Frank Reich sculpted a playing career out of waiting, his patience interrupted only by fleeting feats of the miraculous. Reich made an indelible mark in the sport’s history — twice — and yet he was always someone’s second choice. He mastered the mundane in the service of others, preparing endlessly each week for tests he knew somebody else would take.
“You’re not the guy,” Reich said. “But you’re there to support the guy.”
The manner in which Reich became the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts this past offseason fit perfectly into the rest of his career, a coincidence part comic and part cosmic. The Colts announced they had hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, only for McDaniels to back out of the agreement. As a quarterback, Reich had been perhaps the best second choice in football history. The Colts are betting he can pull off the trick once more as their coach.
Reich will lead the Colts into FedEx Field on Sunday to face the Washington Redskins, in charge of rebuilding a damaged quarterback and a broken franchise. The Colts finished 4-12 last season and haven’t made the playoffs since the 2014 season. Andrew Luck’s battered throwing shoulder threatened his career and sidelined him all of last season. The Colts have a shaky defense and a thin corps of skill players around Luck, whose Week 1 performance in a loss to Cincinnati provided promise he has returned to health but didn’t eliminate the challenges facing the team.
After an improbable playing career, Reich has embarked on an improbable coaching rise. For eight years after he retired, he worked in ministry and coached sparingly as a part-time high school assistant to his brother. For his first full-time job, he was Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach. Maryland, his alma mater, passed him over two years ago — he was the school’s second choice. Now, 10 years after he started, Reich is an NFL head coach.
“I never could have predicted this path,” Reich said. “It’s crazy. It’s fun. My attitude was, just go in there and work hard and enjoy the moment. Don’t try to be a climber. Don’t try to be that guy who’s always looking to get the next job.”
Old for a first-time head coach at 56, Reich is at the vanguard of offensive innovation in the NFL. As the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, he nurtured young quarterback Carson Wentz, helped install an offense reliant on run-pass option plays for backup Nick Foles and implemented “Philly Special,” the now-iconic trick play the Eagles used for a touchdown on fourth down during their Super Bowl victory.
For a player who spent so many Saturdays and Sundays as a spectator, Reich holds a remarkable distinction. At Maryland, Reich led the Terrapins back from a 31-0 deficit at Miami after being inserted at halftime, which stood for 22 years as the biggest comeback in the history of big-time college football. In the NFL, in place of the injured Jim Kelly, Reich lifted Buffalo to a playoff victory over the Houston Oilers after the Bills trailed 35-3, which remains the largest comeback in NFL history. The same guy owned both records, and in neither case was he his team’s preferred quarterback.
“You’ve always got to believe in athletics that you can do something like this,” Reich said after the Miami game, almost 34 years ago. “People might not understand how, but I honestly believed we could. If we all didn’t believe, it couldn’t have happened.”
Reich’s years as a backup shaped his coaching outlook and, in many ways, gave him a head start. He learned how to see the game through somebody else’s eyes, how to prepare not only himself but others. Kelly, a Hall of Famer, once told Buffalo Coach Marv Levy, “I never would have been the quarterback I was if not for Frank.”
“He understands how exactly all the pieces fit together in order to build a winning team,” said Bill Polian, who was Buffalo’s general manager for part of Reich’s time there. “He subjugated his own desires to be a starting quarterback because he understood the value of his position, which in those days was the best backup quarterback in the NFL.”
As a coach, Polian said, Reich will be more analytical than fiery. He is not a screamer, not a coach whose halftime speech will scrape paint off the walls. But he still can motivate, even inspire, players. But how can Reich be both reserved and inspiring?
“Sincerity,” Polian said. “Eloquence and sincerity. You can be eloquent and insincere. The world is filled with eloquent phonies. But he’s eloquent and sincere, and the players know it.”
From the start of his playing career, circumstance pushed Reich to the background. He was a year behind Boomer Esiason, one of the best quarterbacks in Maryland history. He backed up Esiason for three years, then was injured early in his senior season. He yielded to Stan Gelbaugh, another future NFL quarterback, who played so well that coaches stuck with him even after Reich recovered.
“Any other program, Frank probably would have been a three-year starter,” then-Maryland center Kevin Glover said.
