That's the first thing to know about Bruce Arians: The man has style.
The second thing is that he possesses plenty of substance, as well, which is why he is coaching a squad that has become more dangerous with every season he spends guiding it.
Arians led Arizona to a 13-3 record, an NFC West title and a first-round playoff bye that supplied his team with ample rest before this Saturday's divisional game against Green Bay. He did it with the same mix of panache and authenticity that has become his calling card. Arians has so much flair that he even places a special emphasis on the outfit he wears on game days. Along with rocking his trademark Kangol, he'll don something that he hopes will send a message. As CardinalsPro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson said, "You can tell that coach really puts some time into what he wears."
"It's really a trickle-down effect," Arians said. "The players] have to know that coach has [a bit of swagger, so we are going to have some." Added Cardinals outside linebacker Dwight Freeney: "It's part of his identity, and it's part of him. It tells a little bit more of who he is. He's a] confident guy who [has a little swag to him, and that's how he coaches."
Freeney knew there was something special about Arians as soon as he walked into his first team meeting after signing with that franchise in October. He didn't see offensive players hanging out solely with other players on their side of the ball. Nor did he find defensive guys keeping to themselves. He found a room filled with close-knit teammates who only cared about how they could win. That was his first introduction to how effectively Arians can build a culture.
Peterson had a similar reaction to his first exposure to Arians in a team setting. That was three years ago, when Arians was newly hired and meeting the local press for the first time. It wasn't that Arians said anything that really captured Peterson's attention. It was the mere fact that the head coach was wearing one of his Kangol hats and a dress shirt with two buttons open. It was as if Arians had just strolled out of a nightclub and grabbed the microphone.
It would be a huge mistake to think players don't respond to this stuff. It means plenty that the 63-year-old Arians is comfortable enough to be a little bit different than the average head coach, and to see the value in letting his players be themselves, as well. In other words, Chip Kelly he is not.
"No matter what position that you have on this team -- practice squad, a guy that's on injury reserve, a five-star player -- he has a very, very unique communication skill," Peterson said. "And he does a great job of getting his message across."
Most of that communication skill is rooted in a background that Arians rarely discusses publicly. He grew up in York, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar town that was boiling over with racial hostility in the late 1960s. Arians was one of the few white kids who played mostly on predominantly black teams. In fact, it was a black kid named Eddie Berry -- a star athlete who ran the park where all the other teenagers hung out -- who gave Arians his first true nickname: "SQ Smooth."
There are so many moments from those formative years that shaped Arians, especially with regard to race. As a star quarterback at Virginia Tech, he was asked to be the first white player to room with a black teammate (who turned out to be James Barber, the father of Tiki and Ronde). It was also in college that Arians was mortified while attending a wedding at a venue called the Sons of the Confederacy, which seemed like the kind of place where Klansmen went to recruit new talent.
A job interview with the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant in 1981 left Arians aware of the uniqueness of his own life experience.
When Bryant asked Arians about his gift for "talking to black players," Arians said he talked to them the same way he did everybody else. If they did well, he praised them. If they screwed up, he cussed them out.
"Coach just chuckled," Arians said of the conversation. "And then he said, 'I guess that was a pretty dumb question, huh?' "
The beauty of Arians -- who wound up working for Bryant at Alabama from 1981 to '82 -- is that he doesn't have to use those moments as a way of selling his players on his genuine nature. He just lives the same way he did back in York. In his eyes, as Peterson said, it doesn't matter what you do or how you got there. The key is that you're prepared to do something with the opportunity afforded to you -- and that you trust the man next to you to do the same.
This explains the simple mantra Arians constantly preaches to his team: trust, loyalty, respect. "I think that's why coach gets the best out of his players -- because he is very authentic," Peterson said. "Coach doesn't have to fake it to make it, because coach has been there and done that. He understands what it takes to take this team to the championship, how to get the best out of his players. And we trust him."
Added Arians: "Just having all those experiences [and] to be able to communicate with people, whether it's a country mom in the house or an auntie on the porch or the player himself. I never tried to be anybody I wasn't. [My thing was] just be honest and tell them what's the best thing for their future. And to give them hope, because somebody gave it to me."
Arians has achieved tremendous results with that approach. It was a big part of his success as the Indianapolis Colts' offensive coordinator in 2012, when he had to fill in for cancer-stricken head coach Chuck Pagano for 12 games and led that team to a 9-3 record. It's helped him take Tyrann Mathieu from a troubled draft pick to a Pro Bowl safety in just three years. It's also why the Cardinals' regular-season winning percentage since his arrival in 2013 is a healthy .708.
It's crazy to think Arians probably wouldn't have gotten this opportunity if he hadn't impressed with the Colts. He had abandoned his dream of being an NFL head coach and was contemplating retirement when Pagano asked him to mentor a talented young quarterback named Andrew Luck. That was the year when we eventually saw what Arians could become. These days, with the postseason as wide open as it's ever been, the Cardinals are thankful for exactly who he is.