TEMPE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians spent less than one season as the Indianapolis Colts interim coach. Yet there was so much drama squeezed into that tiny window that the Cardinals coach is having a hard time coping with this week’s opponent.
“I was hoping it would never be on the schedule,” Arians said of Sunday’s game against the Colts at University of Phoenix Stadium. “Too many emotional ties to what happened last year to have to play them.”
As most NFL followers know, Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in September of 2012 and took a leave of absence to undergo three months of treatment. On Nov. 5, doctors announced that Pagano’s cancer was in remission.
In Pagano’s absence, Arians, the Colts offensive coordinator, led Indianapolis to a 9-3 record and a playoff berth before Pagano returned Dec. 24. This followed a 2-14 mark the year before — one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in NFL history — and for his efforts, Arians was named coach of the year.
Had it not been for that remarkable season, Arians, 61, might never have earned a shot at becoming a head coach in the NFL.
“How you get opportunities is one thing, but he’s certainly taking advantage of it,” Pagano said Wednesday during a conference call with Valley media members. “I think everybody in the coaching profession knows that was long overdue.”
Former Colts and current Cardinals Bradley Sowell and Jerraud Powers insisted that Arians would not treat this game any differently. When asked if Powers’ was accurate, Arians smiled.
“No, he’s not.” Arians said. “But I’ll hide it very well.”
Arians has always been billed as a players’ coach, and that description rings true for Powers, Sowell and his quarterback for that one season in Indy, Andrew Luck.
“He’s got an incredibly young soul. I think people of all ages get along with him,” Luck said. “He’s obviously outgoing, and his speech patterns or his dialect is very interesting. I couldn’t figure out if it was deep South, New Jersey; I couldn’t figure out where it came from, but he makes it work. He manages to get his points across in a great way. He knows when to yell at you and maybe when to give you a hug.”
Arians has also helped developed some of the league’s more accomplished quarterbacks. He worked with Peyton Manning during a prior stint with the Colts as quarterbacks coach from 1998-2000. He worked with Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers offensive coordinator from 2007-11. He had a brief stint with Luck, and now he’s with Carson Palmer, meaning he has worked with three No. 1 picks (Manning, Palmer, Luck) in his career.
“Bruce has done a great job with every quarterback he’s mentored and tutored along the way,” Pagano said.
During Pagano’s illness last year, Arians said he had no idea what he was doing as the interim coach; he was just doing the best job he could. But Sowell said that wasn’t the case at all.
“It was chaotic because it was a big change, but at the same time, he seemed so calm, and he made us feel the same,” Sowell said. “He’s real honest, and you know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s not going to be real long and just making stuff up. He’s right to the point, and I like that a lot.”
Arians has had plenty of time to reflect on just how improbable his first coaching opportunity was. He was close to retirement after the Steelers fired him. Then Pagano called to see if he would join his staff, setting off a chain of remarkable events in the 2012 season. When asked about it for the what seems like the 100th time on Wednesday, he sprinkled his usual brand of humor with a good dose of wisdom and perspective.”
“From re-fired, excuse me, retired, to this?” he said, chuckling. “I don’t think anybody would have ever dreamed it. It’s a fairytale.
“I hate that to get an opportunity to be a head coach we had to go through what we had to go through last year. But it was the only way. Winning Super Bowls and getting to Super Bowls (in Pittsburgh) wasn’t good enough. I’m glad that (Cardinals president) Michael (Bidwill) gave me this opportunity.”