FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.

Jim Caldwell had been coaching football for most of his adult life, but nothing could have prepared him for what awaited him on the morning of Dec. 23, 2005.

What do you do when one of your best friends tells you his oldest son has committed suicide at the age of 18, and then asks you to take over as the head coach while he returns home to bury his child?

"It was a difficult time," Caldwell, 55, said Wednesday, recalling the days after Tony Dungy's son James took his own life. "It was important that we stayed steady and be a pillar of strength for the guys at such a very difficult time."

Caldwell, then the Colts' assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach, would fill in for Dungy the remainder of that week in preparation for a game against the Seahawks. But it was during that time that Caldwell's leadership and composure convinced the organization that he would be the right man to lead the team if and when Dungy ever decided to walk away from the game.

The Colts lost to the Seahawks, 28-13, but the imprint left by Caldwell's guidance at such a tough time was not lost on the team. In fact, it cemented a bond that continues today.

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"When he had to step in after Tony's son died, we knew then how he'd handle himself," Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "You could see he had a firm grasp of the situation, and he kept everything on an even keel."

The experience made a powerful impression on Colts president Bill Polian, who knew James Dungy's death had hastened thoughts of Tony Dungy's eventual retirement. After the 2007 season, when Dungy again wavered on returning, Polian announced that Caldwell would succeed Dungy when he retired. The transition took place after last season.

"He had on-the-job training, unfortunately, tragically, at the time Tony's tragedy occurred," Polian said. "He stepped in under the absolute worst of circumstances and did a remarkable job."

It is therefore no surprise to anyone who knows Caldwell that he has guided the Colts to the Super Bowl in his first season. Sure, he has been the beneficiary of a quarterback for the ages in Peyton Manning. And Pro Bowl performers Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Freeney have made the transition immeasurably easier from a football perspective.

But Caldwell is no Dungy clone, and he has placed his stamp on the team in a variety of ways. For one thing, he is much more of a talker than Dungy, whose stoic sideline demeanor was his trademark. Recall Dungy, arms folded, expression impassive, countenance remarkably composed even at the most frantic moments of a game. And there's Caldwell, pacing the sideline, talking to players on both sides of the ball. Unlike Dungy, Caldwell is not afraid to show his emotions.

One more big difference: Caldwell, a former Iowa defensive back, places a greater emphasis on an attack-style mentality on defense. Unlike Dungy's Cover 2 style, which is a more conservative approach, the Colts employ far more blitzes under new coordinator Larry Coyer, who happened to be Caldwell's defensive coordinator at Iowa.

"The biggest difference with Jim is he's such a communicator," Freeney said. "Not that Tony wasn't, but Jim is always talking to you, just to make sure everything's fine. He's making sure things are right mentally and physically. He's not a guy who is going to do that just with the top guys on the team."

Caldwell also is unafraid to make the tough decisions. Case in point: Leading 15-10 in the third quarter of the next-to-last game of the regular season against the Jets, he opted to pull most of his key starters. With the Colts boasting a 14-0 record at the time, Caldwell opted to forego the possibility of a perfect regular season.

"It was a tough decision, but we went along with it," running back Joseph Addai said. "The goal has always been to win the Super Bowl, not to go unbeaten in the regular season. We all knew that, and we were OK with it."

Sure didn't seem that way at the time, though. Once Curtis Painter went in for Manning, you could feel the air sucked out of Lucas Oil Stadium. The fans booed. The starters appeared listless on the sideline.

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"That's in the past now," linebacker Gary Brackett said. "Coach Caldwell is in charge, and we go by what he says."

Give the coach credit: He made a decision and stuck with it, even in the face of intense public criticism. The backlash? Very little. Through the first part of Super Bowl week, talk of the unbeaten season what-if has been almost nonexistent.

Credit the smooth handling of the situation by Caldwell, who already has shown plenty of poise in his brief time on the job. His performance has not gone unnoticed by his predecessor, especially after making that tough decision against the Jets.

"I just told him, really, after the first Jets game, 'I think you pushed all the right buttons all year,' " Dungy said. "People are going to second-guess this forever. But you know what you're doing and it was the right thing to do."

One more game of doing all things right, and Caldwell gets to the top sooner than most expected.

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"Give him credit," Brackett said. "He came in and put his own identity on this team. It's Jim's team."

No issue anymore

The Colts' Jim Caldwell is the fourth African-American coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl, and will attempt to become the third to win it.

His predecessor, Tony Dungy, won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, and Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to a ring last year. Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is also African-American, coached against Dungy in the Super Bowl.

"I think because of the fact that is becoming less of a story shows you that obviously there is some progress being made," Caldwell, 55, said. "But I really do believe there are still a lot of . . . different thresholds and milestones to be crossed in that particular area. Particularly when you look at the administration and other positions across the league just in terms of personnel.

"But overall, I think that Tony and Mike and Lovie Smith are great coaches who just happen to be very proud of their heritage as well."