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By Michael Silver | Published Nov. 19, 2014

Illustration by Issiah Davis

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The story of Bruce Arians' unlikely ascent to the high-profile perch that should have been his destiny -- coaching an NFL team into a position of Super Bowl-contention and ignoring every one of his profession's most bloated constraints and clichés along the way -- is a titillating tale that stretches from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to the Valley of the Sun.

Before we take that journey, let's begin with an Arians story that captures the essence of an acerbic and authentic coach who has mastered the art of motivating highly compensated young men.

In the summer of 2012, a few weeks before Arians would fill in for leukemia-stricken Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, the then-59-year-old offensive coordinator showed up late in the week dressed like he was fronting a Johnny Cash tribute band: black bucket hat, black long-sleeved shirt, black shoes and, best of all, black knee-high socks. As he traversed the practice field, some players noticed the goth-like getup and wondered What the dealio? Eventually, as Arians sidled up to the team's defensive backs, who were in the midst of drills against the Colts' receivers, one of them asked, "What's up with the black socks?"

"I'm in mourning," Arians replied solemnly. "I have to go to a funeral later."

"Who died?" the player asked.

"You [expletives] did!" Arians shot back. "Cause I killt you [expletives] all week."

The raucous laughter that followed said so much about the counterintuitive charm of Arians, a blunt, cocksure and demanding leader who inspires devotion and intensity from people he grinds like The Great Santini.

"He's gonna love you when you need some loving, but he's gonna jump on you when you're not doing right," says Peyton Manning, who, during his first three NFL seasons in Indy, grew into stardom with Arians as his quarterbacks coach. "I mean, he's intense, he's very competitive, but players want to play well for him -- which I think is ultimately a head coach's job."

In the words of Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, the man who gave Arians his first NFL head-coaching shot in January of 2013, "He has such a unique gift of MF-ing them during the week and getting them to play hard for him on Sunday. He works them and works them and breaks them down, and yet the players genuinely love him. It's an art form. I've never seen anything like it."

Arians' artistic genius is as good an explanation as any for the illogical ascent of the Cardinals to the top of the NFL. Despite having sustained a slew of significant season-ending losses, the Cards will carry a league-best 9-1 record into Sunday's road showdown with the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, a team that trails Arizona by three games in the NFC West standings.

Beginning with a stretch that included last December's stunning upset of the Seahawks in Seattle, Arians -- who won 2012 NFL Coach of the Year honors as Pagano's fill-in -- has coached the Cardinals to 16 victories in their last 19 games. At this point, the man commands more attention than Adderall.

"It's not that tough to buy in when you're winning," says Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals' longtime star receiver, who has remained upbeat despite a reduced role in the team's offense. "It's follow the leader. If he told us it's snowing outside in Arizona, we would put on a jacket and snow shoes."

Bruce Arians has a style all his own -- one that endears him to players less than half his age.
Bruce Arians has a style all his own -- one that endears him to players less than half his age.

Right now, Arians is telling anyone who asks that the Cardinals have a real shot at becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium this coming February, even in the wake of quarterback Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury. Whereas most coaches recoil at the prospect of enunciating such bold proclamations, Arians, a 62-year-old who rocks Kangol caps, sips Crown Royal and gets more aggressive in tense game situations, gives zero damns about the potential ramifications.

A man dripping with what Palmer astutely describes as "Tony Soprano swag," Arians understands why many of his peers shy away from making any comment that most of us might find interesting or forthcoming.

"A lot of 'em can't," he says. "That's just the way they're brought up. That's the way everyone's brought up in this business -- to be guarded, especially if it's not your last job. I don't have to (be guarded) anymore."

The question is, how could someone as talented as Arians have been overlooked for so long that he would come to view his first NFL head-coaching job as his last?

Though his stints as an NFL assistant included successful hookups with two of the league's most accomplished quarterbacks -- Manning during his first tour in Indy and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh -- Arians inevitably generated almost zero buzz during the annual hiring cycle, causing him to question an industry that sometimes seemed to value political connections and hype over aptitude.

He's gonna love you when you need some loving, but he's gonna jump on you when you're not doing right.

