INDIANAPOLIS – On Monday, Colts players gave Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians some good-natured ribbing about his place on the practice field.
The jawing was a bit of “safe haven” relief the players engaged in while on the field to ease their minds over the illness that their head coach, Chuck Pagano, was battling.
Arians took the hoots in stride since they were helping him cope with the process, too.
“The defensive guys were really shook up when I was cheering for them (Monday),” said Arians. “They couldn’t believe it. A couple of offensive guys go, ‘He’s traded on me already.’ I said, ‘No it’s just different now.’ It’s different, you can’t deny that. There are a couple of defensive players I had to learn their names real quick.”
While Arians was receiving a crash course in mixing with 53 players rather than just his typical offensive bunch, what was not necessary was brushing up on his coaching skills. Those are skills honed over many successful seasons.
“It wasn’t his looks,” kidded Pagano when asked earlier this year about what attracted him to Arians. “I’ve known Bruce (since) we worked together in Cleveland in 2001. His track record speaks for itself. When he became available, I thought there was no way a guy like that (would be out there) with his track record, what he has done and what he has been able to do as far as an offensive coordinator in this league. He was officially retired for two days. He is a brilliant offensive coordinator, and he works great with the guys. We hit a home run.”
That Arians is the club-picked pinch-hitter for Pagano now is not surprising.
“Bruce has called plays at the highest level. He’s won a Super Bowl,” said Pagano. “His philosophy matches our philosophy. (I like) his passion and energy…he’s a brilliant guy. He thinks outside the box. I feel really fortunate that Bruce is with us.”
Arians has 19 years experience in the NFL. He is serving in his second stint with the Colts, previously being the quarterbacks coach under Head Coach Jim Mora and Offensive Coordinator Tom Moore from 1998-2000. Arians has more than 35 years coaching experience, serving at four different universities and with five different NFL teams.
It was in his first stint at Alabama (1981-82) that Arians had his initial chance to land a head coaching job. He remembers his exchange with the legendary Paul (Bear) Bryant.
“I said, ‘Hey, coach, I have a shot at the Temple head coaching job.’ I was 30 years old,” said Arians. “He said, ‘Really?’ I said they were going to bring me in for an interview. He asked, ‘Do you want it?’ I told him my goal was to be a head coach, and I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘You may never get another shot. If you can get it, get it.’ ”
Alabama went on to win the Liberty Bowl that year (1982) in what would be Bryant’s last game. Before he retired, Arians remembers one of his last private moments with The Bear.
“We got back to Tuscaloosa after we won the game and I heard him whistling coming down the hallway,” said Arians. “That was always a good sign. He poked his head in my door and asked, ‘Do you want that job?’ I said, ‘Yes, coach.’ He said, ‘You got it.’ ”
Arians did not land the Colts’ interim position Monday under such ideal circumstances. He has been a long-time friend of Pagano and Pagano’s entire family. He coached with John Pagano in his first Colts stint, and he considers the entire Pagano family as a West Coast version of his own family.
Arians is tied so similarly with Pagano that he believes there will not be undue interruption in routines. He also knows the best way to approach his new role.
“Our philosophy is so similar. As far as practices and schedules, those are all set in stone,” said Arians. “Our guys are used to what we do Monday through Saturday. We’ll continue on that road.
“As far as the rest, you have to be yourself. I learned watching all those guys who became head coaches under Coach Bryant’s staff at Alabama try to be him. The one thing he told me when I became the 47th is, ‘Just be you.’ … You have to be yourself. I have my own way of communicating, which usually is not printable, but I will be me.”
Arians keeps a picture of Bryant in his Colts office. He has had the keepsake of Bryant since his days at Temple. It will remain with him always, just as will his favorite all-time quote. Fittingly, Arians picked it up in Tuscaloosa.
“Coach Bryant would say, ‘Coach ‘em hard, hug ‘em later. It’s not what you know, it’s what you can teach,’ ” said Arians. “Coach Bryant was so successful and touched so many lives, yet he was simple, direct and sincere in how to get results. Every coach who worked under him benefited from his ways, and I remind myself as often as I can about what I learned from him.
“It was an unbelievable learning experience every day. … He was much more human than people think. He had a great sense of people. I think he was the best personnel manager I’ve ever seen.
“As (others) left our staff to become head coaches, you knew that was the way to do it – coach ‘em hard, hug ‘em later.”