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The NFL’s midseason frontrunner for coach of the year on his football life, getting fired in Pittsburgh, babysitting Tiki and Ronde, and lessons learned from Bear Bryant, Peyton Manning and Wally Pipp

By Peter King
November 05, 2014

One of my great memories from the first year of The MMQB came in June 2013, when I got to sit in on an offensive play-installation meeting at the Arizona Cardinals’ facility in Tempe. Head coach Bruce Arians prowled the front of the room, changing the tone and timber and urgency of his voice often, so the players didn’t get bored, and went through some pass plays that would be featured that day on the practice field. What interested me the most was a certain attitude Arians had about the passing game that runs counter to the approach of most other teams—actually, just about all other teams. Arians won’t turn down those move-the-sticks completions. But his mantra, stated two or three ways, was best summed up after watching a Carson Palmer checkdown from the previous day’s practice.

Arians was ticked off, and let Palmer know.

“We never, ever want to pass on the home run to complete a short fade,” Arians said.

That day, kicker Jay Feely told me, “Bruce is Rex Ryan without the bravado. Accountability is his big trait. He knows exactly how to get his point across.’’

It’s working. Arizona is an NFL-best 7-1 and the only team unbeaten in conference play at the season’s midpoint. His best call of the first half came 10 days ago against Philadelphia, illustrating his philosophy perfectly: Trailing by three with 1:33 left, on a third-and-five from their own 25-yard line, Palmer threw an all-or-nothing bomb. The 75-yard TD pass to John Brown beat the Eagles.

So, in this episode of Unplugged, we begin with just where Arians developed that coaching boldness.

On his offensive style

“I think just through the years, people I’ve been around, have taught me this way. Starting with my head coach in college, Jimmy Sharp at Virginia Tech. Take chances. If the chances make sense, take ’em. I was a quarterback, and we ran the wishbone. On our one-yard line, if they pressed our wide receivers, even though we got 99 yards to go, and we need to get away from goal line, he wouldn’t care. He’d call the ‘go’ route. It’s always been my approach. We’ll build a play with first-down capabilities, but also touchdown/downtown capability too. My quarterback has to know: If you have the right matchup, take it.

“When I came here we got Drew Stanton, who I had at Indy [in 2012], and who I knew had that mentality. That was one. That’s why we wanted Carson Palmer. When he was in Cincinnati, he had Chad Johnson and Chris Henry there, and I was coaching in Pittsburgh, and Carson used to drop bombs on us all the time. Henry, especially, was dangerous. So I knew Carson would be right for us—he could play the way I wanted to play.’’

On indoctrinating his quarterbacks

“Oh, yeah, veteran quarterbacks especially, they always want to take the completions. Which is good mostly. But when Carson first got here, he looked at me like I was crazy. I’d tell him, ‘Have fun. Throw it! This is what we do.’ He was like, ‘Really? I can look at the deep ball like that?’ Our reads are often checkdown or touchdown. With the young quarterbacks, it’s easier. Like with Andrew Luck [in Indianapolis, 2012, when Arians was his first offensive coordinator in the NFL]. He loved it. I would say, ‘Andrew, this is easy. I don’t care if it’s third-and-three, if you’ve got T.Y. Hilton deep, throw it.’ We got along great. He was the perfect student.”

On getting fired in Pittsburgh after the 2011 season

“I was in Mike’s [Tomlin] office on a Friday after the season ended, and I was getting ready to head to the lake [his lake house in Georgia]. We had a great conversation, and he said we’d talk some more on Monday. So he called me Monday, and said they were going to make a change. He wanted to fly down in person. I said, ‘No, don’t waste your time. You’re the head coach, you do what you think is best.’ So I walked upstairs and told my wife, ‘We just got fired.’ She started laughing. I said it again, and she started to chew me out for kidding around. Then I said, ‘I AM SERIOUS. WE GOT FIRED.’ So that was that.’’

On bitterness

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“No. Are you kidding? Coaches have to make decisions that are best for the team. That’s what they felt. I have always believed things happen for a reason. I started working for an agent a couple days later. I was tutoring Justin Blackmon before the draft. I was going to retire and just work with some players.’’

‘Things happen for a reason.’

“My wife and I are driving along in Georgia right after I left the Steelers. A couple days after. My phone rings. On the screen it says, ‘CHUCK PAGANO.’ He just got the Indy job. My wife says to me, ‘S---, you’re gonna take this job.’

“Things happen for a reason. Think about it. Chuck’s the defensive coordinator in Baltimore. They just lost the AFC title game in New England. If that kid [Lee Evans] doesn’t drop the touchdown at the end of the game for Baltimore against the Patriots, Chuck’s in the Super Bowl and this never happens. The Colts hire someone else. That’s what I mean: Things happen for a reason.

