NORTH SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians stood on the 14th tee at Whisper Rock, the ultra-exclusive golf club that is home to approximately 30 PGA Tour players, including Phil Mickelson, and nearly seven times as many single-digit handicaps. From here, Arians can look majestically into the valley and point to his other home, the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, gleaming in the desert sun nearly 35 miles away.
Life is good for Arians. He is a new member at Whisper Rock, an invitation-only club with a six-figure equity membership fee and Pro V1 balls on the practice range. There are no tennis courts or swimming pools at Whisper Rock, just two 18-hole courses — Upper and Lower — amid a bold landscape of massive boulder formations, desert scrub and cacti.
But it is more than that. For the second year in a row, Arians has taken a team floundering at or near the bottom of the NFL and dramatically turned it into instant winners.
He did it when he served as interim coach for ailing Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis in 2012, leading the Colts to a 9-3 record in the 12 games in which he was temporarily in charge. And, last season, after finally getting his shot at being a full-time NFL head coach at age 61, Arians led the Arizona Cardinals to a 10-6 record that included a 17-10 victory in Seattle in Week 15 — the only team to beat the Seahawks at home the past two seasons and the last one to beat them before their Super Bowl championship.
“It’s crazy,” Arians said. “It’s a fairy tale.”
Indeed, it is nearly unbelievable.
Since his contract was not renewed by Steelers team president Art Rooney II after a 12-4 season in 2011, Arians has spent the past two years on a magical ride through the NFL. He became the first interim coach to win the league’s coach of the year award in 2012 after helping the Colts go from 2-14 to 11-5 with a team that featured 18 rookie or first-year players.
Last season, he took a Cardinals team that had won only five games the previous year and doubled the victory total playing in the league’s toughest division. After beating the Seahawks in the next-to-last game, the Cardinals nearly beat the San Francisco 49ers in the regular-season finale, losing by a field goal on the last play.
Even if they had defeated the 49ers and finished with the same 11-5 record, the Cardinals still would not have made the postseason as a wild-card team. Nonetheless, those performances against the two best teams in the NFC — and likely the entire league — underscored what Arians was able to do in just one season with the Cardinals.
“I was disappointed in that we wanted to beat Seattle and San Francisco this year and we split with the [St. Louis] Rams, so we would have won against everyone in the division and that would have legitimized ourselves,” Arians said. “But, in the long run, the loss to San Francisco is going to help us because it put the chip back on our shoulder. We couldn’t stick our chest out and say, ‘We’re 11-5 and made the playoffs.’ We didn’t beat them. They beat us.”
Unlike the Seahawks and 49ers, who have young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, Arizona won 10 games with veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, who never has won a playoff game. After a slow start, Palmer came on strong in the second half of the season and led the Cardinals to a 7-2 record in the final nine games. They averaged 29.3 points in those victories.
What’s more, Arians brought in at least nine players on one-year contracts; six became starters. One was former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who led the team with 687 yards rushing and eight rushing touchdowns.
Make no mistake, he will need more of that to keep up with the Seahawks and 49ers.
“First and foremost, you have to build a defense that can play that way — guys who are athletic, fast, who can chase these quarterbacks around our division, but are still physical,” Arians said. “Same thing offensively — you got to build a line of scrimmage that can protect these quarterbacks and have the ability to run the football.
“Coming into this division reminded me a lot of the AFC North five years ago when Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were really good and Cleveland was getting better. You know what you’re getting into. The blueprint is there. We know it. We did it. Winning at Seattle solidified everything that this works.”
How does he do it?
How does a lifelong quarterback coach and offensive coordinator finally get a chance to be in charge and take two teams who were a combined 7-25 before his arrival and produce a 19-9 record?
“The biggest thing for Bruce is he still has a great passion for people,” said Cardinals special teams coordinator Amos Jones, who joined Arians in Arizona after helping to coach the Steelers special teams for six seasons.
Jones goes back a long way with his boss, serving as an assistant coach when Arians was head coach at Temple from 1983-88. “He’s a guy who can dog-cuss you one minute and put his arm around you the next minute and make you like him. He really genuinely cares about everybody. I’ve worked for guys who probably didn’t know my children’s names. He probably knows their birthdate. And that carries over when you play for him or work for him.”
Arians is wearing white slacks and a black long-sleeve golf shirt, looking relaxed and eating a salad after his round. He has lost 15 pounds and is trying to lose 15 more, all part of a health regimen that he has not always followed over his coaching career.
Arians was so stressed as a young head coach at Temple that he said he landed in the hospital five times with migraines and other ailments. But, after spending eight years with the Steelers — the longest stop of his coaching career — Arians learned to decompress and delegate authority.
Part of that likely came when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the spring of 2007, his first year as the Steelers offensive coordinator. Arians underwent a radical prostatectomy surgery and has been cancer-free since.
It’s all part of the magical ride.
The person he replaced with the Steelers— Ken Whisenhunt —is the same one he replaced as head coach in Arizona. Now, for the first time since 2010, Arians will return to the same team he coached the year before. And that is a comfortable feeling.
“My wife and I sat at the lake a couple weeks ago and said, ‘Wow, this is the first down-time we’ve had in three years after the season,’ ” Arians said, referring to his summer home in Greensboro, Ga. “It’s been bam-bam-bam, job-job-job, move-move-move.”
All since the Steelers decided not to offer him a new contract and say he retired.
“I thank them every day,” Arians said.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac.