his staff for 10 years — first at the University of Miami, then with the NFL's Browns and then at the University of North Carolina — said that his former coaching pupil does some of his best work under fire.
Davis remembered the 2000 Sugar Bowl when his Miami team was forced to deal with the University of Florida and Steve Spurrier's Fun-N'Gun offense. Pagano, then the Hurricanes' secondary coach, called the defensive plays for the game after the team's defensive coordinator Greg Schiano left the program in November to take the head coaching job at Rutgers.
"He was obsessed with making sure the team was prepared," said Davis, whose team won the game, 37-20. "Chuck is going to be prepared for [the Patriots]. One of the things about coaching in college, you see dramatically different schemes and styles. One week, it's the wishbone. One week, it's the spread. The next week, it's the power-I. You're forced to make a lot of adjustments. This is a huge challenge, but Chuck is smart and he's going to give his team a chance to play great defense against [Brady]."
Steeped in the game
Pagano has a long list of coaching mentors, from Dave Wannstedt, who he worked with as a graduate assistant at the University of Southern California, to Coyer and Davis, to Mattison and Rex and Rob Ryan, who he coached alongside in Oakland and Baltimore respectively.
But his coaching foundation was laid during so many days and nights spent talking football and watching game film with his father, Sam, and younger brother, John, who was named the defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers two weeks ago. Their mother, Diana, said the sessions would go on for hours and when the film was over, they'd rewind it and watch it again.
The three still get together in Colorado every offseason to run the Mile High Football Camp, which Sam Pagano started 36 years ago.
"It was about Friday Night Lights for us as a football family," said John, the Chargers' linebacker coach for 10 seasons before the recent promotion. "We were part of my dad's job and we loved Fairview football. We were ball boys, water boys. Those were good times. We both learned a lot from him with the discipline and the hard work and truly gaining an understanding of what it takes to be a winner."
When a young Chuck Pagano wasn't on the football field helping out, he was shuttling back-and-forth to coaches' offices or even doing drills down the hall at Fairview High.
"I had a college friend that used to come over, Pat Culpepper, and he had him doing this shimmy drill, shuffling up and down the hall, moving his feet, extending his arms into the wall," Sam Pagano said. "He wanted to make a name for himself."
With Chuck as his starting safety in 1978, Sam won one of his three state high school championships.
"When I say he knocked people out, it was the kinds of hits where they wouldn't get up," said Sam, who recently gave his oldest son film of a game where Chuck knocked out two people. "He's got that one stored. He should probably put it on DVD but he's been too busy."
Chuck Pagano walked on to the football team at the University of Wyoming and was a two-year starter. But he joked that his playing career officially ended the second he finished his 40-yard dash on his Pro Day.
He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at USC. He then went to Miami, Boise State, East Carolina, UNLV and had second stints at East Carolina and Miami before Davis gave him his first NFL shot with the Browns.
"If you are around Chuck, you see all the fire and the emotion, but I think one thing that is his greatest trait is his attention to detail," Davis said. "You're always impressed that he leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to stop people. He's not a screamer, a rant-or-rave type guy. But he is vocal. He's kind of a flea on a hot brick type of deal, bouncing around from one player to the next. He doesn't let attention to detail slack. He's not one of the guys that stands on the sideline with his clipboard and arms crossed. For the 10 years he worked for me, he was always involved."
Davis still remembers the group of University of Miami players that used to congregate around Pagano's office. Among those players was a young safety named Ed Reed, whose relationship with Pagano dates back to when he was 17 years old and being recruited to Coral Gables.
"Chuck has been like a father figure to me," Reed said. "He's really been like that to a lot of guys around here, too."
Count middle linebacker Ray Lewis on that list: "He's a man's man and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him," Lewis said earlier this season.
Pagano's greatest asset, his former coaching colleagues and current players, say is his ability to mix intensity and preparation with some good old-fashioned humor.
"He's an older coach but he has a young soul," said Ravens cornerback Chris Carr, who also played under Pagano in Oakland. "He seems like he is younger than he is. He can relate to us. He's still up on the lingo. He has young kids, too, that are in college and high school. He knows what he's talking about and he definitely knows what he's doing. We definitely respect his football knowledge and as a coach, you have to have that first and foremost."
Cornerback Lardarius Webb said that Pagano's chatter never stops, whether it's at practice or during games. A three-yard gain by the opposition prompts the seemingly endless refrain of "Too much, too much," from Pagano on the sideline, according to Webb
But he certainly knows how to let down his guard, too. There are stories about the college-aged Pagano commandeering the P.A. system on team flights and entertaining his Wyoming teammates. There was the "Cabbage Patch" dance that he used to do during Miami's team stretch to lessen the tension. Coyer remembers his endless trash talk after racquetball games and when Pagano used to offer to send a car to pick up his "beaten" opponent the following day.
Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo tweeted out a picture yesterday of Pagano, wearing a Ravens' helmet, sweat shirt and jeans, crouched in the middle of the room making a menacing face.
Already this season, Pagano has called Jacksonville Jaguars' running back Maurice Jones-Drew a "rolling ball of butcher knives" and compared facing the Chargers' receivers to playing the Los Angeles Lakers. Thursday, he said that that ball looks like a Twinkie in the hands of Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski and said Patriots' receiver Wes Walker has "feet like a shore bird."
But his session with reporters ended with Pagano reminding reporters just how much is at stake Sunday.
"First thing I told them back in July was 32 teams are all getting together today, and there are 32 defensive coordinators and head coaches talking to their teams about winning [the Super Bowl]," Pagano said. "'There's a handful that realistically have a chance, and there's a handful that have no chance.' So here we sit, 60 minutes away from the show, from the dance."
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