TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Bruce Arians who will coach in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Carolina Panthers hasn’t changed much since he began his career as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech in 1975.
He is a product of his past. Arians’ coaching philosophy -- coach 'em hard and hug 'em later -- was largely influenced by one man: Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Arians learned directly from Bryant for two years, as running backs coach at the University of Alabama in 1981 and 1982. But Bryant’s coaching lineage has had a profound impact on Arians’ career.
One coach in particular -- Arians college coach at Virginia Tech, Jimmy Sharpe -- played at Alabama under Bryant from 1960-62. Sharpe was set to enter the corporate world with a job at Procter & Gamble after graduation. Instead, a phone call from Bryant lured Sharpe to coaching, and he spent the next 10 years on Bryant’s staff.
Bryant’s influence on Sharpe was passed to Arians. It has helped turn one of the finest offensive minds in the NFL into a coach who’s not only beloved by his players -- past and present -- but has proved he can win by doing things his way.
And only his way.
“He has a gift,” Sharpe said of Arians. “That’s really what great coaches have. They have two things: They have a gift to be able to see, and they have the ability to motivate and inspire.
“Bruce really is special.”
Coach 'em hard and hug 'em later
The first time Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers experienced it was in 2013, his first year with the Cardinals.
Powers spent the 2012 season with Arians in Indianapolis, so he knew the drill. After being flagged for two pass interference penalties in the second quarter of a preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, Arians met Powers on the sideline.
“You can’t f---ing grab him,” Powers remembered Arians yelling.
“I kind of snapped at him, like ‘I ain’t f---ing touch him.’ And I pointed at the replay. We had a little back-and-forth, a verbal dispute. Then after the game, he came and hugged my neck and it was just like it never happened.”
The foundation of Arians’ career has been built on that philosophy -- "coach 'em hard, hug 'em later." They were Bryant’s parting words to Arians when he left Alabama after two seasons to become the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I at Temple University.
Arians had been exposed to that philosophy since playing under Sharpe during his senior year at Virginia Tech. It’s where Sharpe learned it that has brought Arians’ career full circle.
In 1966, freshmen weren’t allowed to play on varsity, but Bryant had his eye on a specific offensive lineman. This freshman had the physical tools, but it was up to Sharpe to cultivate his mental game. Sharpe worked the lineman hard. At the end practice one day, Bryant pulled Sharpe aside and told him to make sure the lineman didn’t leave the locker room until he put his arm around him.
Sharpe approached the young man and saw fear in his eyes. Sharpe did as Bryant said, and once he put his arm over the player’s shoulder, he could feel the young man’s entire demeanor change. They laughed. They smiled. And the player’s parting words to Sharpe were, “Coach, don’t give up on me.”
“I’ll never forget that feeling when I left him,” Sharpe said. “That was the missing element.”
After taking over the Hokies in 1974, Sharpe instilled that style of coaching. He had to re-recruit the fifth-year seniors, including Arians, to come back. Sharpe remembered Arians walking into his office with hair down to his shoulders, a long beard that covered his top lip and a walking stick.
“He was a little heavy,” Sharpe remembered.
Sharpe used Bryant’s coaching philosophy, but never said the words. Arians heard “coach 'em hard, hug 'em later” from Bryant all those years later, when he left Alabama for Temple.
Coach 'em hard and hug 'em later
Like Bryant and his fedora, Arians has a signature hat.
But the similarities between them go far beyond a fashion accessory.
Arians doesn’t think coaches should work long hours, pull all-nighters or sleep in their offices. He keeps a weekly date night with his wife, Chris.
Bryant never wanted his coaches hanging around the office late.
“He wanted to get them to their families,” said Jeff Rouzie, a former linebackers coach at Alabama who was on staff with Arians. “He wanted you there very early in the morning, and that’s where we did a lot of our work, early in the morning. He really liked you to get home at night.
“He knew a happy family made a better football coach. And it’s true.”
Arians also learned from Bryant to treat his star players like they’re fifth-string. Bryant once kicked All-American nose tackle Bob Baumhower off the team for his attitude, Rouzie said.
“If an All-American and a walk-on both got in trouble, he would climb all over that All-American,” said former Alabama assistant Louis Campbell, now a high school coach in Arkansas. “He didn’t worry about who you were or what you thought of him. He’d rather get on a good player, and he knew that would make an impression more so than getting on some bad player and kind of going off on him just to go off on somebody.”
Like Bryant, Arians has learned how to manage his players on an individual basis. He knows who to yell at in front of teammates and who to pull aside.
And like Bryant, Arians has developed a staff of former players. Cardinals cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross was team captain for Arians in 1983 at Temple. Former Cardinals defensive coordinator and current New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles also played at Temple. Secondary coach Nick Rapone went to school with and was a teammate of Arians at Virginia Tech and worked with him at Temple.
But there’s one area where Arians differs from Bryant, who didn’t mind his assistants yelling at players, especially when they deserved it. But Bryant didn’t tolerate cursing, Rouzie said.
“There were a lot of ‘gosh darnits,’” Rouzie said with a chuckle. “Coach Bryant really did not like the profanity. We all learned to keep our words. You can scream as loud as you wanted. Just keep it sociable.”
This where Arians strays.
He’ll yell. But he won’t keep it sociable.
“You better not laugh at the moment,” said Lee Saltz, a former quarterback who played under Arians at Temple from 1983-86. “The funny thing is, literally, when things level out, he’ll laugh about it with you. It’s never a personal attack.”
Coach 'em hard and hug 'em later
It was 2013, shortly after Arians began working with his new team. Fitzgerald ran the wrong route. Arians called him out. Fitzgerald said something back.
Stanton was not surprised. He had played for Arians, who was an assistant with the Colts when Stanton was there, and had grown accustomed to Arians’ verbal undressing of players. Stanton had been the target more than once in Indianapolis.
“I get out there, he’s got some choice words that he uses on the field that I try not to use,” Stanton said. “And when they just all started coming out back-to-back-to-back, it was just kind of like, ‘Whoa.’"
“And then he laughed, and then I was like, ‘Wait, I’m so thrown off. I don’t really know how to take this,'" Stanton continued. "And then the other quarterbacks got there, and he started picking on the younger guys worse than he was picking on me. I was like, ‘OK, this is one of those things.'
"But once you walk off the practice field, it’s all becoming a teaching point: ‘OK, well, this is what happened there. This is what you’re thinking. This is what you need to be thinking.’”
On that day in 2013, Arians would make an example of Fitzgerald.
“Everybody kind of looked like, ‘Did he just yell at Larry? Nobody yells at Larry like that,’” Stanton recalled. “I was like, ‘Really?’ That’s the way it’s going to be, and Larry knows it now. We all, being around him now for a couple of years, know that’s the way that way he is.”
After Stanton realized that, he learned to let Arians get whatever he needed off his chest.
“He yells at me now, and I don’t even respond,” Stanton said. “I just let him get it over with, let him cuss me up and down, let him say everything he wants to say. There’s sometimes I’ll even laugh because it’s funny, but I’m not responding. I could be 100 percent correct that I know I was right with what happened, but it won’t matter; but that’s the beauty of B.A.
“He’ll cuss you out and you’ll come off the field and he’ll say, ‘Hey, what’s up, baby?’”