INDIANAPOLIS — You can pluck Chris Ballard out of Camp Randall. But you can’t pluck the Camp Randall out of Chris Ballard.
“That had a big influence,” Ballard, the former Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver and new Indianapolis Colts general manager, said Wednesday at the 2017 NFL Combine. “(Former coach) Barry (Alvarez) had a big influence on my thinking, because I watched him take (the program) from the bottom to what it is today — and the work and the commitment and the type of person that you brought into the building and into the locker room. That’s key.”
Ballard turned up in Mad City in 1988 as a 5-foot-11 prep quarterback from Texas City, Texas. Alvarez replaced the man who had recruited Ballard, Don Morton, before the 1990 season.
The rest is Mad City history, as the Badgers climbed from 1-10 in Alvarez’s first campaign to Big Ten champions in 1993 and haven’t looked back. But the transition was a painful one for Ballard on several levels — not the least of which because the native Texan had ripped up his knee.
“It’s hard to just throw people in a locker room and expect a winner. It doesn’t work that way.”
— Former Wisconsin wide receiver and Colts general manager Chris Ballard
Although, in hindsight, that’s now part of the legend, too, as Ballard became a student assistant at Wisconsin during his senior year, working with a staff that, at that time, included names such as Brad Childress, Bill Callahan, Dan McCarney and Jay Norvell.
Ballard parlayed his Badgers experience into a coaching role at Texas A&M-Kingsville from 1994-2000. He joined the Chicago Bears as a Southwest area scout in 2000 and remained with the club for 12 seasons before joining the Kansas City Chiefs, where he served as director of player personnel (2013-14) and director of football operations (2015-16).
“I know we all want instant coffee right now. But that’s not reality,” Ballard said. “Reality is that it takes time to build a team. It takes time to build a team. It takes time to build a locker room.”
The Colts are coming off two straight 8-8 campaigns and missed the postseason on both occasions. It’s the first time Indianapolis had been out of the AFC playoff bracket in back-to-back winters in a generation — since 1997 and 1998, the latter being Peyton Manning’s rookie year.
“Those guys have got to grow together and come together,” Ballard said. “I don’t know any championship teams that didn’t have a great locker room and grow together. It’s hard to just throw people in a locker room and expect a winner. It doesn’t work that way.”