INDIANAPOLIS – Bruce Arians slowly made his way through the concourse in the stadium he helped resuscitate last season, unable to go more than a few steps without another hand reaching out.
For a few minutes, it looked like a presidential candidate working a rope line. If there were a vote inside Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend, there’s a good chance Arians would’ve won in a landslide.
The handshakes came from friends, foes, fellow coaches and reporters, some of whom waited for Arians without having a question for him. They just wanted to congratulate the new Cardinals head coach on accomplishing a life-long goal.
Arians returned to Indianapolis for the first time since helping lead the Colts to a playoff run that captivated the NFL. It didn’t take long for the memories of a season so surreal, so emotional, so wild to come flooding back.
“As I drove up to the parking lot I had to sit in the car for a minute because it was an unusual year,” Arians said. “Lot of great memories that will never be forgotten, people, relationships that happened in this building. It was special.”
Arians stayed at his Indianapolis apartment all week, sleeping in his own bed, driving his own car. It won’t last for much longer, though. His lease is up in a few days and then it’ll be time to officially move to Arizona for the first head coaching job of his 38-year career.
Coming back to Indianapolis closed one chapter of his storied career and opened another. Before the combine, Arians said he planned to go to a couple of his favorite restaurants, Mesh and Dunaway’s, and wanted to have dinner with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. He wanted to get one more night out of the city he’s served twice.
Instead of sitting beside Colts coach Chuck Pagano in one of the luxury suites grading players and finding the next rookie gem, as he did last year with the Colts, Arians is captaining his own ship this year.
“It’s hard because we obviously have a strong relationship,” Pagano said. “He’s a great friend and confidant. It’s tough. You’re expecting him to walk into your suite at night and do interviews with you. He’s going to walk down to another suite and handle his own interviews.”
While Arians has moved on to a long-awaited step in his career, he’s still the same old Bruce. He wore a maroon Kangol hat all week and was making everyone laugh.
“When I see him I usually have a big smile on my face because he cracks me up,” Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson said. “And he’s a witty, witty guy and he’s forgotten probably more football than I know.”
By now, the Colts’ 2012 season is seared in the NFL’s memory book. Arians replaced Pagano, who was diagnosed with Leukemia after three games, and led the undermanned Colts to an unbelievable playoff run. The effort won Arians his first coach of the year award and it endeared him into the fabric of Indianapolis. He became a rock star last season and it carried over at the combine, where Pagano hadn’t seen Arians through the first few days except on TV.
When Arians took the stage for his press conference Thursday, Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano was walking off.
Schiano stopped, a wide smile on his face. Another handshake for Arians. Another congratulations.
“Not bad for two Jersey guys,” Schiano said.