NASHVILLE, Ind. – The shocker. The gut punch. The thunderbolt out of the blue.

That’s what Hoosiers went through on Saturday night and into Sunday morning when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced he was retiring – at age 29. It came just after he was honored as “Comeback Player of the Year” in 2018 following a miserable three-year stretch that included wounded shoulders and lacerated kidneys.

In the world of competition, the sudden retirement be it by an athlete or a politician can be a body blow to fans and supporters. In the sporting context, Hoosiers have had four such blows in modern times. In the political realm, since Howey Politics Indiana  began publishing 25 years ago in August 1994, there have been a handful of stunning decisions made by Dan Coats, Joe Kernan, Evan Bayh and Mitch Daniels that rendered supporters speechless while dramatically altering the landscape.

There are similarities between sports and politics, ranging from the concept of self-preservation to whether the “fire in the belly” is still applicable. 

First, let’s examine the wide world of sports. In May 2000, Indiana University fired basketball coach Bob Knight after he had been put on double-secret probation by President Myles Brand for explosive and insensitive conduct unbecoming to the university. It began a three-decade estrangement that may only just beginning to soften this past year with Knight purchasing a home in Bloomington this summer.

There was Michael Jordan’s abrupt retirement from the Chicago Bulls following three NBA titles when he decided to pursue a Major League Baseball career with the Chicago White Sox. He never made it out of the Sox farm system, returned to the Bulls in March 1995 in a game against the Pacers in Indianapolis, and then added three more titles in 1996, 1997 and (most painfully) in 1998 after a thrilling semi-final series against Larry Bird’s Pacers.

In 2012, the Indianapolis Colts found themselves unsure about the health of legendary quarterback Peyton Manning after a series of neck surgeries, and that March they let him go. I found out about the decision based on “circumstances” while on stage with pollsters Fred Yang and Christine Matthews at DePauw University. It was the proverbial punch in the gut. In hindsight, it was a fateful decision. The Colts cut Manning, receiving no compensation (imagine if they had picked up a handful of draft choices which could have been used to protect their next franchise QB), and allowing him to sign with the Denver Broncos, where he went to two Super Bowls in four years, winning one.

The Colts’ decision came with the next generational quarterback, Andrew Luck, poised as the No. 1 draft pick. Past and present met in a Colts vs. Broncos game in 2015, with Luck prevailing over Manning 27-24. But it was the classic Pyrrhic victory, as Luck would suffer a lacerated kidney that contributed to his mounting history of medical malady that eventually wore him down.

Luck explained his decision Saturday night after the crowd found out about his retirement from a tweet from ESPN’s Adam Shefter during a pre-season game at Lucas Oil Stadium against the Chicago Bears. Luck left the field with some in the crowd booing him.

“For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it,” Luck explained in an emotional post-game press conference. “The only way I see out is to no longer play football. I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I’d choose me, in a sense. It’s very difficult; I love this team, I love my teammates, the folks in our building, the folks in this building, the fans. It’s sad, but I have a lot of clarity in this.”

There tends to be gloom and doom when the legendary figure passes from the scene. While Bob Knight’s successor, Mike Davis, took the Hoosiers to an NCAA Finals game a couple years after the transition, it’s been a barren three decades for a university that had won five NCAA titles in the previous four decades.

But teams can survive the passing of greatness. The Chicago White Sox won a World Series title in 2005 after one of its greatest players, Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, played just a couple of months early that summer before missing the rest of the season. And many forget that the Tennessee Volunteers won a NCAA football title in 1998, the season after Peyton Manning graduated and was drafted by the Colts.

In a political context, career decisions made by a powerful figure can reverberate for years. In the television age, the most explosive came on March 31, 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would not seek a second, full term due to the horrific Vietnam War. It continued to set in motion a decade of riots, anti-war protests, scandal and, along with economic and energy shocks, malaise. The nation didn’t get back on an even keel until the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan.

For Hoosiers, there have been at least five Luck-type decisions that were impactful:

Dan Coats in 1997

One of the biggest showdowns in Indiana U.S. Senate history loomed in 1998. There was Republican Sen. Dan Coats, preparing for his third election in a decade (he’d been selected by Gov. Robert Orr to finish Vice President Dan Quayle’s term in 1988, won a special election in 1990 against Baron Hill and won once more in 1992, defeating Joe Hogsett). And there was freshly retired Gov. Evan Bayh, poised to reclaim the seat Rep. Dan Quayle had “taken” from his father, Sen. Birch Bayh, in 1980. 

But in late 1997, Coats stunned the Hoosier establishment. He abruptly dropped out, saying that 18 years of constant fundraising had jaded him. He also was sensitive to the notion of term limits and said that 18 years were enough. Following that decision, Coats appeared at my NUVO office to go over the highlights of his congressional career. At the conclusion, he disappeared through the door, then returned moments later, saying, “I could have beat Evan Bayh.” 

