Years of friendship set up Pagano-Arians

Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians have a connection that goes beyond football. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. -- One of the first calls Bruce Arians made after he found out Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia last September was to his son, Jake, who raced up I-65 from Birmingham, Ala., to be by his father's side.

The call sounded too familiar to Jake. Bruce had made a similar call in 2007, announcing he had prostate cancer.

Until Jake arrived in Indianapolis, he had only seen his father cry once before, in 2006 when he lost his father, Lambert. Then Jake saw it happen again. Bruce cried three times the week Pagano left the Colts to begin his treatment, Jake said.

"They've been friends for a long time," Jake said. "It wasn't like it was just one of the guys on the staff that dad didn't know."

The relationship between Bruce and Pagano had been building for 16 years before one of the most trying years of Pagano's career led to one of the most rewarding of Arians'. Arians first met Pagano when he coached with Pagano's brother, John, in 1996 in New Orleans. The two hit it off immediately. Arians was a football man and Pagano came from a football family, which in time became Arians' "West Coast family."

Their relationship strengthened over time, especially when the two coached together in Cleveland from 2001-03. While Arians was the offensive coordinator and Pagano was the secondary coach, the two became known for their one liners.

Today, it's Arians who moonlights as a standup comic during his news conference, while Pagano spent the past week stone faced in front of the media, downplaying the story beyond Sunday's game. But during meetings in Cleveland, former Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb said Pagano was the man with all the jokes.

"Chuck's one of those guys that's always having fun," Holcomb said. He takes his job serious. A lot of people, especially in that profession, take stuff a little too serious. He [would] bust on you but you can bust on him too. And he can take on it.

"Chuck [was] the life of the party."

Their friendship turned into a rivalry four years later when Arians became the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2008, Pagano was charged with overseeing the Baltimore Ravens' secondary and then in 2011, he became their defensive coordinator.

For the first time in their career, the friends were now foes. In those four years, Arians and Pagano went 4-4 against each other, with Pagano winning both games in 2011.

What happened after that season, changed the course of both men's careers.

Pagano was hired by Indianapolis to replace Jim Caldwell and Arians retired after reportedly being forced out of Pittsburgh. It didn't take long for Pagano to recognize the talent left on the open market. He offered Arians the job as offensive coordinator for the Colts.

The two quick-witted, motivationally-inclined coaches were back together.

Arians was minding his X's and O's, razzing the defense when the offense outplayed them in practice, happy to be back in football. But that all changed in less than 24 hours on Oct. 1, 2012. Pagano left the Colts and started treatment for his leukemia just a few blocks from Lucas Oil Stadium.

Before he checked into the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, however, Pagano handed the Colts to Arians, who, for the first time, had the responsibility of being an NFL head coach. Arians visited Pagano in the hospital a few times a week, but the text messages would last into the night.

With Arians in control, however, nothing changed.

Cardinals outside linebackers coach James Bettcher held the same role in Indianapolis in addition to being the assistant to the head coach. Under Arians, Bettcher still made sure the Colts' daily schedule was in place, the rules were being followed and the structure of the team was still intact.

And while Pagano lay in his hospital bed with a TV connected to a computer so he could watch game film -- and he did, every day -- Bettcher watched Arians keep the Colts on the same steady path as Pagano.

Monday's meeting under Arians ran like Monday's meeting under Pagano. So did Tuesday's, Wednesday's and Thursday's. Nothing changed.

"The thing that I have so much respect for him about the way things went is when he took over, he didn't just start changing everything to do it [just] to say I'm doing it my way," Bettcher said. "He said this is how we do things. And we're going to continue to do how we do things. That was steadying for the players, that was steadying for the coaches involved.

"When he stepped into that role, it was, he just took it and went. It was never about him. It was never anything like that. And as someone that was there, seeing it first-hand, knowing that someone who took it over could have done it different. It was all about the players, all about the coaches. Never made it about him."

It was always about Pagano getting healthy. Through the 12 weeks Pagano was gone, football was the task at hand but Pagano's health was the focus, Arians has reiterated over and over. Even as Arians became a head coach for the first time at 60 years old, it was bittersweet because the opportunity arose from Pagano's bout with cancer.

That's something Arians thinks about often.

But Pagano won't let a game get in the way of a friendship. A year later, he's thankful for the job Arians did.

"You can't put a price tag on it," Pagano said. "If I've said it once, I've said it 1,000 times, what he did for not only myself but more importantly, this organization, our players, our coaches, everything, and it was everybody had a hand in it, the players and the coaches and him leading the charge. Again, very, very grateful obviously."

The longer Bettcher is around Arians, the more he notices how he and Pagano were similar.

Both are talented motivators, both are family men and both have a genuine respect for people. Bettcher said Pagano knew everybody around the Colts' practice facility so it didn't come as a surprise when Arians was the same way in Arizona.

And like they were in Cleveland, Bettcher saw how funny both were. Like really funny.

"Both of them, great one-liner guys," Bettcher said with a laugh. "Great comedians. Keep you on the edge of your seat, like, 'Did he just say that?' It's unbelievable."

The best Pagano and Arians barbs may never see the light of day, however. When Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was asked about his favorite Arians quote, he shed a little light as to why the stories and jokes may stay off the record.

"I probably can't repeat that on camera [laughs]," Luck said.