Even if no NFL franchise felt Arians would make a good head coach, he begged to differ.

"Yeah, obviously I did and wondered why," Arians says. "You'd sit back in the offseason and look at who became a head coach that year and go, 'Wow. Really? And you couldn't even get a phone call?' So you can think crazy things. But ... just go back to work and keep doing your job."

Following the 2011 season, however, Arians couldn't even do that. After five years as the Steelers' offensive coordinator, a stretch that included two Super Bowl trips and one championship, Arians was told his contract would not be renewed. Roethlisberger was particularly peeved by the news, and Arians felt stung and stunned.

"I know what went down, and let's just say it didn't have to happen," says Cardinals special teams coordinator Amos Jones, who was a Steelers special teams assistant at the time, and who has known Arians since their days as assistants on Bear Bryant's Alabama staff in the early '80s. "We were coming off a 12-4 season."

The official line was that Arians had "retired," which was his way of disgustedly saying, "Peace out."

"Well, at that point in time, they weren't gonna renew the contract, and in my mind, that got me pretty sour on the sport -- if that wasn't good enough, oh well," Arians recalls. "So I announced I was retiring and it made it easier on them. Yeah, I was upset about it."

Arians and his wife, Chris, headed down to their lake house in Georgia -- a.k.a. "The Forever Home" -- and prepared for life after coaching. He took a side job with agent Todd France preparing players for the NFL Scouting Combine. "I had actually just flown down to Oklahoma State to work with Justin Blackmon," Arians says. "We went about three hours. I said, 'Look -- your best professor didn't stick with you for three hours.' I thought it might be kinda fun."

Alas, Arians' retirement was short-lived: While driving from Georgia to Pittsburgh, where he and Chris planned "to get the rest of the furniture out of our little apartment," Arians' cellphone rang. It was Pagano, who had just taken the Colts job and was looking for an offensive coordinator. "My wife just looked at the phone and shook her head," Arians says. "She said, 'Oh s---, you're gonna take that job, aren't you?' "

Arians earned 2012 Coach of the Year honors after a superb fill-in job for leukemia-stricken Colts head man Chuck Pagano.
Arians earned 2012 Coach of the Year honors after a superb fill-in job for leukemia-stricken Colts head man Chuck Pagano.

He did -- setting up one of the more remarkable coaching performances in NFL history. The Colts, coming off a 2-14 season, seemed to be in a clear rebuilding mode in the wake of Manning's release and the drafting of No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck. On Sept. 30, with the 1-2 Colts finishing their bye week, Arians got a call during a quick getaway to The Forever Home and felt his stomach drop: It was Pagano, delivering the news that he'd been diagnosed with leukemia.

Arians, appointed as interim coach, did more than just keep the seat warm for Pagano -- he proved to be en fuego. By the time Pagano returned, the Colts were 10-5 and had shocked the league by clinching a playoff berth.

"The whole season was about passing the torch to Chuck," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson says. "It was a tricky situation, but 'BA' pulled it off. He never deviated from that message. He would talk to Chuck every day; he'd go see him at the hospital all the time. He made sure Chuck was a part of it. It was human beings at their finest. That's why the football gods bestowed that job on him at the end of the year."

As with the rest of Arians' NFL career, his path to Arizona was rife with potholes. On the morning of the Colts' first-round playoff game against the Ravens in Baltimore, Arians, suffering from an inner-ear infection, was hospitalized after experiencing dizziness and a significant rise in blood pressure at the team's pregame meal. He watched the Colts' 24-9 defeat from a bed at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and if Indy's postseason dreams seemed to be spinning out of control -- well, to Arians, they literally were.

"That was a horrible day," Arians remembers. "I had vertigo, and everything was spinning around. The doctors let me watch the game. I said, 'This isn't really gonna help my blood pressure, but I'm watching the game.' Yeah that was the icing to the cake of that year. I'm calling out plays to the doctor and getting upset, cussing out the officials. It was that kind of year."

