Indianapolis Colts interim coach Bruce Arians finds himself in a rather odd position.
Arians, a long time assistant coach with the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Colts, had always harbored dreams of being a head coach in the National Football League. But he just never thought that his opportunity would ever come.
"Once, when the Cleveland [head coaching] job came open, I thought that I might get a call. Never really heard anything though," Arians said recently.
That's why, when he was forced out as an assistant in Pittsburgh after eight years as an assistant there (the final five as the team's offensive coordinator), the Patterson, New Jersey native figured his time in the NFL was through.
Arians was all set to retire with his wife Christine at their off-season home in Georgia. But life can sometimes offer up some strange turns. Such was the case for the former Virginia Tech quarterback.
Within days of being let go by Pittsburgh, Arians received a phone call from long time friend and former coaching cohort Chuck Pagano. The two had worked together in Cleveland as assistants and had developed a pretty strong friendship.
When Pagano was named as the Colts' new head coach, one of the first people he contacted about a position on his coaching staff was Arians.
"Are you retired?," Pagano asked. "Are you hiring?," his friend responded.
From that time on, the two have been paired at the hip. When Pagano was initially diagnosed with leukemia in September, one of the first people he told was Arians. And when somebody had to be named to be the Colts' interim coach while Pagano went through treatments to battle the disease, once again the obvious answer was Arians.
A former head coach on the collegiate level at Temple for six seasons, he had experience at running a team on his own. As an assistant coach in Indianapolis in the late 1990s, he served as Peyton Manning's first quarterbacks coach in the league. Later on, he worked with former No. 1 pick Tim Couch in Cleveland and then first-round pick Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
Arians was the perfect choice to help develop and nurture the talents of Indianapolis' No. 1 pick, quarterback Andrew Luck. And, as things have worked themselves out over the last month and a half, he has proven to be the right man for the job in taking over for Pagano.
Indianapolis goes into this afternoon's road game with the New England Patriots owning a somewhat surprising 6-3 won-loss record. Five of those victories have come after Arians assumed the mantle of interim coach.
Luck, for his part, isn't surprised at how well his position coach has handled the dual roles of head coach and offensive coordinator.
"Yeah, it’s, I guess, an unprecedented situation. But I think the guys have handled it very well. Coach Arians has done a great job. Most importantly, Chuck [Pagano] built a great foundation and I think everybody realizes what his vision was and it’s easy to buy into that," the Colts' first-year signal caller said late last week.
"I think Coach Arians has a great feel for what the next steps are and obviously Chuck’s still very heavily involved through text messages and phone calls and all that. I think it’s easy when you have a good plan. It’s easy for us players to buy in."
The team's success on the field has come, in some measure, to the Colts bonding together as a group quicker than most would have anticipated. Especially with a rebuilt roster, a new coaching staff, and a new general manager [Ryan Grigson].
Throw in the uncertainty of Pagano's illness and questions over when he return to the sidelines, it's made Arians' job that much tougher.
"I think when football teams bond together and put egos aside, some call it chemistry, teams that go to the Super Bowl, honest to God care about each other. Offense, defense, special teams, there are no egos on who’s getting the credit. This team found a purpose. Unfortunately because our coach got sick and that’s a shame," he said last week.
"He’s fighting for his life and it’s nothing more than asking, ‘How about we go fight for every game and extend this season until he can come back?’ We have a date we’re all hoping that he can lead us down the tunnel on December 30 [against Houston at Lucas Oil Stadium] if all things go well. And, if not, we need to have this season extended until he can do that. I think that each man in the locker room, each coach and everybody in the Colts organization, is striving to do the same thing. When you have everybody on the same page and you take egos out of it, you play your best football."
Arians has tried to make one thing clear during the Colts' current run of success. He gives all the credit to Pagano and the systems that he put in place this past spring and during training camp. To his way of thinking, he's just keeping the seat warm for his friend.
That's not to say that he isn't enjoying the ride though.
“I’d be lying if I said ‘No’. Yeah, I don’t like the way it happened obviously. But, yeah, under the circumstances, I’m enjoying every minute of it," Arians voiced. "Didn’t know that I would ever get an opportunity to do this and blessed to be in this organization at this time."