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Bruce Arians knows only one way

TEMPE, Arizona -- Behold this most uncommon man, a 62-year-old modern-day hepcat, wearing a bright-red Kangol hat and red suede slip-ons. An alpha male among alpha males, he walks the hallways of the Arizona Cardinals' headquarters with an old-athlete strut that's equal parts dare and invitation. He's got wide shoulders and a broad face and a handshake that feels like a slab of ribs.

He never thought he'd be here in the first place, so he's going to wear what he wants and say what he wants and coach the way he wants. It's house money, baby, and Bruce Arians is letting it ride.

The concept is as foreign as a butterfly on an ice floe: an NFL head coach who exudes -- rather than stifles -- personality. An NFL head coach who doesn't sound programmed to emit the least illuminating banalities. An NFL head coach who says, "I love the bull's-eye. I'm going to do this my way. You can fire me if you want, but I'm going to do it my way."

His voice is all Central Pennsylvania -- York, to be specific, where th miraculously becomes d -- with a healthy inflection of just about everywhere else. He's been in this racket for more than 40 years now, with 14 moves on his family's punch card. From Tuscaloosa, Alabama, under Bear Bryant to Pittsburgh under Bill Cowher, he's covered a lot of ground. On this Tuesday -- 91 degrees at Tempe HQ -- five days before his 3-0 team will play Denver and lose its first of the year, there's a Tommy Bahama-meets-Jersey Shore vibe coming off Arians. He's so unhurried and laid-back you have to remind yourself it's not a Tuesday in June.

"He thinks he's cool," says linebacker Larry Foote. "You see the way he dresses? He got that swag. He hip to the game. He's as cocky as all these athletes in here." Could it be, despite everything we're told about the grind and the drudgery and the Donner Party-like slog of an NFL season, that it's possible for an NFL head coach -- sign-of-the-cross and please don't tell Bill Belichick -- to enjoy himself? "Oh, hell yeah," Arians says, acting like it's the craziest question ever. "I'm having a blast every day. You know why? Because I'm not coaching for my next job."

The laugh that follows is a purge, emptying nearly 40 years of game plans and play calls and disbelief that this last great chance almost didn't happen at all. It's the perfect soundtrack to the Arians philosophy:

Coach it like you stole it.

He had given up hope. Despite his track record as offensive coordinator in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, despite his charisma, despite the loyalty he engendered among his guys, Arians was never going to get the job where he'd call all the shots and all the plays. He was going to be a career assistant, and while that's not all bad, it still managed to leave twist of regret in the deepest pit of his stomach.

He's not the type of man to be defined by his work, but still. He says there have been four best days in his life -- the day his wife agreed to marry him, the births of his two children and the day his son, Jake, asked him to be the best man at his wedding. It takes a certain kind of father to get that question, and a certain kind of son to ask it. "There's not a win on the résumé that compares to it," says the man with two Super Bowl rings.

Yes, a full life.

But still.

Over time, that twist became a corkscrew. He saw other guys get head-coaching jobs -- lots of strivers and self-promoters, brand-building tight-asses who rode the rails of their own perceived genius and someone else's system to the top of the Hot Young Coach list. They had the right agent and the right chin and said all the right things on all the right radio shows while Arians worked under the outdated assumption that his career would work out best if he spent his time, you know, coaching.

Along the way, he saw many a Hot Young Coach fail miserably when he had to figure things out on his own. "If you know only one system," Arians says, "you don't know anything."

Do you get bitter?

"No, you get pissed," he says. "You're looking at some guys and saying, 'That guy's a head coach? Really? And Dick LeBeau's not? Tom Moore's not? Howard Mudd's not?'"

And the unspoken: Bruce Arians wasn't, either.

You know one thing just by looking at him: He'd do whatever it takes -- a little extra shove in the middle of a pile, an elbow to the nuts on a rebound -- to beat you. He was a wishbone quarterback at Virginia Tech, heavier than his center and both of his guards, and when he told the equipment manager he wanted to become a coach the old guy rolled his tongue around his mouth, thought for a second and said, "Here's my advice: Buy a house on wheels."

Arians and James Barber, father of Tiki and Ronde, were the first interracial roommates at Virginia Tech. ("He grew up around a lot of brothers," says Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, "so he's got a lot of soul in him.") After graduation, Arians worked as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech -- during which time Bruce and Christine babysat Tiki and Ronde -- before going to Mississippi State and then Bama under Bryant. He was the head coach at Temple at 30 years old, and he swears the first question he was asked at his introductory news conference was, "Why is Temple even playing football?"

His answer: "To beat Penn State."

He worked himself ragged there, figuring his job title meant he was recruiting coordinator, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and fund-raiser. He ended up both fired and hospitalized for exhaustion, which is why he's probably the NFL's best delegator. "Give guys a job and let 'em do it," he says.