Joe Kernan in 2002

In December 2002, popular Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan announced he would not seek the governorship in 2004. It was a decision that shocked the pundits and left his supporters incredulous. Modern LGs up to that point, from Robert Rock to Robert Orr to Frank O’Bannon always yearned to move to the top office. I will never forget the look on the face of Kernan supporters like Kip Tew when that announcement came down.

Howey Politics reported in its Dec. 12, 2002, edition: The strange case of Joe Kernan took shape on Monday when he told the press and glum supporters that “it’s just time.” A day later, Kernan told another gathering of the press that he feared that in serving as LG and running for governor, he would do neither well. “If you’ve got two full-time jobs, you’re not going to be able to do either well,” he said. “And if I can’t do something well, I’m not going to enjoy it.” 

Kernan also dismissed as speculation the idea that he feared running on the record of Gov. Frank O’Bannon, or that his relationship with the governor or governor’s staff had soured. “They will say whatever they’re gonna say,” he said of critics. Credible sources had told HPI that Kernan became upset with Gov. O’Bannon after he named Peter Manous as Democratic chairman in blind-sided fashion earlier that year. Kernan believed that as the next nominee, he deserved to make that selection.

HPI reported further: In analyzing Kernan’s bowing out statements, there is a major lack of logic. The “it’s just time” statement was interpreted by one prominent Democrat as, “He just didn’t have the fire in his belly.” 

Fate played a role in Kernan’s future when Gov. O’Bannon died after a stroke in September 2003. Kernan re-entered the race in late 2003 following a donnybrook primary showdown between former Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew and State Sen. Vi Simpson. But he had lost 18 months of organizing and fundraising, and former White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels conducted one of the best statewide campaigns in history, ending 16 consecutive years of Democratic gubernatorial rule, and beginning a 16-year era of GOP governors that could extend to 20 years if Gov. Eric Holcomb is reelected in 2020. The Kernan decision was one of two in the past 20 years that has helped relegate Indiana Democrats into super minority status.

Evan Bayh in 2006

Ever since Bayh arrived on the political scene in his own right in 1984 campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wayne Townsend, he was viewed as a rising star with a national ceiling. In short order, Bayh won secretary of state and gubernatorial races in 1986 and 1988, was reelected by a landslide in 1992, and keynoted the Democratic National Convention in 1996. A presidential bid and a future address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or at the National Observatory seemed to be in the cards.

The 1996 keynote was illustrative of the bare-knuckled caliber of national politics. Bayh was expected to deliver his address in primetime. But behind the scenes, operatives of First Lady Hillary Clinton appeared to work to delay the address and were successful. Bayh wouldn’t take the stage until after the 11 p.m. newscasts in the Eastern Time zone began, depriving him of the kind of primetime exposure that launched the national careers of Bill Clinton in 1988 and Barack Obama 20 years later.

After two terms of President George W. Bush, and two terms in the U.S. Senate, the year 2008 appeared to be Bayh’s time. He declared for president in early December 2006, but on Dec. 16 came the shocker. With Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama rising, along with Sen. John Edwards (the 2004 vice presidential nominee), Bayh didn’t see a viable path to victory.

“After talking with family and friends over the past several days, I have decided that this is not the year for me to run for president,” Bayh said in a statement that dropped jaws across Indiana. “The odds were always going to be very long for a relatively unknown candidate like myself, a little bit like David and Goliath. And whether there were too many Goliaths or whether I’m just not the right David ... the odds were longer than I felt I could responsibly pursue. This path – and these long odds – would have required me to be essentially absent from the Senate for the next year instead of working to help the people of my state and the nation.”

Bayh remained on the national radar for another couple of years, making Barack Obama’s veep short list, before the nominee opted for Sen. Joe Biden in August 2008. But the real closure to his presidential ambitions came in 2006. 

Evan Bayh in 2010

The penultimate political act of Evan Bayh began in September 2009 seated in the Oval Office. “Are you 100% sure?” President Obama asked. 

“I’m 98% sure,” Sen. Evan Bayh responded. The news Bayh delivered to President Obama was that he probably wouldn’t seek reelection in 2010. This had profound national and Indiana implications. Bayh’s hold on the Senate seat once held by his father was seen as “safe” in his hands.

Still, the pending decision was a secret. It wouldn’t be until President’s Day, Feb. 15, 2010, that Bayh would drop his bombshell. It came just hours before Indiana’s primary filing deadline. By then, former senator Dan Coats had opted out of retirement and into the race, setting up the showdown that many of us had expected in 1998. 

Bayh had given only a tiny clue a few weeks before, ending a meeting with a group of Hoosier constituents on energy issues by saying, “Now I’ve got to go deal with a German ambassador.” That would be Coats, who had been envoy to Germany. On Feb. 15, current GOP national committeewoman Anne Hathaway heard the report and called up Coats with the news. Coats responded, “Anne, welcome to the age of bloggers.” When she called back 20 minutes later with an “It’s true!” message, a pregnant pause followed before Coats said, “I can’t believe it.”

Bayh acknowledged he had procrastinated in revealing his decision, then began predicting a catastrophe for the Democratic Party in the wake of Scott Brown’s Tea Party-propelled capture of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. “If you lose Massachusetts, and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope for waking up,” Bayh told ABC News.

