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Bruce Arians: On Bear Bryant, Love of the Long Ball, and Why the Game Should Survive

After more than four decades in football—from QB at Virginia Tech, through a stint under Bear Bryant and numerous NFL stops—the Cardinals coach is moving on to new things (golf, maybe media). He talks to Peter King about his an accomplished career, and why the game should survive

It’s been a heck of a run, and a heck of a football life, for Bruce Arians, who retired last week as Arizona Cardinals coach. In order, Arians was the starting quarterback at Virginia Tech, running for more touchdowns in a season than Michael Vick ever did later for the Hokies; coached under Bear Bryant in Bryant’s last season at Alabama; served as head coach at Temple; was Peyton Manning’s first NFL quarterback coach in 1998; served as offensive coordinator of the Browns and Steelers and Colts (and coached Tim Couch, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck along the way); took over as Colts coach when Chuck Pagano was sidelined with leukemia in 2012, became the only interim coach in NFL history to be named coach of the year after going 9-3 that season; and, at 60, finally got his shot to be an NFL head coach—with Arizona, where he served five seasons and built the NFL’s number one offense in 2015.

Arians coached football for 43 years, in 11 places, from Blacksburg to Starkville to Tuscaloosa to Philadelphia to Kansas City, back to Starkville, to New Orleans, back to Tuscaloosa, to Indianapolis to Cleveland to Pittsburgh, back to Indianapolis, and finally to Arizona.

He did it his way—as a cantankerous, anti-West Coast offense, pro-bombs-away coach who hated much of the current horizontal passing game but loved the lessons that football could teach and fought those who sought to divert youth from playing the game. 

When I reached out to him on the night of his last football game, Dec. 31 in Seattle, trying to find out if this was the end for him, Arians uncharacteristically ignored a text message. The next morning, early, he sent this text:

“Sorry Pete I looked at 65 messages on my phone and turned it off and started drinking. Happy new year”

This week, without an offseason to organize, Arians went golfing. Four times. And he talked about football.

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The MMQB: Couldn’t help but think, watching how the college football season ended with the young Alabama quarterback throwing a bomb to win the game in overtime, that you were looking on and cheering—not just because it was Alabama, but because of the bomb to win.

Arians: Yeah. What a great play, looking off the Cover-2 safety to get the receiver as open as he was. Great poise, and a hell of a throw for a freshman.

The MMQB: You were able to build a pretty insulated, tight culture with the Cardinals, where inside stuff was kept inside the team. That showed after your last game. You told your team in the locker room after the game that you were done, and no one blabbed. They let you make the announcement your way the next day.

Arians: We put something on our shirts, given to the players, that we live by: Trust, loyalty, respect. Everything that happens in our locker room is amongst us. No one knows our business, and no one interferes with our business. Outside noise … nothing matters, and we keep things in-house. People lose mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers. People might get in trouble, and it stays inside. I heard two or three guys were asked point blank about my situation after that last game, and they lied about it. They were protecting the team, like we always do.

The MMQB: Will you miss it?

Arians: Yes and no. I will be in a training camp this summer. It might be the Jets [with friend and former assistant Todd Bowles]. It depends on who the Cardinals hire. I will be at training camp. I will miss the players, I will miss the coaches. The game, I think the game and me, we owe each other nothing. We’re even.

The MMQB: What will you miss the most?

Arians: The players. Those relationships, watching guys grow. From the Andrew Lucks to the Ricky Seals-Joneses … the great players, and then the guys that have no chance and they work and improve and then they can play with the guys that are great. You miss that. That’s what I’ve done for my whole life so I’ll miss that.

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I actually played golf for the first time today, and I left my phone in my locker. Wow, that’s a big step. The guys [at the course] are kidding me. “Only six days, and we’ve seen you four.” I said, “Well, I wasn’t here for a year and a half!”

The MMQB: Think you can find something to replace coaching?

Arians: No.

The MMQB: What would your old mentor, Bear Bryant, think about your career?

Arians: I would hope he’d be proud. There is one person now that is still coaching who was under coach Bryant too, and that’s [running backs coach] Sylvester Croom with the Titans. We were on the same staff together. I would think [Bryant] would be proud of the way we did it. I always remembered his best advice: Coach ’em hard, hug ’em later. We coached ’em hard and we hugged ’em later. And the last thing he would say is, Keep your damn head down when you’re playing golf.

The MMQB: As the game evolved into more of a controlled, short-passing style, you didn’t change. You always took shots downfield, and took pride in being sort of anti-West Coast. Why?

Arians: History says you cannot nickel-and-dime your way in the NFL. You have to have chunk plays. And our goal was to have six chunks every game, and hopefully two of those chunks were touchdowns. The statistics would say you would win those games. I respect Bill Walsh. I hate the West Coast offense. I do love the style and understand it, but unless you have Joe Montana and guys like Jerry Rice who would take a five-yard pass and go 25—and that’s okay because we kind of turned into that some in later years because we couldn’t protect, and we had that in our offense—but those chunk plays, man that’s what I love and that’s what I believe in. When I played quarterback, I lived for that play, and I guess that really goes back to that wishbone philosophy: We’re going to run, run, run, but when we throw, we want a big-play touchdown.

Even with David Johnson in the last couple years, out of the backfield, we’d use him deep. Some of the times, he was the one going deep because he was the mismatch. You have to find the mismatch and what safeties are going to bite. It’s like throwing a lure out in the lake and you know that big bass that is going to jump. It depends which one of those two safeties is back there because he is going to jump on that lure and we’ll get that touchdown.

The MMQB: You and Carson Palmer …

Arians: A match made in heaven. Still the best deep-ball thrower I have ever seen, and I have had some great ones. But his deep ball was just a thing of beauty. He threw it effortlessly, and it just dropped on a dime every time.

• A PETER KING CLASSIC, PART I: Installing a Game Plan, with Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians 
​• A PETER KING CLASSIC, PART II: Palmer, Arians and the Cardinals’ Game Plan in Action

The MMQB: Why should football survive?

Arians: Young men can’t learn life lessons in other sports the way they do in football. It’s tough. You learn yourself. You learn who you really are. You learn how to be a man playing this game. I played all those other sports. I know the risks in football, and there is new information coming out. I really wish that someone would study CTE in soccer players, hockey players, other than just football players. My wife was in two bad car accidents. I would love to know if she has a chance of having some problem and how they would fix it.

The MMQB: The game will miss you.

Arians: Hopefully I get to join your side, in the media. I hope to continue some kind of a career in television, and start some new journey that gets me excited to be around people and stay in the game. I hope it works out. I’ll probably have to give a whole paycheck back for cussing all the time on the air, but I would love to do it.

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