Bear Bryant asked Bruce Arians the question.
It was 1981, seven years after Arians played his last game at Virginia Tech under Jimmy Sharpe, a Bryant disciple known as one of the Bear’s top lieutenants.
Arians was interviewing for an assistant’s job at Alabama, which was just one season removed from back-to-back national championships and two seasons away from its most famous coach retiring. Bryant got right to the point.
“What are your goals?” Bryant asked.
Arians’ answer had been resting in the chamber since 1975 when he became a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech. He was locked and loaded. He fired back.
Arians wanted to be a head coach. Eventually an NFL head coach.
“I think he respected that and I don’t think either one of us thought it’d happen in two years,” said Arians, who became Temple’s head coach in 1983, a year after turning 30.
Like most coaches on every sideline in America, Arians used his jobs as a stepping stone to the next position, always bigger, always brighter.
Thirty-eight years later, Arians has climbed the coaching ladder and is standing on the top rung as one of 32 men managing an NFL team. Steadying him is a staff of young and old, black and white, former players and lifelong coaches, NFL and college men, some of whom Arians has known since he was senior in Blacksburg, Va., and some whom he met last fall when he moved to Indianapolis.
Through 12 coaching stops, Arians compiled an extensive list of dos and don’ts, alongside another list of who he wanted to bring along for his first head coaching job.
“It’s been on-going for years,” Arians said. “I always said if I was a head coach, these guys – these types of guys – are the guys I want.”
That list started when Arians was a senior at Virginia Tech and new Cardinals defensive backs coach Nick Rapone was a freshman. Along the way, through the NFL and the SEC, he’d have conversations with his friends, usually hypotheticals, typically dreams.
They frequently started the same way: “When I become a coach…”
Arians and Rapone stayed in touch year-round, always talking about the next possible opportunity. The two understood how rare NFL coaching opportunities were, and Rapone knew Arians had the makeup for the job. So when a text came in from Arians inviting Rapone to join his Cardinals’ staff, he jumped at the chance.
With another coach, a deal was struck.
Those “when I…” conversations between Arians and Todd Bowles began in 2001 when they coached together in Cleveland. If Bowles, a former captain at Temple under Arians, became a head coach, he’d “take care of the old coach,” promising Arians a job for life. If Arians got a job first, he was taking Bowles wherever he went.
“We always said whoever got one first, the other one would come work with him and we’d drop anything we were doing,” said Bowles, the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator. “He got one first, unfortunately. And Bruce is a man of his word.”
As Arians’ career continued, the list continued to grow, sometimes two or three deep at a position.
On it were his old-time cohorts, guys like special teams coordinator Amos Jones and Rapone, who coached with him at Temple; tight ends coach Rick Christophel, who coached with him at Mississippi State; and a handful of guys from Arians’ Steelers days like Harold Goodwin and Larry Zierlein. Arians tapped into his Temple days again, hiring another former captain, Kevin Ross, as his cornerbacks coach.
Then there was a coach like James Bettcher, who Arians worked with last season before luring him to Arizona.
“I know this, (Colts linebacker) Robert Mathis is mad at me for taking him away,” Arians joked.
Most of the list became a reality when Arians’ first NFL staff was announced on Feb. 5.
While half the process of becoming a first-time head coach is assembling a staff, the other half is developing a coaching philosophy. Like his list of potential hires, that’s been in the making since 1975.
Some coaches fill up binders with notes on what they’ll do when they – if they – eventually become a head coach. Arians catalogued what he liked and didn’t like upstairs. It all centered around the relationship between coach and player.
“Treating people with disrespect, that a coach was more important than a player and lying to a player to try to fool him into believing something, things that I had seen,” Arians said. “I knew that wasn’t the way to do it.”
Thus his trusty, loyalty and respect mantra was born.
“Those are things you build on,” he said.
Arians’ learned from some of the best, watching Sharpe and his staff at Virginia Tech that included future head coaches Charley Pell and Danny Ford. He learned from Bryant and Emory Bellard, when he was Mississippi State’s head coach. He also was influenced by John Devlin and Bob Tyler.
“I think every coach gets smarter as the years go on,” Bowles said. “He’s always known what he’s wanted. It’s hard to get a head job where you can just do it your way. You always have to get pieces or keep somebody or fit your scheme into a certain thing.
“I think he’s done it his way. I’m surprised it took him this long to get a head job.”
While playing – and Arians’ hair – styles have changed since the 1970s, his philosophies have remained constant. He has the same tenacious attacking mentality now that he did at Temple, Rapone remembered.
And, as a former player attested to, Arians still looks at football as a people game.
“I think he’s kept his core values and I think he’s expanding it,” Bowles said. “He can read players, he can read people. He knows how to handle people and he knows what he wants.”