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.
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.
Ravens defensive coordinator Pagano thrives under pressure
Those who know him say fiery Pagano was made to face challenges like the one Brady and the Patriots will present Sunday
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