CHARLOTTE — There's a longer answer to a more difficult question about why Jim Caldwell hasn't been able to find a head coaching job in recent years.
But when Caldwell is asked why he took this job as senior assistant with the Panthers under new head coach Frank Reich, that was pretty short and to the point.
"You know, it's just an ideal situation for me," Caldwell said simply. "I know Frank really well. Frank and I had an opportunity to work together for a number of years in Indianapolis. I know the kind of man he is. I know the kind of program that he'll run.
"And I just think it was a great fit in that regard."
Caldwell also mentioned his respect for the organization — and you don't build this kind of staff without writing a lot of big checks — and the fact he still has a home and family nearby (including a daughter in Mint Hill), so a lot of things contributed to it.
But the main thing, it seems, was Reich himself after their years together.
Caldwell was the quarterbacks coach and assistant to Tony Dungy with the Peyton Manning Colts when Reich began as a coaching intern in 2006, unsure if he wanted to coach or not. Clearly, the experience had a significant impact on a number of careers, particularly Reich's, since he was taking those first tentative steps into the profession, which a lot of former players find out they don't have the stomach for or interest in since there are easier ways to make a living (especially if you've already made football-player money).
"You saw how very thoughtful, smart he was; he had a real good feel for the game, obviously, the positions in which he played, he knew the run game well, and he knew the pass game extremely well," Caldwell said when asked what kind of intern Reich actually was. "He had really great, just great interpersonal skills with the players. But he was always inquisitive. He's always looking to try to find a way to get better. So, you know, he was great to work with.
"I think that the real deterrent for players oftentimes getting into coaching is they dread the hours because it's pretty demanding, right? And they've been accustomed to working normal hours in the building, maybe in by 7, and out by 6. Coaching, you know, it's a lot longer than that. So I think that discourages many of them. But some guys have that kind of strong work ethic or are from a family of coaches. And I just think it was in his DNA."
Reich's sleepless nights lately as he's put a staff together attest to his willingness to put in hours, and as the son of coaches, he had the genetic component as well. But being around a Hall of Fame coach in Dungy and Caldwell as well at a formative stage also clearly shaped Reich and his willingness to devote himself to the new profession.
And remembering those years with the Colts (where they won a Super Bowl under Dungy) was the reason Caldwell was one of the first names Reich considered when he thought about building another staff of his own.
Reich said after being fired by the Colts in November, one of his first conversations was with Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, who drafted him in Buffalo, hired him in Indy, and whom Reich refers to as "a good friend."
"I actually said to Bill, listen, I know Jim would have a good chance to get one of these things. He deserves it because he's a great coach and a great person," Reich said of the upcoming job cycle. "But if he doesn't, I actually said, do you think he would say yes to me? Bill's immediate counsel was, 'You should call him.'
"That was, to me, a really big get. Tony Dungy was my first head coach that I worked for, but Jim was the heir apparent, right? And when Tony hired me, I think he was really hiring me because he knew he was going to retire. And he asked Jim, hey, do you want Frank?
"I already told Jim, hey, don't mind me when I call you coach. Because I still think you're my coach, that might happen every now and then."
Of course, the thing Reich alluded to as the biggest hurdle to clear was the one Caldwell hasn't been able to. Despite a sterling resume, Caldwell hasn't been offered a head coaching job since he was (perhaps inexplicably) fired by the Lions.
Caldwell shaped Manning's career and Dungy's offenses. He has a 62-50 record and five winning seasons in seven years. One of the losing seasons was when Manning's neck went out, and he was left with Curtis Painter, and 2-14 ensued. The other was a 7-9 in Detroit, and nobody wins in Detroit. Caldwell had three winning records and two playoff berths in four years there (36-28). He had the highest winning percentage by a Lions coach since Buddy Parker in the 1950s, and in the five years since he was fired, the Lions have posted a 26-54-2 record. He also won a ring as offensive coordinator in Baltimore.
But in the last five offseasons, he got some interviews but no head coaching offers, and he put out the word that he wasn't interested in being an assistant and was willing to wait. There were plenty of people who wanted to bring him on (he worked briefly as the assistant head coach for the Dolphins and Brian Flores in 2019), but head coaching chances never materialized.
