For nearly three months, Bruce Arians looked toward Chuck Pagano’s office as he walked out of the Indianapolis Colts practice facility and saw a light on.
Except Pagano wasn’t there.
His office was empty.
But every night, when the players were long gone and the coaching staff was locking up, the office remained lit while Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia.
When Arians left the facility on Christmas Eve last month, he glanced at Pagano’s office as usual. This night the light was off. Pagano had come and gone.
“I had to sit in my car for a minute and dry up the tears,” Arians said Thursday afternoon after he interviewed for the Cardinals’ vacant head coaching job. “It was a special Christmas Eve for me, personally, and we had already clinched a playoff spot.”
Thursday evening, Arians accepted the Cardinals’ offer to be their next head coach. He became a candidate in large part because of the way he handled his year in Indianapolis, and the emotional way the season developed.
The last year was a whirlwind for Arians, who left his post as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator last January around this time, only to be brought back to Indianapolis by Pagano.
The season took a twist three games in, however. Pagano took a leave from the team while he was treated for acute myeloid leukemia and Arians was promoted to interim coach. During the next 12 games, he led the unheralded Colts to a 9-3 record and a playoff berth. His success didn’t go unnoticed. He was showered with acclaim throughout the league, which is likely to culminate with a coach of the year award.
After being passed over for head coaching jobs in the past, Arians felt he was on the brink of fulfilling a lifelong goal.
“When a team wins, opportunities present themselves for everyone,” he said. “Some head coaching opportunities and chances to speak to teams have occurred for me. I’ve looked forward to this one for a while.”
While his career continuously prepped him for the next step, his time in Indianapolis groomed him to be a head coach.
He learned how to delegate, yet Arians was adamant he’d be calling the Cardinals’ plays. He’ll still have an offensive coordinator, however.
“I’m never going to look over a guy’s shoulder and say, ‘Why did you call that?’” Arians said. “So I will call the plays. I’ve done it now. It’s easy. There are plenty of hours in the day to do both.”
He learned that relationships are the key to being a head coach. Arians has spent his entire coaching career – 20 years in the NFL and 18 in college – on offense but when he took over in Indianapolis he had to quickly learn how to interact with the defense.
Arians has built a reputation on developing talent. He was Peyton Manning’s first quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis and has worked with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. And one of his greatest coaching achievements came last season, when rookie Andrew Luck emerged as the talent the Colts expected when they took him first in the NFL Draft.
But Arians had his hands full all season. He joked that the Colts were bringing in five new players every Monday. At one point, 11 players on the team hadn’t even met Pagano. Arians was running the offense, running the team and had to learn a new set of first names every Saturday because “I’ve got to cheer him on tomorrow.”
The Cardinals went through a similar stretch of turnover, and if it were to happen again, Arians would be ready for it.
Actually, last season helped Arians prepare for it all.
He worked with an elite quarterback. He helped a team defy expectations. He juggled new faces. He managed an offense while managing a team.
He was a head coach.
“I feel like what we did with young football players in Indianapolis this year shows that it can be done with young players if it has to be done,” Arians said. “Each year is a new year. No team is the same. Nothing stays the same. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Somebody is going to outwork you or do something better. Each year brings a whole new set of bodies, a whole new set of circumstances and you watch that team mold and become one.”
For the first time in his career, Arians can say that as a head coach.