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Beloit native makes the biggest stage in the sporting world

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THOMAS J. MILLER
February 6, 2010

The beautiful people will be out in force at Sunday’s Super Bowl in Miami.


Movie stars, rock stars—this year The Who will leave the retirement home to play at halftime—and other celebrities will get their share of camera time between plays.


But sometime during the 3½-hour-plus game, the CBS cameras could pan on a sign held by an older gentleman in the stands.


It will read: “Beloit, Wis., Our Jim Caldwell.”


John Heineke will be holding the sign. Heineke coached football at Beloit Memorial High School for 33 years.


Jim Caldwell played for Heineke for three seasons. Caldwell graduated in 1973, earning a scholarship to play at the University of Iowa.


After college, he got into coaching. Sunday, he will be on the sidelines of Sun Life Stadium in Miami, directing the Indianapolis Colts against the New Orleans Saints.


“Beloit has produced an incredible amount of athletes,” says Gene Van Galder, who was an assistant coach when Caldwell went to Beloit Memorial and has kept in contact with him through the years. “But this is a whole different stage.”


It’s probably the biggest annual stage in the sporting world.


Heineke and Van Galder could never have predicted that the young Caldwell would someday be head coach of a Super Bowl team. Looking back, however, both say Caldwell displayed coolness and maturity not usually associated with high school students.


Heineke promoted Caldwell and two fellow sophomores to the varsity football team.


Caldwell played both running back and defensive back in high school.


“That was a special group,” Heineke said of that talented Class of ’73.


Caldwell was memorable.


“He was focused,” Heineke said. “He had a lot of the same qualities he has now. He was businesslike. He was very quiet. He wasn’t really a holler guy. He let his performance do his talking.”


Caldwell helped the Purple Knights to an undefeated football season, and he was a starting guard on the basketball team that won the Class A state title. In the spring, he was a sprinter on the track and field team. He finished third at the state meet in the 400.


Van Galder was an assistant under the late Bernie Barkin on the Purple Knights’ basketball team at that time. Van Galder echoed Heineke’s assessment that Caldwell’s major attributes were his ability to stay focused and lead by example.


“Not surprisingly, he was always a coach on the field,” Van Galder said.


The University of Iowa outrecruited Wisconsin for Caldwell. He was a four-year starter in the secondary for the Hawkeyes. He was selected as a co-captain his senior season.


When he graduated with an English major, Caldwell became a graduate assistant on the Hawkeyes’ staff in 1977.


That began what is now a 33-year coaching career. The coaches he has worked under are as impressive as his rise to his current job.


Caldwell’s former bosses include Dennis Green, Bill McCartney, Howard Schnellenberger and Joe Paterno.


He worked under Paterno from 1986 through 1992. In 1993, he decided to move up to a head-coaching job at Wake Forest. He became the first black coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference.


Even though Wake Forest had one of the worst college football programs at the time, Caldwell decided to take the job.


Heineke had the opportunity to work with Caldwell at several Penn State summer camps, and he got to know Paterno. The veteran Nittany Lion coach told Heineke that Caldwell was making a mistake taking the job.


“He called Wake Forest the graveyard of college coaches,” Heineke said.


In eight years as the Demon Deacons’ coach, Caldwell had just one winning season. Wake Forest went 7-5 in 1999 and won the Alamo Bowl.


But Wake Forest went just 2-9 in 2000, and Caldwell was fired.


Caldwell’s faith and confidence got him through that rough time.


“When something like that happens, you have to maintain a certain amount of confidence that you can do it,” Van Galder said. “You have to know you can do a good job. You have to have confidence in yourself when things are not going too well.”


The firing led to a road that eventually led to the Indianapolis job.


Caldwell joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff as quarterbacks coach in 2001. Tony Dungy was the head coach.


When Dungy left Tampa Bay and took over as head coach in Indianapolis the next season, he took Caldwell along.


When Dungy knew he would likely be leaving the coaching ranks in 2008, he told the front office that Caldwell should be his successor. Caldwell was named associate head coach, and when Dungy made his retirement official after last season, Caldwell took over.


Now Heineke, who spent this winter in Panama City Beach, Fla., will be in the stands Sunday, courtesy of one of his former players.


“We’re very proud of him,” Heineke said of Caldwell. “I have five daughters. I never got to coach a son. But Jimmy is one of my boys.”


Heineke is bringing a sign along Sunday to emphasize that point.



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