TEMPE, Ariz. — Once Bruce Arians finally got his shot at being an NFL head coach, he spent the next five seasons doing it the only way he knew how: his way.
Arians, who retired from the Arizona Cardinals on Monday at age 65, was an anomaly among head coaches. He talked. He quipped. He laughed. He cursed. He talked about injuries — maybe the rarest trait of all. He threw when he should’ve run. He ran when he should’ve thrown. He openly criticized players. He hired a staff of friends and former players, and when they came under fire, he protected them like they were his brothers.
It all worked because Arians won at first. And he won a lot.
He retired with a 49-30-1 regular-season record in Arizona — the most wins for a head coach in franchise history — but the numbers don’t show his true impact on the franchise. He changed the culture inside and outside the organization. He was harsh when needed and fatherly when it called for. He coached by a motto he learned from legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant: Coach them hard, hug them later.
He didn’t sugarcoat, well, anything. He’d tell players exactly where they stood with him — and they loved it. The respect he earned was evident throughout his tenure in Arizona, but two instances stand out. He told his team last December that he had kidney cancer. No one said a word. And then Arians revealed Monday that he told his players Sunday night after beating Seattle. Again, no one said a word.
“I told our team last night I was done — I’m retiring,” Arians said as he broke down crying. “And they lied to you. Because of that, there’s no greater feeling in the world than you know your players have your back.”
Under Arians, the Cardinals flourished immediately. They went 10-6 in his first season, 11-5 with a wild-card berth in his second and 13-3 — leading to a spot in the NFC Championship Game — in his third for the best three-year stretch in franchise history. For as good as his first three years were, the past two were the opposite. Arizona went 7-8-1 in 2016 and 8-8 this season.
While Arians may be remembered in coming years for the recent downturn, his legacy will be how he turned around an organization. Because of Arians, the Cardinals — and their fan base — began to expect wins instead of the mediocrity they had expected for decades. A Super Bowl replaced a winning record as the goal in Tempe.
Becoming a first-time head coach at 60, Arians wasn’t about to run a team how anyone else wanted. He waited long enough to earn that right. Until 2013, he had never been interviewed for a head-coaching job. Why? Anybody’s guess. Maybe it was Arians’ personality. Three of his favorite words in Arizona were s—, damn and hell. Some owners don’t want their head coach projecting that kind of character to their fan bases. Maybe it was his coaching philosophy. Arians developed a reputation for his vertical passing game that didn’t sit well in Pittsburgh, where the run was the favorable form of offense.
Whatever the case, Arians had to wait until he was a sexagenarian for a team to call, and it came after one of the most unfortunate circumstances in NFL history. About a month into the 2012 season as the Indianapolis Colts‘ offensive coordinator, Arians was asked to take over the head-coaching duties while Chuck Pagano took a leave to treat his leukemia. Arians went 9-3 behind a rookie quarterback named Andrew Luck and led the Colts to the playoffs. He was, in an unprecedented move, named the Associated Press Coach of the Year as an interim head coach. He would go on earn to his second coach of the year award after the 2014 season.
After a career that saw him mentor the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Luck as rookies, it took teams seeing that Arians could, in fact, be a head coach for him to be given an opportunity.
And all he did was prove everyone wrong.
“It’s been a great ride,” Arians said.