Arians gets taste of NFL head-coaching with Colts

Bruce Arians is 1-1 in his stint as the Colts' interim head coach.
Bruce Arians is 1-1 in his stint as the Colts' interim head coach. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 17, 2012

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Since leaving the Temple sideline after the 1988 season, interim Colts head coach Bruce Arians has spent more than 20 years in the NFL. His career has spanned five franchises, included two Super Bowl rings, and has encompassed every offensive job from coordinator to tight-ends coach.

But never once has he been invited to interview for an NFL head-coaching position.

Last week, he suggested that maybe it is because of his brutal honesty. On Sunday, minutes after his young team was walloped by the Jets, it wasn't hard to see what he meant.

"It was very simple," Arians said when asked what happened in the game. "If you can't block and you can't tackle, you can't win."

Arians, who coached the Owls from 1983-88, now faces a uniquely delicate task in Indianapolis. Hired in January as offensive coordinator by first-time head coach and longtime friend Chuck Pagano, Arians was named interim coach 2 weeks ago when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia.

After a thrilling, emotional comeback win over the Packers last week, his Colts laid an egg on Sunday in the Meadowlands, losing to the Jets, 35-9. Afterward, Arians reeled off his team's deficiencies like he was reading a laundry list, even describing the play of prized phenom quarterback Andrew Luck as "rookie" and "too anxious."

"First and foremost, quit turning the ball over," he said. "You're not going to beat anyone on the road turning it over. And we have got to create turnovers. This football team - the Jets - had turned it over in 16 straight games. We didn't get any."

Arians was disgusted with his team's tackling, adding, "It is fundamentals: fake punts, stopping the run, protecting the quarterback. Red-zone offense and defense were the keys to the game, and we didn't win in any of those areas."

In his mind, he knew why his team lost and when asked, this "head coach" shared it, candid and uncut. Imagine that.

But Arians has always been that way. At his core, he is a football coach in the same way that Eagles defensive line guru Jim Washburn is a football coach. He screams and yells. He kicks butt. Beating around the bush is not in his arsenal and at age 60, it probably never will be.

"He doesn't play politics," said Paul Palmer, who was the 1986 Heisman Trophy runner-up at Temple under Arians before going on to his own NFL career. "He is a football coach, not a politician. He wants things a certain way and will voice his opinion about his desire for it to be that way."

Palmer, who still owns the Owls' rushing record with 4,895 career yards, expects his former coach to thrive as the head man in Indianapolis. Behind Arians' tough exterior lies a knowledgeable and nurturing teacher. According to Palmer, that combination is what makes him an asset on the sideline.

"He can go both ways," Palmer said. "If you need to get chewed out, he will chew you out. But another thing he does - and I saw it on ESPN - he went over to Andrew Luck, and he just talked to him. It was almost father-to-son kind of. And then he gave him a nice little slap on the face."

Arians' critiques of Luck aside, the rookie quarterback is in capable hands with him. Arians was Peyton Manning's first quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis and, as the Steelers' offensive coordinator from 2007-11, Arians played a vital role in Ben Roethlisberger's transformation from game manager to Pro Bowl passer.

So in that respect, this is familiar territory for Arians. What isn't, however, is being the man in charge. Arians is starting to settle in after a hectic first couple of weeks.

"This week was a little easier than last week, obviously, with all the details of what to do that are different for me," he said.

He has said that he only considers this an "expanded role as coordinator" until Pagano, who handpicked Arians for the role, returns from leukemia treatment. The Colts are still very much Pagano's team.

Posters with Pagano's face and the slogan "Chuckstrong" covered the walls of the visitors locker room on Sunday. Arians, who served with Pagano on the Cleveland Browns staff from 2001-03, specifically requested that the light in Pagano's office at the team's facility be left on until he is back.

But that doesn't mean that Arians can't use this situation for what it is: an opportunity to learn what goes into being an NFL head coach. With two drastically different games under his belt, he already has experienced the ups and downs that come with the job.

In his place, what Pagano probably wants most from his friend is to ensure that the arrow continues to point up for the young Colts as they await his return. If it does, Arians might just get that interview that has eluded him for so long.

"I got a message from [Pagano] right before the game," Arians said after Sunday's loss. "He said he had his best night so far. It was really uplifting. Hopefully he can sleep tonight. I won't."

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