OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Chuck Pagano is a man still loved and revered in Baltimore's locker room. Pagano was the Ravens' defensive backs coach from 2008-2010 before assuming defensive coordinator duties in 2011. His unit ranked among the NFL's best, which gave him the opportunity to become the head coach in Indianapolis.
But there's still admiration for Pagano even though he's wearing another team's colors. And Sunday, Pagano will face his former team for the first time in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
"I'm sure the fans are going to welcome him," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "We're going to love him, we're going to embrace him."
It's a compelling story for the Ravens, who still consider Pagano a member of their extended family even though he no longer resides near Baltimore. When Pagano began battling leukemia after his diagnosis during Indianapolis' bye week, many Ravens players sent him text messages to keep up with his progress.
Defensive end Arthur Jones shaved his head in support of the coach, who missed the majority of the season on the sideline because of his disease. But Pagano was cleared to coach again before Week 17's game against Houston, which the Colts won 28-16.
"Coach Pagano is a great coach," Jones said. "He was a guy I grew to love. He brought a passion to the locker room when he was here. He was a guy I loved playing for. Unfortunately, now we're battling for the same thing. There's no joint champion in the Super Bowl. There's only one true champion. We're fighting for the same thing and unfortunately it's against the Colts."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh also has stayed in touch with Pagano during his recovery as Pagano remains one of Harbaugh's closer friends in the coaching community. Yet, now he has to prepare to play against him in a win-or-go-home scenario.
"It's a big deal," Harbaugh said. "Relationships are important but by the same token, it's a game. They are the opponent, and right now, they are just the opponent. That's what we are going to compete against."
Pagano is known as a quintessential players coach. Multiple times during last season's run to the AFC championship game, Ravens players would say that Pagano was one of them, that his style of coaching suited their style of play. Pagano has been a hit in Indianapolis, too, with the Colts turning their 2011 misfortune into an 11-5 season a year later.
When Pagano returns to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, it'll be with a heavy heart. He would have overcome a disease to return to the stadium he used to coach in.
"It's going to be special," Pagano said in a conference call Wednesday. "I love all those guys. I have great relationships with so many people in that organization. They were so good to me and my family. I wouldn't be sitting where I'm at today if John Harbaugh hadn't given me the opportunity to join him when he first was hired as a head football coach there."
With Pagano one year removed from the Ravens organization, there's a school of thought that the Colts could be more familiar with what the Ravens want to do on both sides of the ball.
Pagano even said as such, since there hasn't been any coaching turnover in Baltimore either. Replacing Pagano at defensive coordinator was Dean Pees, who was the linebackers coach. The defensive system has been tweaked, but Pagano still sees similarities in the base package.
Take into account Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' familiarity with Baltimore dating to his coaching days with Pittsburgh, and the Colts would appear to have more experience with Baltimore than one may think.
"We've got an advantage as far as what you are talking about because of Bruce's familiarity," Pagano told the Indianapolis media Monday. "So when he pops on the tape, even though it's a new coordinator, that system has been in place a long, long time, going back to 2000."
Conversely, the same could be said about the Ravens. Harbaugh, hired as Baltimore's head coach in 2008, is just as familiar with Pagano and Arians as those two are with him.
"It's a two-way street," Harbaugh said.
Advantage or not, the dynamic of Pagano being back in Baltimore is a compelling storyline, especially considering Baltimore fans loathe the Colts. The hatred stems from the Colts organization leaving Baltimore for Indianapolis in the middle of the night of March 28, 1984.
Though the city still has disdain for the Colts, there's much respect for Pagano from players and fans. Ravens safety Ed Reed thinks of Pagano as more than a coach. In addition to playing under him for four years in Baltimore, Pagano was his defensive backs coach in college at the University of Miami. The two had a bond in Baltimore, which allowed Reed to be an extension of Pagano on the football field.
"He's like a dad to me," Reed said. "That's family, which is first before football."