He filled his time otherwise, working with coaches close to him and projects near to his heart. Friends such as Ozzie Newsome, Shack Harris, Jimmy Raye, and Doug Williams kept him involved with league initiatives and training programs, such as the quarterback coaching summit hosted by the Black College Football Hall of Fame (which was designed to help stock the pipeline of minority coaches into the coveted offensive-side jobs).
"I kept busy that entire time," Caldwell said, though that's a different kind of busy. He admitted he listened to a number of offers to come to be an assistant, but nothing "quite clicked." At least until Reich called.
"Sometimes in your career, you've got to reset, right?" Caldwell said. "So I'm happy to be able to kind of redirect my career path."
While there are plenty of people angry about Caldwell's lack of opportunities on his behalf, he doesn't look at it that way. He acknowledges that he had two chances to be a head coach, and very few coaches get a third. And he knows the business well enough to recognize the cycles, to see when the league is going young, and recognize that he just turned 68. Fair or unfair, the coach in him shrugs when asked if he was ever angry about the lack of another chance.
"You know, to be honest with you, I've never looked at it that way," Caldwell said. "And oftentimes, people will look at it from the outside and voice their opinions about whether I should be here or there. But the fact of the matter is, I really think the Lord kind of has a plan. And you know, you'd love to have gotten an opportunity. But, you know, at this stage of the game, I'm appreciative of where I am.
"It's never been difficult for me. First of all, I've had a great career. I've had two opportunities. Very few guys get three. But that's the way of the National Football League. So I'm thankful, grateful for the opportunities that I've had."
Of course, that might also be because of his own background and never taking any opportunity for granted. His first head coaching job was at Wake Forest, and it didn't go well. He went 26-63 in eight years at a school that wouldn't compromise its academic standards to recruit a different grade of players. It was one of the "bless your heart" jobs in college football then, and he did the best he could.
"I fit in well with those in the administration," Caldwell said of his time up the road in Winston-Salem. "Players that I had an opportunity to coach were smart people that had a desire to play major college football, and the administrators that I worked with were just making certain that I was there because I loved the school, and I won't compromise the academic integrity of the institution.
"I also found my voice as a head coach and as a leader because I've been that kind of leader all my life. As a head coach, I found my voice, just in terms of how to deal with players and how to deal with issues that arise. And so those eight years there were really formative for me. And I absolutely enjoyed it. We didn't win as many games as we'd like. But I think that's kind of the way things go."
The zen of Jim Caldwell has been tested for sure, but he's come through a career in the sport with a smile on his face. When he was working for the Ravens, he remembers getting teased by veteran defensive end Chris Canty. Canty grew up in Charlotte while Caldwell was at Wake but never got recruited by the Demon Deacons. He ended up at Virginia and then earned a long career in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl ring with the Giants. Then he came to Baltimore, where Caldwell and the Ravens had just won one as well.
"So as soon as he sees me, he walks up, and he's still upset because I didn't offer him a scholarship at Wake," Caldwell recalled with a laugh. "You know, you could think of it this way. If I had given you a scholarship, you probably would have come to Wake. And we probably would have been a little bit too good. Then they wouldn't have fired me, and I wouldn't have had two Super Bowls in my pocket."
It's a very glass-half-full perspective. Not everyone in the business has it. But not everyone in this business is Jim Caldwell, who is content to come here and help someone he admires and is able to refer to it as "a neat opportunity." He remembers telling Reich the things he learned early on, and said his message for young coaches is one of gratitude and presence.
"The number one thing is that you got to love it," Caldwell said. "Because it's so demanding. Oftentimes those demands are the things that deter people from entering the profession.
The other thing is, you don't necessarily look down the road to see where you're going to. Be concerned about where you are, right? And do the best job you can at that particular location. And the rest of it will take care of itself."
Jim Caldwell has 18 years of NFL coaching experience, including head coach positions with the Lions (2014-17) and Colts (2009-11).