Image copyright: Guilford Atticus
He was the backup who became a folk hero, the jock who became a pastor, the pastor who became a 45-year-old intern, willing to scrub toilets if that’s what it took to scratch that football itch of his after eight years away from the game.
Even as a second-stringer, he was respected enough to counsel Jim Kelly; even as an unproven position coach, he was sharp enough to tutor Peyton Manning; even after the Philadelphia Eagles were left for dead this fall, their star quarterback sidelined, he was shrewd enough to lift Nick Foles from stopgap into Patriots-slayer.
All the while, lest we forget: He was overlooked enough to get passed over, and passed over, and passed over, for the head-coaching job he’s long craved.
The sweat of discipline and the hard work of repetition always precedes the thrill of spontaneity in any pursuit of life.
In those 21 words are Frank Reich’s career. He’s had the quote on his desk for 30 years now. There’s a certain sense of spontaneity a backup quarterback must accept: You toil in the shadows until you’re suddenly asked to become a savior. You don’t know when it will come, if it will come. Reich knows this better than most. He spent the bulk of his 14-year NFL career holding a clipboard.
If it was spontaneity – not to mention the 11th hour defection of Josh McDaniels – that brought the Indianapolis Colts and Frank Reich together, he hardly bats an eye at the serendipity of it all. His wife doesn’t. “Divine intervention,” Linda Reich calls it. It was five months ago the two of them decided he wouldn’t chase any head-coaching jobs this season. He stayed true to his words during the playoffs. “No calls, no texts,” he warned his agent.
Back in his playing days, Reich would wear a leather jacket with a bible verse stitched to the sleeve. “Have no anxiety about anything,” it read. Now he was living it.
Seven NFL teams had head-coaching vacancies last month. Reich didn’t interview for one.
Instead he molded Foles, like himself a career backup, into the Philadelphia Eagles’ savior. The Colts noticed. The entire NFL noticed. Then that spontaneity arrived. Not two hours after McDaniels backed out of an oral agreement with Indianapolis, stunning an organization that had waited weeks to make his hiring official, Reich’s phone buzzed. It was his agent. The Colts had a mulligan, and they wanted him to interview for the job.
Reich had been on General Manager Chris Ballard’s original list of candidates; he’d been left off when Ballard trimmed it to five. “My Lord, what was I thinking?” Ballard’s been asking himself the past few days.
The minute the interview ended, Ballard knew. Reich was the guy, should’ve been the guy all along. From second choice on the depth chart to second choice as head coach. “The backup role has suited me well in my career,” was how Reich put it this week, smiling confidently.
The man’s been debunking football myths for 30 years. Backup QBs can’t play? Look up the biggest comeback in NFL history.
Nice guys finish last? Not after they win the Super Bowl.
The son of schoolteachers, steel town tough and grounded in faith, Frank Reich learned the game from his father, a two-way player at Penn State who blocked for Lenny Moore, fought in Korea and retired from coaching so he could watch his son from the stands. Frank Reich, Sr. wasn’t like most football dads. He’d sit stoically in the bleachers, rarely raising his voice.
Maybe that’s where his son got it: As a quarterback, Frank Reich was unshakable, a coach under center who knew no panic and never met a deficit he couldn’t erase. Mostly a backup to Boomer Esiason during his four seasons at Maryland, Reich’s college career can be distilled into one, magical half of football: Trailing 31-zip at Miami his senior year, Reich took over after intermission and led the Terrapins to a 42-40 victory that for 22 years stood as the biggest comeback in college football history.
Reich wasn’t done with the miracle comeback.
He lasted 14 years in the NFL, and for a decade in Buffalo was the backup and trusted confidant of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. The two made for an odd couple: Kelly was the rowdy, jawing brawler, Reich the quiet, bible-toting future pastor. “Kelly was the guy you wanted backing you up in a street fight,” The Buffalo News once wrote. “Reich was the guy you wanted dating your sister.”
A friendship bloomed. An offense boomed. Reich was one of the brains behind the K-Gun, Buffalo’s famous no-huddle scheme that left defenses wheezing and pulled the Bills to four straight Super Bowls. While Kelly was the cannon-armed star, Reich was his dutiful sounding board, “short on ego and long on class,” The News wrote.
“Of all the players, and of all the coaches, Frank was by far the best at handling Jim,” says Bills Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. “He would calm him down, and Jim needed that. I knew back then – it was obvious to me – that Frank was going to be a head coach in the National Football League someday. You just saw it.”
Most of the other Bills saw it, too. They’d openly discuss it in the locker room. Here was Reich, average athlete – “during training camp, he couldn’t even touch his toes, he was stiff as a board,” laughs another former Bill, Steve Tasker – but was as selfless and cerebral as they came. At one point, in his career, the quarterback room grew crowded and the Bills left Reich with an ultimatum: Take a $250,000 pay cut or find a new team to play for. Reich stayed. Good thing he did.
He played scout team quarterback most weeks in practice, absorbing new offenses in a matter of days, adding to his deepening reservoir of football knowledge, preparing for the spontaneous moment his name would be called. When it did, he filled in ably. He won his first five starts.
But none came in the playoffs, not until January 3, 1993. Kelly sprained his knee in the regular season finale, just as the slumping Bills were set to chase a third straight trip to the Super Bowl. Reich was up. A week later, they trailed the Oilers 35-3 early in the third quarter.
Then it was Maryland-Miami all over again. Reich threw four second-half touchdowns. The Bills won in overtime. His legend was cemented.
Nine years after leading the biggest comeback in college football history, Reich had one-upped himself in the pros. He’d led the biggest comeback in NFL history. And in the process, showed everyone just how great an offensive mind he had.