The health scare was not what Arians needed as another hiring cycle approached. He'd experienced a fair share of medical drama in his 60 years, including prostate cancer in 2007, a pair of knee replacements and a slew of issues during his six-year run as Temple's head coach from 1983-88. In addition to battling migraines and various gastrointestinal ailments, Arians once collapsed onto his bed at the team hotel the night before the game and couldn't get up.

"I was supposed to go to the Sixers game with the team doctor and his wife," Arians said. "They knew I was in there. They got a key. They got in. They were trying to get some oxygen, trying to break this migraine. I heard them say, 'I think he's stroking out.' Thankfully, it wasn't (a stroke). I thought, 'Oh yeah, this is it ... I'm changing jobs.' I decided that was gonna be my last year there. At the end of the season, (Temple) decided it for me."

Cardinals GM Steve Keim on Arians: "He has such a unique gift of MF-ing them during the week and getting them to play hard for him on Sunday."
Cardinals GM Steve Keim on Arians: "He has such a unique gift of MF-ing them during the week and getting them to play hard for him on Sunday."

Arians recovered quickly from his vertigo spell of early 2013, flying back to Indy on owner Jim Irsay's private jet the day after the defeat to the Ravens and receiving a clean bill of health shortly thereafter. He quickly drew interest from the Bears, whose general manager, Phil Emery, was running an exhaustive coaching search. As one of two finalists, Arians returned to Chicago for a second interview, believing the Bears were his best shot. As he waited for Emery's decision, his other options (Eagles, Chargers) fell by the wayside.

Finally, Arians received a 1:30 a.m. call from Emery, who broke the news that he was giving the job to Marc Trestman. Arians figured he'd been shut out once more.

"So it was like, 'OK -- I'm going back to Indy,' " Arians says. "And I would have been happy to ride off into the sunset there. The Arizona job was still open, but I wasn't even considering that."

Reluctant to talk to the Cardinals because of his friendship with recently fired coach Ken Whisenhunt and other assistants with whom he had worked in Pittsburgh (Ray Horton, Russ Grimm), Arians changed his mind after a phone conversation with Whisenhunt, who encouraged him to pursue the job and said positive things about team president Michael Bidwill. So Arians showed up in Phoenix and nailed the interview before it formally began, all by being his unfiltered and fearless self.

"Steve (Keim) and I met him at his hotel and had one drink, and he's dropping F-bombs and telling great stories and being completely unguarded," recalls Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, who was then the Cardinals' director of player personnel. "He went to the restroom, and I looked at Steve and said, 'You and Michael (Bidwill) have your guy,' and he just nodded."

The trio then went to dinner with Bidwill, and Arians continued telling off-color stories replete with salty language. When Keim and Bidwill went outside to debrief and share their enthusiasm about the interaction, the president smiled and told the GM, "Well, we won't be able to send him to talk to the Boys Club."

After formally getting the job, Arians talked tough from the get-go, telling his players -- and reporters -- that the Cardinals, coming off a 5-11 season, could compete for a division title in the loaded NFC West.

They always tag it 'Riverboat Gambler'. Nah -- he's just ballsy. Amos Jones

Recalls defensive end Calais Campbell: "He told us, 'First things first. I've been on a lot of good teams. I have Super Bowl rings. This team has just as much talent as those teams. It's your team. We won't win unless you decide you want to.' We all bought into that."

Veteran tackle Eric Winston, who spent 2013 with the Cardinals, met with Arians just before the start of training camp and was charmed by the coach's bravado.

"A lot of first-year coaches will come in saying, 'We've got a lot of work to do,' " Winston says. "I sat down with Bruce, and he said, 'This is one of the most talented teams I've been around; we should go to the playoffs.' Most coaches wouldn't do that, because it puts a lot of pressure on them to win right away, and a lot of pressure on the players. It was really refreshing. It made me want to sign there."

By then, Arians had already won over the locker room, beginning with what Grigson calls his "unique sense of style -- to put it mildly."

Says Campbell: "My first impression? Swag. The Kangol hat, the shoes, the whole look -- it was clean. He doesn't act 60. I'm thinking to myself, 'This dude's cool.' "

Shortly after Arians' arrival, Palmer recalls, "He had the team wrapped around his finger. He might be the most unique head coach in the league. He's always honest. He keeps it real."