He went from Temple to Kansas City, where he was the Chiefs' running backs coach until one day Jake looked into the stands at his freshman basketball game and saw his father. Bruce didn't make it to many after-school games during the NFL season. When Jake came out of the locker room after the game, Bruce put his arm around his shoulders and said, "We got axed. It's time to move on."

The years passed. Three back at Mississippi State, then a year with the Saints, then a year back at Alabama as offensive coordinator, then Indianapolis as quarterbacks coach with Peyton Manning, then Cleveland, then Pittsburgh.

"My wife did a great job selling the kids on the next stop," Arians says. "She was the hype man, telling them how great it was going to be, all the fun things that were in the next place. That was hard when the next stop was Starkville."

"I'm having a blast every day. You know why? Because I'm not coaching for my next job."

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians

As the Browns' offensive coordinator in 2003, he devised an offense that resulted in Kelly Holcomb -- subbing for the injured Tim Couch -- throwing for a wild-card record 429 yards in a 36-33 loss to the Steelers. In Pittsburgh. In the snow. "The only time Cleveland ever lit us up when I was in Pittsburgh was when BA was calling the plays," says Foote, who played eight years with the Steelers. Holcomb says, "Everybody needs a guy that believes in him, and Bruce was that guy for me. He made me believe I could do anything."

In Arians' eight seasons in Pittsburgh -- three as wide receivers coach and five as offensive coordinator -- the Steelers won two Super Bowls and went to a third. His Ben Roethlisberger-led offenses set records along the way. The jobs kept opening and kept being filled; he grew more pissed and more mystified. Cleveland owner Randy Lerner told Arians he was high on his list when he hired Eric Mangini in 2009, but if he thought a close call would make Arians feel better he was wrong. "We were scratching our heads," Jake Arians says. "Offensive coordinators who win Super Bowls in Pittsburgh become head coaches."

After 2011, a 12-4 season in which Roethlisberger threw for more than 4,000 yards and Arians coaxed nearly 2,000 more out of the running game, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin called Arians to inform him that he would not be offered a new contract. "Tells you what I know," Arians says. "I thought he was calling me about a raise."

Since then, Tomlin's Steelers are 19-19, compared to 55-25 with Arians calling the plays. The Steelers announced it as a retirement, and Arians -- 59 and out of work -- went along with it. But less than two weeks later, as Bruce and Christine were driving to Pittsburgh to collect the last of their belongings, Bruce's phone rang. It was an old friend, newly hired Colts coach Chuck Pagano, asking Arians to be his offensive coordinator.

The call ended, and Christine Arians looked at her husband.

"Oh, s---," she said. "You're going to take this job."

Four games into the 2012 season, Arians got the job he'd wanted his entire career at a time when he wanted nothing less. Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and Arians was named interim head coach.

He didn't want the job -- not this way -- so in his own way he never took it. He never used the term head coach unless referencing Pagano. His first meeting with the coaching staff pretty much began and ended with Arians saying, "Everybody do your job and I'll decide whether we go for it on fourth down." He made sure every practice was streamed to Pagano's iPad, and he says, "I truly think football was Chuck's best medicine." He kept the light on in Pagano's office, day and night, and when he was asked why he sat in his usual second-row spot in the bus on the way to his first game against the Packers, he said, "Because nobody sits in that seat. That's Chuck's seat."

But he couldn't help coaching. Before that first game, with a rookie quarterback in Andrew Luck and a team still digesting the news of its head coach's departure, Arians called his son and said, "I'm going no-huddle."

"You don't have enough going on this week?" Jake asked.

"I think it's our only chance," Bruce said.

The Colts, a team that went 2-14 in 2011, won that game and nine of 12 overall under Arians before Pagano returned for the final regular-season game. "The way Bruce handled the human side of that was amazing," says Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano, Chuck's brother. "He didn't have to ask anybody how to do it -- he just knew." Arians was named the NFL Coach of the Year and suddenly, at 60 years old, he was finally a Hot Young Coach.

"That taught me two things: Guys can do their jobs if you let them, and I can call plays and still be the head coach," Arians says. "I got to practice at the job for 12 weeks, and I wouldn't trade that for anything, but only because Chuck's healthy."

Arians is 4-1 with the Cardinals this season after going 10-6 last season, which makes him 23-10 as an NFL head coach. He's done it in Arizona with a duct-taped lineup that has included starting quarterback Carson Palmer just twice this season. He lost one of his best defensive players, lineman Darnell Dockett, with a season-ending knee injury. "He's the ultimate underdog," says Jake Arians, a former NFL kicker. "He's coaching the perfect underdog team and the perfect underdog franchise."

And Bruce is here to tell you something you won't hear anywhere else: Being a head coach in the NFL isn't as difficult or as important or as complicated as everybody else would have you believe. In 39 years, he's slept in the office precisely one time. For that he blames Thursday night football and the Jaguars' long-ago blitzing defense, and regret sneaks into his voice as he talks about it, like someone recounting a fall off the wagon.

