INDIANAPOLIS — Bruce Arians had a good 15 minutes to collect both himself and his thoughts before standing behind the lectern Monday morning.
It didn’t matter. The football lifer, a man whose tough-as-shoe-leather persona helped him ascend to being generally regarded as one of professional football’s most respected assistant coaches, couldn’t hold back his emotions.
Arians’ reddened eyes watered behind the wire-rim glasses he was wearing. Many of his thoughts were delivered in croaked tones. His close friend is ailing, which means Arians is hurting.
“This is not an easy day for all of us,” said Arians, the Colts’ interim head coach for the foreseeable future on the heels of Monday’s announcement that head coach Chuck Pagano has been diagnosed with acute promyeloctic leukemia. “Chuck has laid a foundation here that is on rock-solid ground. The players know it. The coaches know it. We will continue his fight.”
Arians spent three minutes at most addressing media members inside the press room at the Colts Complex. He had a team to coach, an opponent to prepare for.
The Arians File
Name: Bruce Arians
Job: Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator/interim head coach
Born: Paterson, N.J.
Family: Wife, Christine; son, Jake, 34; daughter, Kristi Anne, 31
High school: William Penn (York, Pa.)
College: Virginia Tech
Coaching experience: Graduate assistant, Virginia Tech (1975-77); running backs and receivers coach, Mississippi State (1978-80); running back coach, Alabama (1981-82); head coach, Temple University (1983-88); running backs coach, Kansas City Chiefs (1989-92); offensive coordinator, Mississippi State (1993-95); tight ends coach, New Orleans Saints (1996); offensive coordinator, Alabama (1997); quarterbacks coach, Indianapolis Colts (1998-2000); offensive coordinator, Cleveland Browns (2001-03); wide receivers coach, Pittsburgh Steelers (2004-06); offensive coordinator, Pittsburgh Steelers (2007-11).
That’s Bruce Arians. No-nonsense and all business. And something of a survivor himself, having defeated prostate cancer in 2007.
Team owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson agreed Arians, who turns 60 on Wednesday, is the obvious choice to be the Colts’ undisputed point person through the team’s final 13 regular-season games and for whatever postseason competition might ensue.
He’s been there and done that many times over. Yet Monday’s proceedings threw even Arians, whose NFL coaching linage officially began a few months before Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck was born, a sweeping curve even he wasn’t prepared to make contact with.
Nonetheless, the franchise’s hierarchy remains confident.
“We’re fortunate to have a veteran coach like Bruce to be here, and all of the players are up to the task of doing what they have to do to play at a high level,” Irsay said.
“(Arians) was a quick choice,” Grigson said. “He’s a veteran. He knows this game well. He has a great synergy with the staff and with Chuck. He’s going to be able to bridge that gap between Chuck and himself and this team because they have a brotherhood on that staff like I’ve never seen. That was evident today. Chuck’s our brother, and we are all here for him. Bruce is the man to lead us forward while our leader is down.”
Arians has never served as an NFL head coach, nor is this the way he wanted the opportunity to arise.
His accomplishments, however, are difficult to disregard, with Arians having been an assistant for six pro franchises, including a stint as Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach during Manning’s first three seasons (1998-2000) in the league.
Then it was off to Cleveland as the Browns’ offensive coordinator before a successful eight-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The latter earned Arians three trips to a Super Bowl and two championship rings. None of it prepared him for Sunday’s call from Pagano.
“Chuck called me, and I was floored. My first reaction is, ‘How is Tina (Pagano’s wife)?’ ‘How are the girls?’” Arians said. “He wanted to convince all of us everything would be OK, just like he always does.”
Luck believes it will. On all accounts.
“Being around (Pagano) the last few months, I know he’ll fight and I firmly believe he’ll beat it,” he said. “Coach Arians has seen everything there is to see in football. I’m sure he’ll do a great job. Hopefully this will bring us closer together.”