That includes a penchant for no-holds-barred criticism that dates back to his days as a young running backs coach at Alabama, where he didn't shy away from speaking his mind in the presence of a legend.

"He's just always been himself," Jones says. "I can remember as a young coach, sitting in meetings in Tuscaloosa ... Coach Bryant at the top of the table, the rest of us sitting around in chairs that were about three feet shorter than his was -- by design -- and Bruce being totally honest while the rest of us looked around going, 'Whoa.'

"Especially when you consider this was a guy who was young, and was new, and had been on the Mississippi State staff that had come in and beat us 6-3 the year before -- and now he's sitting in there with all those guys he's been recruiting against and coaching against, and he's giving his unfiltered opinion. It was typical BA. He tells the truth."

One reason Arians gets away with such candor is that he plays no favorites. Early on, Campbell remembers, when Arians would light into perennial Pro Bowler Fitzgerald or Palmer, his highly compensated quarterback, there were some open-mouthed stares in the meeting room. "It was like, 'Wow -- he don't play,' " Campbell says. "No matter who you are, or how much money you make, if he thinks you messed up, he'll let you hear it."

Says Fitzgerald: "You have to respect the fact that he is going to be who he is and say what's on his mind. You always know where you stand with him. No sugar-coating or BS-ing. He is a cool dude that has swag like the young guys he coaches every day. He's just being himself. Can't knock the hustle."

And yet, as brutal as his admonitions might sound, Arians manages to mete out criticism without ruffling feathers.

"The dynamic he has with the players, it's truly unique," Grigson says. "He MFs 'em up and down, but 5 percent of it carries enough humor where it takes the edge away, just a little. It's just original comedy.

"He had a way of getting everybody on the same page in a nanosecond. That's what he does to you. Once you get in his crosshairs, you're gonna produce. He's gonna shame you into it. Or you'll be gone."

This season, Arians' team has displayed an almost unfathomable imperviousness to the absence of key players, thriving without many of the biggest contributors to last year's 10-6 campaign (defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, defensive end John Abraham, inside linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby and Palmer). Much has been made of the Next Man Up mentality the coach instills; it doesn't happen by accident.

"He doesn't like days off," Campbell says. "He doesn't give us those 'movie days' in camp. He believes we need reps. We're not just out there banging to be banging. He wants reps and wants everyone involved. That's why we have that 'Next Man Up' thing going on -- everyone got reps, and everyone got coached, and when we needed them to play, they were ready."

Last October, with the Cardinals plodding along at 4-4 and headed into a bye week, Arians sent his players into their break by breaking them down.

"Everybody had the car packed and they had four days off coming up," Arians says, "and I went to Darnell and a couple of guys, and I said, 'Look, we're going in pads and it's gonna be a nut-cutter.' They said, 'What?' I said, 'Yep,' and they said, 'OK, we've got your back.' We went out and it was like training camp. It was a hell of a practice. That changed our season. From that point on, we were a different team."

It's follow the leader. If he told us it's snowing outside in Arizona, we would put on a jacket and snow shoes.

This year, Arians has followed his intuition and taken his button-pushing prowess to the next level. As Arians might put it, he has killt it all season. From brainy halftime adjustments (the Cardinals have outscored opponents 91-34 in the fourth quarter, a margin second only to the Chiefs among NFL teams) to bold play calls at pivotal moments (i.e. Palmer's 75-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver John Brown on third-and-5 that provided the winning points against the Eagles with 1:21 remaining), he's making it obvious that coaching an NFL team suits him -- and he's not likely to tone down his approach anytime soon.

"They always tag it 'Riverboat Gambler,' " Jones says. "Nah -- he's just ballsy. That's kinda always been BA. You've gotta live for the moment, and he does."

At long last, this is Arians' moment, and he's not so much reveling in it as he is infusing it with sincere, singular swag.

"It's just who I am," Arians says. "It's who I've always been."

He is, without question, an inimitable man who was born to be an NFL head coach. It just happened to take the football world a few decades to figure it out.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver

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