And then came Nov. 10, 1984. The Terrapins fell behind Miami 31-0 as the Hurricanes taunted them without mercy. At halftime, Coach Bobby Ross told players they would scrimmage that night, when they returned to Gossett Team House, if they didn’t play better. He approached Reich and said, “Frank, you’re the quarterback this half.”
“We stood there for seven minutes looking at each other,” then-offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen said. “Then we went out and scored [six] straight touchdowns.”
Reich’s performance made him a Maryland football legend. Teammates’ recollections of him that day stand out for how little detail they include. Reich’s demeanor never changed, and he never tried to rouse his teammates with a dramatic speech. He relied on his preparation and focus, and teammates followed.
“You have total trust nothing is beyond reach if he’s back there and in control,” Glover said.
Reich showed enough in limited playing time for the Bills to draft him in the third round in 1985 — two years after they had drafted Kelly. He would be a backup again, but he never complained. “He prepared as if every game was the Super Bowl,” Levy said. “I guess ‘genuine’ is one of the best words I can use. He didn’t put on false shows.”
Reich’s greatest opportunity came in the playoffs after the 1992 season, after Kelly strained a knee ligament in the final game of the regular season, which came in a 27-3 loss to the Oilers. Houston took a 28-3 lead into halftime in the playoff rematch Jan. 3, 1993.
“Frank, I understand you led the greatest comeback in college football history,” Levy told him in the locker room. “Today, you’re going to lead the biggest comeback in pro history.”
On the first drive of the third quarter, Reich threw a pick-six that made it 35-3.
“He had that ‘I’m ashamed’ look on his face,” Levy said. “But he stayed with it.”
As snowflakes fluttered, Reich steered the Bills to a 41-38 overtime triumph. The next week, with Kelly still hurt, Reich led the Bills to another victory. For the AFC championship game, Kelly returned to health. “It was clearly the preference of the fans [that] he play and Jim not,” Polian said. Still, Reich went back to the bench and watched Kelly, who led the Bills to the Super Bowl.
“In one respect, it was hard,” Reich said. “But in another respect, I always knew. I knew it was Jim’s team. He was the franchise quarterback. That doesn’t mean I was any less fiery or competitive, but I understood what my role was.”
Reich would play 14 NFL seasons, starting 22 games, those two playoff victories included. He knew he wanted to coach someday — both his parents had coached, and he loved the game and cherished the competition — but he waited until his children had grown. In 2008, Reich called Friedgen, then Maryland’s head coach, about his open offensive coordinator spot. The job eventually went to James Franklin, now the head coach at Penn State, but first Kelly called Friedgen to recommend his old teammate.
“He told me Frank called every play [in Buffalo],” Friedgen said. “He was a guy that flew under the radar, but he had a great football mind.”
Reich landed in Indianapolis, where Polian was running football operations, as quarterbacks coach. He ascended the ranks, becoming the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. In his second season in San Diego, Maryland fired Randy Edsall. Reich was weary of taking part in the interview process in the middle of the NFL season, but “because it was my alma mater and I had great love and respect for my alma mater,” he agreed.
“There were early indications it wasn’t going to be a big contingent of people, and I was on a very, very short list,” Reich said. “It came down to myself and one other guy, from what I understood. And I didn’t get the job.”
The Terrapins settled on DJ Durkin, who is now on administrative leave after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died during a summer conditioning drill, which led to allegations of a toxic environment within the program.
Spurned by Maryland, Reich continued his upward climb in the NFL, and Doug Pederson hired him in Philadelphia.
Last season, after Wentz suffered a season-ending injury, Reich shepherded Foles through a situation few in NFL history could relate to: He took over at quarterback for a Super Bowl contender. His own experience made Foles’s Super Bowl run more meaningful.
“There was a really strong connection between he and I on multiple levels,” Reich said. “The whole world thought that, when Carson Wentz or Jim Kelly went down, there’s no way you can win another game.”
When McDaniels backed out and the football world mocked the Colts, Polian called team owner Jim Irsay. Having worked together for 15 years, the men converse in shorthand. “It’s a bad time, but there’s a happy ending,” Polian told Irsay. “Your guy is out there. He’s the Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator.”
Within days, Reich had the job. Once more an overlooked second choice, Reich had again ascended to a leading role where grim odds awaited, leading a team in need of a comeback. The Colts have a damaged quarterback and a dearth of talent around him. To reach another Super Bowl, the road will be long.
But Reich knows how to start. The first thing is, you’ve got to believe.