INDIANAPOLIS – Michael Pittman Jr. has a portion of his Sunday laid out.
When the veteran wide receiver strolls onto the playing field at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., he’ll seek out Frank Reich.
Pittman will shake his former coach’s hand and share a hug prior to the Indianapolis Colts’ meeting with Reich’s Carolina Panthers. That scene will be repeated roughly three hours later.
“I have love for Frank,’’ Pittman said Friday afternoon. “Frank is the coach that drafted me and gave me my first chance. But between the first handshake and the last handshake, we ain’t friends. But after, we’re friends again.’’
Pittman won’t be the only Colt to engage Reich at a personal level. A group hug might be more appropriate and certainly quicker.
Things ended badly between the Colts and Reich on that late Nov. 6 night following the team’s uncompetitive 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Foxboro. It was a third consecutive setback that dropped them to dropped them to 3-5-1.
After what was described as a “spirited’’ meeting with general manager Chris Ballard, owner Jim Irsay decided to fire Reich and replace him with franchise icon and ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday.
Players remained supportive of Reich in the days following the unprecedented move – Irsay had never fired a coach mid-season since taking control of the franchise in 1995 – but rallied around Saturday as best they could considering the difficult situation.
That affection for Reich remains and will flow freely before and after kickoff. The reunion comes nearly one year to the day from Reich’s last game as the Colts’ head coach (Nov. 6) and the first time he faces them (Nov. 5). He was named the Panthers’ head coach on Jan. 26.
From Jonathan Taylor: “We have business to handle, but you just talk about a great person, that’s coach Frank. He is someone who would sit down with you, find out about your family, your background, what makes you go, what makes you tick.’’
From Ryan Kelly: “I love Frank. He really helped me out and was a good mentor when I was going through some tough times myself.’’
On Dec. 17, 2021, Mary Kate, the infant daughter of Kelly and wife Emma, passed away. Reich was one of many in the organization who guided the Kellys through their personal tragedy.
“He’s a great man, a man of faith, which I really respected,’’ Kelly said. “Great family guy. Every player you ask will talk about him like that.’’
From DeForest Buckner: “He is one of the greatest men I have ever met. I always use moment because that’s the moment that really solidified my relationship with Frank – back in 2020 when I got baptized, I wasn’t expecting any coaches or anybody to be there besides really my family.
“I had a bunch of teammates that showed up and a bunch of coaches. Frank was one of them. It just showed me there was a lot more beyond football. My head coach took the time out of his day during the bye week to come watch me get baptized and had some really encouraging words.’’
And from Zaire Franklin: “Ah, man, first impressions – just a genuine person, very down to Earth, humble, competitive. Knew he was a Pennsylvania guy like myself, Big-33 alum like myself. I think that was something we connected on early.’’
As Taylor mentioned, it’s a business trip for the Colts. After a 3-2 start, they’ve dropped three straight and the season could spiral into an unpleasant place if the losing streak continues.
But there’s no denying the emotions that exist between one team’s players and the opposing team’s head coach.
Irsay gave Reich his first head coaching position in February 2018. There were very good times – 10-6, a playoff appearance and postseason win at Houston in ’18; 11-5 and another wild-card berth in ’20 – but too many failures, according to Irsay. The well-documented quarterback carousel following Andrew Luck’s retirement in 2019 exacerbated everything.
Reich compiled a 41-35-1 overall record in four-plus seasons.
“You never like to make a change, much less during the season,’’ Irsay said at the time. “It’s not ideal. In Chris and I talking, we saw things collapse and I’ve seen things go from bad to worse and I thought it was time and it was necessary to make the change.’’
But he also praised his former head coach.
“He’s a winning head coach,’’ Irsay said. “If anyone wants to diminish anything that coach did, you’d be wrong because your opinion really doesn’t matter. Honest to God, not only is Frank an outstanding character man, he’s a great coach. Are you kidding me? That’s obvious.’’
His reunion with the Colts was brought up during Reich’s press conference with the Panthers’ media. He quickly downplayed the revenge factor.
“For some people when that happens, it means more in a vengeful way,’’ he said. “I don’t look at it that way. Motivated? Yes. Highly motivated? Yes. But it’s just a different perspective. Both can be true. It’s just another game, but you understand it’s a different dynamic. I don’t want to stand up here and make this a personal thing, because it’s not. This is the next game.’’
Reich insisted he harbors no bitterness for the Colts.
His emotions still were raw and he was more open when he talked with FOX59/CBS4 a few days after his termination. He and his wife Linda were packing up to head back to North Carolina for an unexpected visit with his children and grandchildren.
Reich said he received the career-altering call from Irsay at “about 10:45’’ the Monday morning after the loss to the Patriots.
“There’s disappointment and hurt,’’ he said. “It hurts. It hurts to have it happen in the middle of the season. But I understand the business side of things. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Irsay and I’ve come to trust his instincts and his knowledge of the game. I just know he’s doing what he thinks is best for his team. I can live with that. I gave my heart and soul to the job, to the guys, to everything I did there. It’s hard to get fired and walk away with a great respect for the Irsays, for Chris Ballard, for the team.’’
He stressed the deep connections he had developed with the team.
“The great thing is you don’t lose those relationships,’’ Reich said. “I’ll never lose the relationship I have with Chris, with the players on that team, with the Irsays. It was a great experience.’’
Coaching reunions are a byproduct of the NFL.
Shane Steichen replaced Reich. They were together with the San Diego Chargers in 2014-15.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Frank,’’ Steichen said. “Very intelligent football coach, understands the game. But even a better human being. The two years I was with him out there in San Diego, just the wisdom he brought being a former player, his leadership abilities.’’
Sunday marks the fourth time since 1984 the Colts will square off against a former head coach.
They faced Detroit’s Jim Caldwell in the 2016 season opener (a 39-35 loss) and Baltimore’s Ted Marchibroda in 1996 (a 26-21 win) and ’98 (a 38-31 loss).
Caldwell coached the Colts from 2009-11 and took them to Super Bowl XLIV after the ’09 season. Marchibroda had two stints with the Colts: 1975-79 in Baltimore and 1992-95 in Indy.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.