TAMPA — When Bruce Arians received his first opportunity to be an NFL head coach seven years ago with the Colts, it was under difficult of circumstances. He was thrust into the role when Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia four weeks into the schedule.
Arians made it clear he was simply a fill-in. The light in Pagano’s office remained on. No one sat in Pagano’s seat on the team bus. Pagano’s locker at Lucas Oil Stadium was prepared every game day. When the players broke the huddle after ever practice, it was always with, “1-2-3, Chuck.”
“I never considered myself the head coach,” Arians said. “We had a head coach. I just took a larger decision-making role.”
Still, what Arians did during that 2012 season, leading the Colts to a 9-3 record in Pagano’s absence, gave him cache he had never had as an assistant for 19 years, proof that he could lead a team. After that season, he received his first NFL head coaching job, with the Cardinals.
If not for his interim stint with the Colts, “I’d never be a head coach,” Arians said this week.
“After Super Bowl 43, the game-winning drive, I never got a call,” he said, referring to the Steelers’ win over the Cardinals in Tampa in 2009 when he was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator. “Usually, a coordinator, after winning a Super Bowl, at least gets a call. So I had kind of written head coaching off.
“I had a great job (with the Colts), and I loved it. All of a sudden (after 2012), I had seven interviews.”
But that season wasn’t about Arians getting his shot. It was “a miracle season,” as Arians calls it, one that triumphed over adversity on the field and off. Along the way, Arians made an impact on the Colts organization that has stood the test of time.
“I wasn’t here then,” said current Colts coach Frank Reich, whose team takes on Arians’ Bucs on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. “But I know this for sure: People still talk about Bruce. He just makes an impact everywhere he goes. … He built himself an incredible reputation and resume with how he deals with players and coaches, and has just been a winner everywhere he goes.”
This was before Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” motto, before the cool flat cap, before he was anointed a quarterback whisperer. Arians was in uncharted territory, and he was nervous.
Before Arians’ first game as interim head coach, Colts owner Jim Irsay predicted that Indianapolis was going to beat the Packers and he was going to deliver the game ball to Pagano in the hospital. Arians said that the only other time he’d felt so much pressure was as an Alabama assistant coaching Bear Bryant’s final game 30 years earlier.
The Colts trailed 21-3 at halftime, and Arians walked into a locker room full of hanging heads.
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But he was calm. He knew his players were too emotional. He told them a comeback begins with one play. Do your job. Get a turnover. Make something happen. It will snowball from there.
“Everybody paid attention, and everybody woke up,” said Bucs assistant head coach/run game coordinator Harold Goodwin, the offensive line coach on that staff. “I think everybody was still kind of feeling sorry for themselves and were in missing-Chuck mode.”
The Colts came back to win 30-27 on an Andrew Luck touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 39 seconds left in the game. Arians says the win is one of the three biggest of his career.
“There was just that look in (Arians’) eyes where he knew we were going to win the game,” said Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, who had the same role on that Colts staff. “He didn’t flinch, which is probably his No. 1 characteristic. That’s what I remember about it, that you looked into his eyes and you believed he was going to win that game. … And then we just went out an played like that.”
Pagano, now the Bears’ defensive coordinator, had just been hired by the Colts that offseason following a 2-14 season and an acrimonious parting with franchise quarterback Peyton Manning. Indianapolis was rebuilding, with a new staff and No. 1 overall draft pick Luck quarterbacking an offense that had six rookie starters. The Colts placed 13 players on injured reserve over the course of the season.
“It wasn’t a really talented team,” Arians said. “We were just starting. We brought in a lot of guys off the street, but they had a common cause. It just resonated with those guys. They were going to win for Chuck until Chuck could come back.”
While Pagano received treatment, Arians took an iPad loaded with game film and practice reports to his hospital bed every week to discuss game planning. Initially, those sessions weren’t very productive because Pagano couldn’t talk because of massive headaches he was suffering. Gradually, Arians said, he started to see Pagano get better.
“I don’t think there could have been a better person than (Arians) to take on that challenge,” said Bucs offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, the Colts’ assistant offensive line coach that season. “In this profession, some people would look at that and say, ‘This is my opportunity.’ (Arians) said, ’Hey, I’m just the guy who is going to facilitate keeping things the status quo until the boss gets back,’ and I think was really important.”
Wins began to stack up. Of the nine games the Colts won under Arians, eight were by a touchdown or less. Confidence and momentum built, culminating with a surprise visit from Pagano at halftime before Indianapolis won 20-13 in Kansas City on Dec. 23 on a late fourth-quarter touchdown.
“Everyone just bought into Bruce and thought, ‘Hey, we can win all these games,’ ” Christensen said. “I think the team just took on (Arians’) personality that we had nothing to lose. Our head coach is fighting for his life. What’s this compared to cancer? Let’s go play football.
“And he led the way with his swagger. It was probably the loosest, freest-playing team I was every associated with, and I think it was because of him.”
Pagano returned the week after the Chiefs game. The Colts made the playoffs, losing to the Ravens in the wild-card round, and Arians was named AFC coach of the year.
“It changed me,” Arians said. “I realized one thing. If I ever got the opportunity, that I could call plays and be a head coach. … And I learned how to delegate, which I didn’t learn how to do when I was a young head coach (at Temple). … I learned (delegating) works. You let people do their job.”
Arians has faced the Colts before as a head coach since that 2012 season. In 2017, his Cardinals beat the Colts in Indianapolis 16-13 in overtime. Still, Arians knows that today he will think back to that special year.
“It’s always special, and there’s always a little blue horseshoe in my heart, and also because I grew up a Colts fan, the Baltimore Colts,” said Arians, from York, Pa., about 60 miles northwest of Baltimore. “That was my team. My brother was a Packers fan, and we’d always fight over it. But it was a very special year that I’ll never, ever forget.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.