CLEVELAND — Back in the days when Bruce Arians was offensive coordinator of a Cleveland Browns team that forged a 17-point lead in a playoff game at Pittsburgh, he would joke about growing old.
"It has been a long time since I was the 'boy wonder' head coach at Temple," he would say. He was 30 when the Owls hired him in 1983.
When the York High graduate visited Cleveland on Sunday as a TV analyst, it had been a long time since he was fired after the Browns' 2003 season, only to resurface in Pittsburgh and eventually coordinate the offense in the Steelers' run to Super Bowls capping the 2008 and 2010 seasons.
Then, after Pittsburgh's 2011 season, in a haunting reminder of Cleveland, in a move first presented (to his dismay) as a retirement, the Steelers fired him.
The "retiree" was on his way to being one of the more colorful head coaching personalities in recent NFL history. While that cycle ran its course in Indianapolis and Arizona, Cleveland remains a serious topic to him.
Browns background: During a break from the CBS booth Sunday, in a conversation in the press box, Arians was asked if he would consider becoming a head coach again.
"Cleveland is the only job I would consider," he said, and it was no surprise if you know his background.
Arians has made it clear Cleveland is the one head coaching job he really wanted. He has been around, seeing with his own eyes how it was when the old Browns were winners. His first NFL boss was Marty Schottenheimer, who told him stories.
Current Browns general manager John Dorsey has vowed to awaken this "sleeping giant."
In 2002, Arians helped splash water on the giant's face. The Browns reached the playoffs. They had a big lead at Pittsburgh. It got away. Years later, the giant snores.
Pivotal playoff loss: Arians has told us his view of why the lone playoff game of the expansion era got away. Namely: Defensive coordinator Foge Fazio wanted to go for the jugular, attacking Pittsburgh, seizing the day. Head coach Butch Davis wanted to play a prevent, and, being the head coach, prevent it was.
Davis relieved Fazio of his command during the second half.
Internal discord is not new. Fazio was fired immediately after Davis' prevent didn't work (the Browns lost 36-33). The 2003 season sagged. The day after it ended, Arians was fired and replaced by wideouts coach Terry Robiskie, who a year later became interim head coach after Davis quit late in the season.
Cleveland job again held by interim coach: Now, the Browns' head coaching job again is in interim status. Gregg Williams is 0-1 after a 37-21 loss to Kansas City.
What does Arians imagine the Browns will do if they opt not to stay with Williams? Arians opined that the pool of candidates with a chance to succeed is "thin."
Amid a clamor to hire a boy wonder, Arians says Cleveland instead needs an experienced NFL coach who would embrace Cleveland's unique challenges.
Arians smiled when asked his age.
"Sixty-six," he said.
Pagano fan: It was mentioned to Arians that a Mike Mularkey type might appeal to Dorsey. Mularkey has had three NFL head coaching jobs, most recently with a Titans team that beat the Chiefs in a playoff game in January.
"My guy would be Chuck Pagano," Arians said.
Pagano, 58, was hired in Cleveland the same year as Arians, 2001. He lasted through the 2004 season, eventually became defensive coordinator in Baltimore, then was hired as head coach of the Colts. Pagano hired the "retired" Arians as offensive coordinator for rookie No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck (Arians had been Colts "OC" in 1998, when Peyton Manning was a rookie No. 1 overall pick).
After Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, Arians became interim head coach in Week 5, and the Colts had a 9-3 record on his watch.
Pagano healed and was Indy's head coach through 2017, fired with a record of 56-46, including 3-3 in the playoffs.
The 2012 Colts were the talk of the league. The Pagano-Arians tag team took over a team that had gone 2-14 and, under great duress, went 11-5.
Excelling with Cards: Cleveland had an opening in 2013. Arians wanted in. After the new Browns owners appointed Rob Chudzinski, Arians took his first full-time NFL head coaching job with the Cardinals, who had posted one 10-win season in the previous 25 years.
Arians put up records of 10-6, 11-5, 13-3, 7-8-1 and 8-8. After the 2017 season, he actually did retire.
As he mentioned, there is one job for which he would consider coming out of retirement.
What about Pagano? His background is on defense, in a league that has been taken over by offense.
Hiring Pagano might be a means of securing a certain former boy wonder as offensive coordinator.