“So I answer this phone call from Chuck. I could tell in his voice how excited he was. Peyton Manning was still there, and obviously I had a relationship with Peyton from my years coaching him in Indy. I had just talked to Peyton maybe a week before, about maybe coming to work out with him, to throw some with him. Then I went to meet with Chuck. There was great emotion that day, because I loved Indy when I was there—loved Mr. [Jim] Irsay. The decision was easy. I wanted to work for Chuck, and he wanted me to be his offensive coordinator.’’

On replacing Pagano while he was out with leukemia

“I made that real easy for myself, and for everyone there. I never allowed anyone to call me the head coach. I never assumed I would be the head coach. Chuck was the head coach every day he was gone. I simply expanded my role, like, ‘We’re going for it on fourth down.’ I made sure everyone knew who the head coach was. We had Chuck’s locker set up every game. No one took his seat on the bus. No one ever turned the lights off in his office.

“I never feared losing but two times in my life.

“First time was in 1982 on the staff at Alabama. It was coach Bryant’s last game, the Liberty Bowl against Illinois. We all knew we could not lose coach Bryant’s last game. Nobody could live with himself if we let coach Bryant down. And we won that one.

“Second time was the first game Chuck was out. Mr. Irsay said, ‘We’re gonna win this game and go give Chuck the game ball.’ That’s some pressure right there. And we’re playing Green Bay! We’re down 21-3 at the half. My son’s on the sidelines that day and I bounce an idea off him. I say, ‘I think we’re gonna go no-huddle in the second half. I think it’s our only chance to win.’ So we come back and win 30-27. You talk about emotional relief.’’

On having the NFL's best record despite the defensive losses

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“Injuries happen to everybody. Free-agent losses happen to everybody. I preach and preach and preach, ‘The most valuable player on the team is not Larry Fitzgerald. It’s who’s gonna take his place after Larry Fitzgerald gets hurt.’ It happened to me. I was the next man up. I was the assistant coach, and 20 hours after Chuck goes down I am running the team. You’re expected to raise your level of play, no matter what your job is.

“I always tell the Wally Pipp story, even though the players never know who he is, that he’s the guy Lou Gehrig replaced and Wally Pipp could never get his job back. The worst part? They don’t know who Lou Gehrig is.’’

On his favorite phrase: ‘Son of a b----’

“I don’t know how that happened. But it fits me.’’

On not seeing color

“My freshman year at Virginia Tech, 1970, I had an African-American roommate. J.B. Barber, who became Tiki and Ronde’s father. We were the first inter-racial roommates ever at Virginia Tech. That never bothered me. I was the perfect fit, an inner-city kid [born in Paterson, N.J.]. I played on mostly African-American teams growing up, so it was no big deal to me. J.B. was really cool, but it was a shock to a lot of the southern guys at Virginia Tech. J.B. and I kind of grew up together, playing together and then coaching the year after we got out of college together at Virginia Tech.

“We used to babysit the twins sometimes. Tiki would always get sick; he had fevers and some convulsions. So we would just have Ronde sometimes while they took care of Tiki. Man, the pictures from those days are priceless. I used to have a big perm, this wild hairdo.’’

On his first head-coaching job, at the age of 30, at Temple in 1983

“Extremely frustrating. They had a Division III mentality trying to play a Division I schedule. I scheduled Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Florida State, Nebraska, BYU. I wanted to model the program after what Howard Schnellenberger did at Miami—playing the best teams in the country. That part was fun. The losing, not fun. We had some good wins. First year, we lost to Pitt 35-0. Next year, at the Vet, we beat Pitt [13-12] on an out-and-up route on third-and-18 late in the game. That was a thrill. Twenty minutes after the game, I’m on stage with the Beach Boys, who were doing a post-game concert there. That was fun.”

On being Peyton Manning’s first pro quarterback coach

“I always think coaching’s more fun in the hard times, when they’re just learning. I loved coaching Peyton Manning. The early times were great. I remember in New England his rookie year, he’d just thrown about his fifth interception of the day [actually third] and we’re getting killed [29-0 early in the fourth quarter]. He comes over to the sidelines and I say, ‘Dude, you’re not coming out of the game. We’re going no-huddle now. You’re gonna learn something now.’

“Watching him grow, watching Ben [Roethlisberger] grow, watching Andrew [Luck] grow, now watching Carson re-grow I guess you’d call it … That’s coaching. That’s coaching, boy.”

On the most misunderstood player he coached

“Tim Couch. Hell of a player. Tim was no bust. It kills me when people call him a bust. His arm was just so torn up he couldn’t play anymore. He would have been a real good one.”

On the coaching life

“Oh my God, it’s been the best life you could ever have. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve had kids from Temple on my staff—and offered other kids I had at Temple jobs. I cherish my relationships with so many guys I’ve coached—Ben, Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne, so many others. They see me, they call me coach. That means everything. To get a call from any of my former players asking advice, that’s the biggest thrill in the world I could have.’’

On the lesson he cherishes from Bear Bryant

“Coach ’em hard. Hug ’em later.”

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