But when Bruce Arians hands the reigns of the Indianapolis Colts back to Chuck Pagano – whether it is this season or next – he will do so not only happily, but eagerly.
Arians and the Colts have been targeting the Dec. 30 regular-season finale, and Pagano has completed all three rounds of chemotherapy in his battle with leukemia but medical clearance must first be granted.
“I look forward to Chuck’s return, I really do,” Arians said. “It has been an honor to be able to take over and it’s been fun to have the chance to sit in that chair. But I can’t wait for the day that he comes back.”
With the Colts’ latest comeback victory, 27-23 over Tennessee on Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium, their record since Arians took over for his ailing friend improved to 8-2. That tied him with Don Coryell (who went 8-4 after replacing Tommy Prothro in San Diego in 1978) as the second-winningest in-season replacement coach in NFL history.
With two victories in the final three games, Arians would stand alone at the top of that particular list. He might well become the first interim to be named the league’s Coach of the Year, and his name is regularly circulated on lists of prominent head coaching candidates.
Not bad for a guy forced out of his last job and ready to settle into retirement not that long ago.
In many ways, Arians was the perfect man for this imperfect situation. When Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in late September, the Colts desperately needed not only a strong leadership figure but someone that could bring positive energy – not to mention smiles – to a franchise in pain.
At age 60, Arians had been through just about every other possible scenario as a coach, so was prepared as possible for this one. His honest approach in the locker room and on the sideline has been welcomed by the players. His quick wit and refreshing candor has been a delight for the media.
And he’s done it all while juggling two of the highest-stress jobs in the game – head coach and offensive coordinator.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” Arians said. “That’s the only way you can look at it. The stress part, it’s just like the word pressure; I think if you’re not prepared, you feel it.”
Only a head coach once before – at Temple University from 1983-88 – Arians has crafted a reputation as a quarterback’s best friend in his NFL career, playing a key role in the early development of both Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and Peyton Manning in his first stint with the Colts as quarterbacks coach from 1998-2000.
Normally, a high-profile assistant with such big names on his resume, not to mention a couple of Super Bowl trips, would have his choice of head coaching opportunities. Not so Arians.
“After Super Bowl 43, I thought I’d have a shot, but no calls,” he said. “After Super Bowl 45 I thought I’d have a shot, but no calls.”
When the Steelers opted to shift directions after last season, Arians was forced out as offensive coordinator and he figured it was time to head to his lake house in Georgia, once and for all.
But when the Colts turned their rebuilding project over to Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator knew he’d need a strong, experienced offensive mastermind and so he talked Arians out of retirement.
The strength of their relationship has helped make this interim period work. The two communicate daily via phone, e-mail and text messages, and Arians has somehow managed to speak with his own voice while communicating Pagano’s message.
“I think you have to be yourself,” Arians said. “Our philosophies are so similar and his foundation was laid and is here and is not going to change. So that part’s kind of easy. The rest of it, you just have to be yourself and not be anybody else and hopefully that’s good enough.”
Pagano’s illness became a rallying point for the team, giving a roster overloaded with young players and veteran newcomers a common bond, a sense of purpose that has helped carry them through this remarkable season.
But Arians has been the glue that has helped keep it all together when it could easily have fallen to pieces.
“He’s a real guy,” said Dwight Freeney. “When things are screwed up, he’s going to tell you. When things are great, he’s going to tell you. He doesn’t hide. He tells you exactly what’s on his mind. It might not come out the best way but you understand it and we love it.”
Arians generally has danced around coach of the year discussion and the potential for a head coaching offer for next season but he may well have to confront both soon enough.
“I don’t even think about it,” he said. “I think about this team fighting to win a game and (Pagano) fighting to save his life. I’ll leave that up to everyone that controls that because I don’t control it. I only worry about things I can control. We’re just trying to fight every day, both of us.”
And they’re both winning.
What the future holds remains to be seen but this much is clear: Arians, who has performed so admirably while coaching Pagano’s team, has earned the chance to guide his own.
Whether he chooses to do so or not, well, this time it’ll be up to him.