By Ray Compton
Almost 50 years ago, a high school football player from Cleveland had to make a tough decision regarding his upcoming collegiate career. Should he go to the home state school, Ohio State, or trek to Indiana and play at Purdue?
He chose the Hoosier State.
Now after being part of the National Football League coaching carousel for almost 30 years, the well-traveled former Boilermaker has had to make another residency decision. Where does he spend his future Sunday afternoons?
George Catavolos has again selected Indiana. You see, when not watching the Indianapolis Colts from the press box in Lucas Oil Stadium, he views his favorite franchise’s fortunes and other Hoosier days from his Zionsville home.
“I am a Colts fan,” he admitted, “and I love Zionsville.”
Despite being a long-time collegiate and professional coaching vagabond who has had zip codes in places such as Buffalo, Detroit, Charlotte, Louisville, Lexington, Murfreesboro, Knoxville and Washington, D.C., Catavolos is truly back home again in Indiana. He and his wife, Tona, live fulltime in their longtime Boone County home.
Catavolos has now joined the Colts radio network on NFL game days. This marks his third stint with the Colts after previously serving as an assistant coach (1984-1994) and an assistant head coach for Jim Mora (1998-2001). His teammates now on the Colts pre-game radio show are Jeffrey Gorman and former Colts Joe Staysniak and Jim Sorgi.
“I feel fortunate to be able to work with those three guys,” Catavolos said. “They let me get their coffee, and once in a while, I say a few words.”
While Catavolos may radiate with modesty, his new set of bosses on West 56th Street are thrilled to have him on board in a broadcasting role for the Blue and White.
“His wealth of knowledge and articulation are big assets for our broadcasts,” said Colts senior executive vice president Pete Ward. “He is doing a great job, and we are fortunate to have him aboard. He is also a part of our community.”
Indiana has been part of the life of the former football star since he chose to attend Purdue over Ohio State in 1963. Yes, that was the same Ohio State which had the legendary Woody Hayes on the sidelines.
“Woody was bigger than life,” remembered Catavolos. “He was very charismatic and very forceful. Ohio State offered me a scholarship, but I told Woody that I had to talk to my dad.”
With the time extension and an opportunity to visit his father, owner of a Cleveland neighborhood grocery store, the son of two immigrants from Greece chose the farmlands of West Lafayette.
“It was hard to say no to Ohio State, but Purdue was very prominent then too,” he said.
Catavalos rose to stardom with the Boilermakers, eventually abandoning a minor role as a
wide receiver for a fulltime starting position in the defensive secondary for Coach Jack Mollenkopf. His teammates included all-Americans Bob Griese and Leroy Keyes. The Boilermaker sizzling sixties included three consecutive victories at Michigan, a Big Ten championship and a No. 6 national ranking in 1966. The only blemishes during the 9-2 campaign were losses to powerhouses Notre Dame and Michigan State.
This Purdue era was capped by a 14-13 victory over Southern California on New Year’s Day in the 1967 Rose Bowl. It was Catavolos who provided an interception on a last-second, two-point attempt by the Trojans to preserve the heart-stopping Purdue victory.
“I always considered myself a journeyman,” Catavolos recently told purduesports.com. “I was fortunate to make that play…[and] after being involved in coaching or playing football, you learn that it takes a lot of elements to make a play.”
Catavolos left Purdue with top memories off the field too. “One thing about Purdue is the family-type atmosphere,” said Catavolos, who met Tona (a native of Royal Center, Indiana) at Purdue. “And there was no free ride. You had to produce in class and on the field. I always admired Purdue and its demand for excellence.”
After serving as a graduate assistant for the Boilermakers, Catavolos began his long and winding journey in the coaching profession. Collegiate stops included Middle Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Kentucky and Tennessee and coaching stints for Lee Corso (Louisville), Fran Curci (Kentucky) and Johnny Majors (Tennessee).
Eventually, he came to Indianapolis for the first time in 1984, joining the staff of Frank Kush. After 11 years as a Colts assistant, Catavolos was part of the house-cleaning after the 1994 season. His second tour with the Colts came in 1997 when team president Bill Polian brought on Jim Mora as head coach for the Colts and Peyton Manning. Mora selected a reluctant Catavolos as an assistant head coach.
“People have asked me if I wanted to be a head coach or coordinator,” said Catavolos, “but I was always happy to be on a defensive staff where everyone had a say.”
But nothing lasts forever in the NFL and in the coaching department. Another change at the top forced Catavolos to hit the road again after the 1997 season, leading to jobs in Detroit (two years), Washington (two years) and Buffalo (eight years). This time, the Catavolos family (Tona and daughters Stephanie and Lindsay) stayed behind in Zionsville.
“We really liked the Zionsville school system, and we didn’t want to take Stephanie out of high school,” he said. “Zionsville is a small town and has a great atmosphere. It’s a great place to raise a family. Everyone goes to the high school football games on Friday nights.”
That may Catavolos as he continues to explore options to stay busy at age 68. In warmer months, he regularly plays golf with former Colts coach Mike Murphy. And he now putters around the Catavolos home, attempting to be a good house partner for his wife of 39 years.
“Tona gives me just enough rope to hang myself,” he said of his wife, a manager at a local Hallmark store. “She is the most beautiful, intelligent woman I know.”
Dad also keeps up with his daughters, both University of Kentucky graduates. Lindsay has worked in the sales and marketing department of the Colts for eight years, while Stephanie is involved with women’s apparel and retail.
“Every day is a Saturday,” Catavolos said. “I can do what I want to do, and I can be helpful to the family if they need it.”
But the question still lingers for this former ball coach: Is he truly retired from working the sidelines as an assistant coach?
“You don’t know,“ he said. “I don’t like to say that I am retired yet. I like to say that I am in between for now, re-charging the batteries.”
First and Ten Questions and Answers with Longtime College and NFL Coach George Catavolos:
Did you learn to speak Greek while growing up with Greek parents and immigrants?
I spoke Greek until I was five.
What was your favorite memory while playing at Purdue?
All the games were great. We didn’t win a lot of games in runaways. Every game our senior year (9-2 and Rose Bowl victors) was important.
What was Jack Mollenkopf like as the head coach at Purdue?
He was like a father. It didn’t matter if you were an all-American or on the scout team, he was very fair.
You were drafted in the 17th round by the Philadelphia Eagles and then had a brief tryout with the Bengals. What did you learn from the legendary coach Paul Brown?
I was cut in the pre-season, but I got a six-week course on how he did things. He was very innovative.
You were on Lee Corso’s staff at Louisville. What was Corso like behind the scenes?
He is not what he projects on television. He was very serious, and his teams were always well-prepared.
Who was the best general manager you worked for in the NFL?
(Colts’) Bill Polian. He gave you the players and environment to succeed.
And best coach?
[Buffalo’s] Dick Jauron. He was very intelligent and very hard working. [The Colts’] Ted Marchibroda was very knowledgeable and very fair. The players liked playing for him.
What was your top moment in the NFL?
There were two. The first one was when at Carolina, we want to Green Bay for the NFC championship game. The other was when we [Colts] went from 3-13 to 13-3 with Peyton [Manning].
Who was the best defensive back you coached?
Champ Bailey [at Washington, now Denver]. Besides being a great athlete, he was very competitive and a team player.
Who was the most underrated defensive back you coached?
[The Colts’] Eugene Daniel. He was a seventh round pick, and people gave him little chance to make the team. He was in the league for 12 years.