OWINGS MILLS – Chuck Pagano was an undersized safety at Wyoming with a reputation as a big hitter, delivering concussive tackles by fearlessly launching his 155-pound frame into much larger players.
"I heard he was a headhunter," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "That’s what we like."
Nearly three decades later, the Baltimore Ravens’ new defensive coordinator hasn’t lost any of his fire.
As the Ravens’ secondary coach for the past three seasons before replacing Greg Mattison with his departure to become the University of Michigan defensive coordinator, Pagano has reinforced his aggressive demeanor on the sidelines.
He’s known for hurling his headset or hat when things go wrong.
"Chuck’s one of those coaches who gets after you, but you always have the ultimate respect for him," Johnson said. "The sidelines always get heated. When somebody is fiery and aggressive and has a similar personality as we do, we love it. With his personality, his knowledge of schemes, we’re definitely going to be aggressive."
Pagano has no plans to coach the defense from the coaches’ booth in the press box.
He’ll be on the sidelines with his guys, mixing it up.
"I’m not really a calm type of guy, I think these player s will tell you that," Pagano said. "I try to do my best to maintain my composure, and I really will have to do that now. I like being down in the fray and in the trenches with these guys fighting the fight."
Introduced at a press conference Wednesday as the fifth defensive coordinator in franchise history, Pagano is the latest coach entrusted with upholding the Ravens’ defensive tradition.
Pagano, 50, said he doesn’t plan to change much about a defense ranked in the top 10 for eight consecutive seasons, but he is expected to put his stamp on the defense with more blitzes.
"They’ve been playing great defense here long before any of us got here, and they’ll be playing great defense long after I’m gone," Pagano said. "They’ve always been an attacking, swarming, tough, physical, hard-nosed group of men that has great passion. And so my philosophy is their philosophy. Let’s go out and wreak havoc and play Ravens defense, just the way they’ve played for many, many years around here."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn’t hesitate to promote Pagano after giving him strong consideration two years ago when he gave the job to Mattison as the replacement for Rex Ryan.
Instead of going after a former NFL head coach like Eric Mangini or Dave Wannstedt or promoting linebackers coach Dean Pees or defensive line coach Clarence Brooks, Harbaugh decided to give Pagano a shot as a first-time defensive coordinator in the NFL.
"To me, I think continuity is critical," Harbaugh said. "It was an easy choice. He’s the perfect guy for the job. He’s more than ready to be really successful at this job. He’s been instrumental in building this defense. The job he’s done with the secondary speaks for itself.
"He’s a great defensive mind. He’s more than ready to be really successful at this job. We’ve been really great on defense and it’s obviously a great challenge, but we’re going to get even better on defense under Chuck’s guidance."
Because of the possibility of a work stoppage bringing in coach from the outside wasn’t expected.
With Pagano already in place, there shouldn’t be a learning curve.
"If you had to go in and implement a whole new scheme, I’d be scared to death," Pagano said. "That’s the beauty of the Ravens defense and being in the situation that I’m in. They’ve been very good over the years here because of continuity."
Pagano was a defensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina and at UNLV. He recruited Ravens star free safety Ed Reed to the University of Miami.
Hiring Pagano is a popular move in the locker room.
"You have to respect how he studies opponents and how he prepares for the task at hand each week," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He is truly a pure players’ coach. He is a man’s man, and there is nothing that I wouldn’t do for him. I am excited to see what we can do as a defense and as a team leading into next season"
The press conference was attended by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, Johnson and strong safety Haruki Nakamura, a sign of how players feel about him.
"Chuck is an emotional, enthusiastic guy," Harbaugh said. "These guys love and respect him."
And Pagano received several congratulatory text messages from players as soon as word broke that he was getting the job Tuesday night.
"I love that man and I am thrilled for him personally, and I know he will do a great job," cornerback Chris Carr via email. "He is the main reason why I came to Baltimore. I had him in Oakland for a coach, so I have been with him my whole career."
Pagano is a former secondary coach with the Cleveland Browns and Raiders.
Speaking of Oakland, Pagano couldn’t resist the temptation to tweak Raiders owner Al Davis when asked about a rumor that he was a candidate for the Raiders’ defensive coordinator vacancy.
"I had a great experience, a two-year sentence in Oakland," Pagano said with a laugh. "Congratulations to Hue Jackson. It’s well-deserved, and will earn every cent that they pay him. It won’t be much, but he will earn every nickel. I had a great experience out there, and two years was plenty."
Pagano is expected to blitz more often than Mattison did.
"Coach Pagano is probably the best secondary coach I’ve ever had," cornerback Fabian Washington said. "Chuck is one of the best coaches in the league, period. I promise you’ll see that next year, whatever scheme the Ravens run. I’m pretty positive it will be pretty much the same thing, but he will definitely put his twist on it. I’m sure they will blitz more with him."
Mattison ran more three-man rushes than Ryan did, but he also didn’t have Pro Bowl linebacker Bart Scott to work with.
"It’s not a Rex defense, it’s not a Greg defense, it’s not a John, not a Chuck, not an anybody, it’s a Ravens defense," Harbaugh said. "We believe in team around here. It starts with the players. The foundation of the defense is in place."
The Ravens only registered 27 sacks last season.
That represents a franchise low for pass rushing as only Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs applied much heat to quarterbacks with 11 sacks.
"When it’s time to be aggressive, we’ll be aggressive," Pagano said. "It’s funny that Fabian said that because the old man always mandated that you can never blitz, so I don’t know where he got that from. Anyway, we’re going to be aggressive."
Another area the Ravens need to improve is holding a fourth quarter lead. Despite going 12-4 in the regular season, they were outscored 119-80 in the fourth quarter.
And the Ravens squandered a two-touchdown lead in the second half of a 31-24 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We’ve got to get better in crunch time as a defensive unit," Pagano said. "It doesn’t matter what the situation is, we have to learn how to finish games as a football team."
For Pagano, he’s been waiting a long time to get to this point.
From his time as a graduate assistant at USC to stops at East Carolina and Boise State, Pagano says he’s been preparing for this moment as he takes over a job previously held by the likes of Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan and Ryan before becoming NFL head coaches.