“I remember a moment in that game, we’ve got a huge fourth down coming up, and Frank, Jim and (coach) Marv Levy were all huddled on the sideline, deciding what to do,” remembers Bills safety Mark Kelso. “The three of them were just standing there, looking at each other, when Frank says, ‘I know what play we need to run.’ They sort of just looked at him and said, ‘You know what, that actually might work.’ And it did.”
Reich started the next week. The Bills won again. He slid back to the sideline without complaint a week later when Kelly returned for the AFC Championship. The Bills won again. From left for dead, trailing by 32 in the third quarter of the playoff opener, to a third straight Super Bowl. The mettle Reich showed then would serve him well as an offensive coordinator 25 years later.
He rolled the dice on his career in 1995, signing with the expansion Carolina Panthers, reuniting with the man who’d drafted him, Bill Polian, and chasing his dream of becoming a full-time starter. It never panned out. Reich lasted four years after he left Buffalo, bouncing from Carolina to New York to Detroit, his best days long behind him.
But Bills fans never forgot. Reich’s legend lived on, and he became the embodiment of the city’s never-say-die temperament. By the time it was all over, The Buffalo News tapped him – not Kelly, not Thomas, not Andre Reed, not Bruce Smith – “Buffalo’s most beloved sports figure of the decade.”
When he stepped away from football in 1998, Polian was among the first to call. He was the new general manager in Indianapolis, and he wanted Reich to join the coaching staff, to come work with the young quarterback he was drafting out of Tennessee.
Reich demurred. He wasn’t ready for Peyton Manning yet.
“I feel like I was meant to be a teacher,” Reich has said. “And the only two things I felt qualified to teach were the bible and football.”
Before the game pulled him back in, Reich spent eight years in ministry, catching up on life at home and spreading his faith to anyone that would listen.
He became president of a theological seminary, then pastor of a church outside of Charlotte. He drove the family carpool, went to his daughters’ swim meets and traveled the country, the former football player-turned-pastor, doing something he and Linda always felt like they were supposed to do.
“I wouldn’t trade any day of that experience,” Reich said this week. “The time with the family, the time in seminary has helped shape me to be the coach I am today.”
Away from football for five, six, seven, eventually eight years, it finally began to gnaw at him. Reich missed it.
“The ministry is something we both have always had a passion for,” Linda Reich said. “It’s who we are. We love our faith, we love our community, we love helping people. But deep down, I always thought he’d get back into the game at some point.”
He called Polian. Told him he’d do whatever it took – that included cleaning toilets – to get back into football.
In Indianapolis, he watched Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell run their program, Peyton Manning conduct his offense and Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne do their thing. He rose from intern to quality control coach to full-fledged assistant. Soon enough he had the job some contend was the easiest in the NFL, others the most demanding: He became Manning’s QB coach. The hours were long. The questions never stopped.
Make no mistake: Manning made him work.
“You’ve got to bring your A game every day, at every practice,” Reich said of Manning. “He’s going to ask some tough questions in the classroom. As a coach, you better know the answer. And if you don’t, you better be able to figure it out pretty fast.”
Reich figured it out. He could handle Jim Kelly. He could handle Peyton Manning. And in the process, he earned the QB’s trust.
“He is a tireless worker, he is a grinder,” Manning said of Reich in 2010. “He is a guy that is going to be (at the facility) late at night. He and I text each other all the time. ‘Hey, check out the Buffalo game, play No. 40. That is a look we might see.’ I like that. I like a guy that’s constantly got football on his mind.”
“Frank grew into his own voice, and Peyton really started to respect that,” says Tasker, an NFL analyst for CBS who remains close with Reich. “Peyton respected his intellect, and that’s saying something. When you’re talking football with Peyton, you’re talking PhD, rocket science-level football. As a coach, I think Peyton realized how important Frank was to him.
“And I think Andrew Luck will learn that, too.”
Reich coached the Colts receivers in 2011 – “He made me better every day,” Wayne says – before the Colts’ franchise overhaul after the season sent him looking for work. He landed in Arizona, tutored Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals wideouts for a year, then spent three seasons in San Diego helping Philip Rivers to some of the best years of his career. “A heck of a football coach and an even better man,” Rivers says of Reich.
His best work came as the offensive coordinator the last two years in Philadelphia. Reich lobbied the Eagles to draft a quarterback out of North Dakota State named Carson Wentz; after 11 weeks this season Wentz was the leading candidate for MVP. And when Wentz went down, victim of a torn ACL in mid-December, Reich was left with Foles, who a year earlier had lost his love for the game and contemplated retirement. Six games later he was Super Bowl MVP. Reich’s unit had dropped 41 on New England.
The sweat of discipline and the hard work of repetition always precedes the thrill of spontaneity in any pursuit of life.
Forty-eight hours later McDaniels left the Colts at the altar. Reich’s phone buzzed. You toil in the shadows until you’re suddenly asked to be a savior.
Image copyright: IndyStar
“When I heard that McDaniels did what he did, a bell went off in my head,” Tasker says. “I knew Frank was going to rise to the top of that list very quickly. And honestly, I think is a much better fit. My advice to Ballard and Mr. Irsay: Support Frank until he figures it out, because he will. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but if you stick with him long enough, he’s going to figure it out. You’re going to have a Super Bowl program.”
The central question in Indianapolis, same as it’s been for the last 14 months: Luck’s shoulder. Reich didn’t even ask about in in the interview. Ballard was floored.
Asked about it two days later as the Colts introduced their new head coach, Reich didn’t flinch.
“I just came off a team where we lost our franchise quarterback,” he said, “and still won the Super Bowl.”
That, in Ballard’s mind, was Frank Reich dropping the mic, erasing any doubt as to who should’ve been his first choice all along.