In Indiana, the Bayh dominoes began to fall, with U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth hurriedly shifting to the Senate race, State Rep. Trent Van Haaften transitioning to Ellsworth’s 8th CD, and State Sen. Bob Dieg opting for the Van Haaften House seat. All would end up losing.

Coats taking Bayh’s U.S. Senate seat helped the GOP take the majority. But more importantly, it signaled a shift in southern and rural Indiana. The 2010 cycle – followed by similarly devastating cycles in 2012, 2014 and 2016 – essentially routed Democrats out of congressional, General Assembly and county seats, as well as rural Indiana, where Republicans now hold 80% of county courthouse offices and 89% of county commission seats. Counties like Clark, Floyd, and Posey have turned into GOP courthouse bastions. There are no Democratic state senators south of U.S. 50. It has bolstered three consecutive cycles of GOP super-majority rule in the Indiana General Assembly.

Bayh would try a Senate comeback in 2016, but the campaign of Republican Todd Young eviscerated his political brand in Indiana, and it’s quite doubtful Evan Bayh will ever run again in Indiana, let alone nationally.

Mitch Daniels in 2011

While Sen. Evan Bayh’s fateful 2010 decision inextricably altered the Indiana political landscape to the point where it’s now close to being a one-party state, it was Gov. Mitch Daniels’ May 2011 bombshell that may have had the greatest impact nationally.

Daniels flirted with a 2012 presidential run, but he did it in reverse. Most presidential-caliber politicians get the imprimatur of their family first, then seek outside political support. There had been a steady drumbeat for him to challenge President Obama. Daniels was successful in steering potential GOP presidential rival Rep. Mike Pence into the 2012 gubernatorial race. But then came the Daniels family decision.

It all ended on a Sunday morning when he announced in the IndyStar he wasn’t running. “Over the last year and a half, a large and diverse group of people have suggested to me an idea that I never otherwise would have considered, that I run for president,” Daniels explained. “I’ve asked for time to think it over carefully, but these good people have been very patient and I owe them an answer. The answer is that I will not be a candidate. What could have been a complicated decision was in the end very simple: On matters affecting us all, our family constitution gives a veto to the women’s caucus, and there is no override provision. Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”

Daniels believed he could have won the 2012 Republican nomination that eventually went to Mitt Romney. Daniels thrived in retail politics and connected with the common man, something Romney lacked. In retrospect, Daniels has told HPI on several occasions he wasn’t sure he could have defeated Obama (something with which I disagree).

Obama won reelection with a number of economic telltales working against an incumbent president. What Obama did have was a state-of-the-art digital communications and fundraising network that allowed him to prevail.

There are profound hypotheticals to this: What if Gov. Daniels had defeated President Obama? It takes on vivid meaning in the context of today: Had there been a “President Daniels,” would there have been a political opening to be exploited by Donald Trump in 2016?

You can make a case either way. A President Daniels certainly would have moved to solve the intractable entitlement quandaries that will explode into American politics in the coming decade. As Daniels predicted in his 2011 CPAC speech, there’s the “red menace” of the debt crisis facing our nation. The looming insolvency of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are mathematical certainties; the political will of Washington to address them in meaningful and timely ways is uncertain at best and not evident at all in recent presidential election cycles. Under President Trump and in a booming, pre-recession economy, the federal debt and deficits are mushrooming into multi-trillion dollar liabilities that will be shouldered by coming generations.  

A few days after Daniels bowed out, he cautioned the nation. “I’m moved to say this: I wish folks would pay more attention to the second half of the statement as opposed to the first. What I decided means very little. What happens to me means nothing. What America decides and what happens to the nation in the next few years means everything. I would just urge everybody – now that you know the decision – to spend a little time if you would to reflect on the real reasons that motivated me to think about maybe doing it in the first place.”

In the second part of his statement, Daniels had said, “I am deeply concerned, for the first time in my life, about the future of our Republic. In the next few years Americans will decide two basic sets of questions: Who’s in charge here? Should the public sector protect and promote the private sector or dominate and direct it? Does the government work for the people or vice versa? And, are we Americans still the kind of people who can successfully govern ourselves, discipline ourselves financially, put the future and our children’s interests ahead of the present and our own? I am confident that the answers will reaffirm the liberty and vitality of our nation, and hope to play some small part in proving that view true.”

Today, with President Trump waging a unilateral trade war with China that doesn’t appear to be well thought out or competently waged, with mushrooming debt and an ever-growing income disparity, the emergence of job-sapping artificial intelligence, along with the twin evils of opioid and mass shooting epidemics, the questions Daniels raised in his book, “Keeping the Republic,” are as vital as ever.

Little wonder that so many key Daniels supporters still quietly ponder the “what ifs” of a 2012 Daniels presidential run, and their desire to see him step back into the political game during what appears to be an unfolding crisis for both the Republican Party and the nation. 

And that’s the nature of the gut punch, the body blow, and the bolt out of the blue.