"All that sleeping-in-the-office stuff -- guys can only learn so much," he says. "It's all overdone. There's a time to cut it off. If you're spending all night in the office, you don't have either an offense or a defense, and you're looking for somebody else's to steal."

During a standard Wednesday afternoon news conference -- an obligatory operation played out with varying levels of disgust and impatience by head coaches throughout the league -- Arians is asked how he guards against his team thinking too highly of itself after its 3-0 start. This was his cue to strike up the mundane, to become Mike McCoy or Chip Kelly and talk about "one game at a time" and "the importance of being 1-0 at the end of every week" and maybe even that blandest of platitudes: "If you let up in this league, you will lose."

Instead, this is what Arians said:

"It's a short elevator ride back to the s---house ... all of a sudden, I'm the greatest damned coach in the world. I've been a sorry son of a bitch for 17, 18 years now. I mean, I ain't changed just because we won a couple games."

Maybe his bluntness, his lack of discernible filter, is what delayed his ascent to the top of the coaching ranks? Arians, in a nod to the verbal limitations of the coordinator position, says, "I don't think so, because I've never been given the chance to be blunt." And minutes later he's launching into the story of the second Super Bowl parade in Pittsburgh, when he was riding around waving and doing the parade thing when some Yinzer -- feel free to picture him in a Jack Lambert jersey -- yelled, "Get a fullback!"

"Never!" Arians shot back.

"Guys respect him because whatever comes out of his mouth is true," says Alexander, the Cardinals linebacker. "You might not like how he says it, but it's truthful. Being around this league for 10 years, it's rare to find that brutal honesty, that guy that doesn't have a back-door agenda. It doesn't matter who you are, he's going to tell you when your stuff stinks. If you're not confident in who you are, that can be scary."

Arians' style, while not quite radical, is definitely unconventional. Drew Stanton hadn't thrown a meaningful pass in the NFL in nearly four years, roughly 1,400 days, when he stood on the MetLife Stadium field and warmed up before the Cardinals played the New York Giants in Week 2. Palmer threw next to him, and Stanton knew there was a chance the starter's injured shoulder wouldn't respond well enough for him to play.

Two hours before game time, when it became clear to Arians that Palmer couldn't go, he conferred the start upon Stanton with these immortal words:

You're up, babe.

"That conversation went about the way I expected it would go," Stanton says. "That's just the way he is. It was perfect. If he'd told me, 'Watch for this,' or 'Make sure you don't do that,' I probably would have thought about stuff I didn't need to think about. I think the best way I can describe him is to say we run every one of the home run plays on the board during the week. He goes for it. It's who he is."

It's different here: After Stanton and the Cardinals defeated division rival San Francisco to go 3-0, Arians became frustrated with Stanton's inability to slide quickly and properly. So, naturally, he brought a Slip 'N Slide to help Stanton get some extra reps.

"It's the only way I know to teach it," Arians says.

"Didn't help," Stanton says, laughing. "It was fun, though."

Yes, it's different here. Arians encourages his players to ask questions and make suggestions. He tells them, "If you're being asked to do a drill and your coach can't tell you why you're doing it, then don't do it." He's an offensive guru without an offense. "That's right -- we don't have an offense," he says. He shrugs, a silent indictment of the professorial schemes and sets. "We have enough plays we can tailor to the skill level of our players, and they determine what our offense is. The way I look at it is, 'You're the guy I got, and I got to find something you can do.'" In a nod to the new defensive rules, he tells his defensive backs, "You want me to cut you? Then keep practicing penalties." He has 75-year-old coaching legend Tom Moore on his staff. Moore's official title is "offensive consultant," but his experience has earned him the additional role as unofficial sounding board for Arians' unfiltered reviews of players and coaches. "You need somebody you can bitch to," Arians says. "You can't have a young guy and bitch to him. He'll go home and tell his wife."

He's got Denver and Peyton Manning -- his former student -- in five days, and nothing seems further from his mind. He's talking about his childhood in York, starring ruler-wielding nuns, and how his wife -- an attorney and court-appointed advocate for children in abusive families -- influenced his views on domestic violence. He's got a story for just about everything, from Manning's insane preparation to Andrew Luck's intelligence ("I'm pretty sure he's got a photographic memory," Arians says) to his college coach, a man named Jimmy Sharp "who was so positive you believed you could do things you couldn't do."

He's been talking for more than an hour when the phone rings. Cardinals public relations director Mark Dalton answers, says OK and hangs up.

"Coach," Dalton says. "Chico is looking for you. They're waiting to start the meeting."

Reluctantly, Arians gets up and fires that slab of ribs back into my hand. He has game plans to concoct and practices to plan and that not-offense to devise. He sighs and says, "I guess we'll do what we can," as he adjusts his hat and heads down the hall. Off he goes -- after all those years, in all those places -- taking the job and the joy and the bull's-eye with him. His shoulders nearly bounce off the walls.