- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - These guys know how to coach.

So why did it take so long for them to get their own teams?

Between them, Bruce Arians and Ron Rivera have won the last three AP Coach of the Year awards, and they are front-runners for this year’s honor. Arians’ Cardinals (14-3) and Rivera’s Panthers (16-1) meet Sunday for the NFC championship, with the winner making his first trip to the Super Bowl as a head coach.

Arians parlayed his work as interim coach of the Colts in 2012 when Chuck Pagano had leukemia into Coach of the Year recognition, then into the Arizona job. Rivera has guided Carolina to three consecutive NFC South titles, something no franchise had managed.

“Bruce has done a tremendous job there, just as he did in Indianapolis and anywhere he has been,” says Tony Dungy, who knows a little bit about coaching winning teams. “And Ron, going from 3-8-1 last season, keeping his composure and staying with the plan and continuing to build the kind of team he wanted - they never lost their focus. They never said they had better change the way they do things.”

Arians’ resume dates back to the 1980s at Alabama, where Bear Bryant still was in charge. His long and winding road took him to several other colleges, and he was the man at Temple from 1983-88. Arians had two winning records in six seasons with the Owls, then headed to the pros.

In his first stint with the Colts, Arians was quarterback coach from 1998-2000, working with Peyton Manning. His most noteworthy work before rejoining the team in 2012 as offensive coordinator came with the Steelers, who made three Super Bowls and won two in this century with Arians.

But his frank approach eventually helped lead to a strange departure from Pittsburgh, and Arians landed in Indy as OC. One year, one league coaching honor, and he got a top job. At last.

“Any time someone can gain that experience in doing things, it will help,” says Dungy, who worked with Arians for three years in Kansas City. “Bruce had so much experience on a variety of staffs, at Temple he was a head coach where you hear people say they don’t think he could win and he did a great job there.

“He is not afraid to be his own man, which is very important. He is kind of like Ron in saying he’ll do what he thinks is best. And he absolutely isn’t afraid of criticism. His players love that because they feel like, ‘He believes in us and is ready to go to the wall for us. So we need to do the same for him.’”

That works in particular when you are winning. Somehow, Arians guided the Cardinals to the playoffs last season despite losing Carson Palmer and backup quarterback Drew Stanton. This year, with a healthier roster, he has many believing Arizona is the NFL’s most-balanced team.

His players and assistants certainly believe in him.

“Bruce, he is a loyal kind of guy. Look at his staff, with former players who played for him going all the way back to Temple,” notes Herm Edwards, who got to know Arians when Edwards was an outstanding cornerback for the Eagles while Edwards was at Temple. “Bruce is an old-time coach, obviously. As much as he says he likes being daring, and he is a guy who will take chances, his foundation is built through the running game and a balanced offense.”

Rivera’s background is defense - and what a defense he was part of. He was a linebacker for the 1985 NFL champion Bears, a unit considered over a span of years as good as any the NFL has seen - so it’s no surprise his current team is so strong at that position with All-Pros Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

For Rivera, the long journey included stops in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Diego. He oversaw strong defenses everywhere yet frustratingly failed to land a head-coaching position despite plenty of interviews.

The Panthers hired him in 2011, and while his success in charge wasn’t as immediate as Arians’, it was impressive.

He was given the nickname “Riverboat Ron” along the way, although his gambling tactics might be overblown. Indeed, his Panthers became too conservative in last Sunday’s win against Seattle after building a 31-0 halftime lead.

“They gamble in a sense they know that if the outcome is not one in their favor,’” Edwards says of both Rivera and Arians, “they got it in position where the players know that ‘coach is counting on us to get him out of it.’ They put the pressure on the players to know ‘coach is trusting us and we got to get a stop. Or we got to go score.’

“That is how they operate, and obviously it is working.”

That level of faith in each other doesn’t come automatically, of course. Coaches need strong leadership skills, and so do their key players.

Rivera and Arians have cultivated that on both sides of the ball, and know they can rely on it.

“They are great communicators,” says Edwards, whose strength as a coach was exactly that. “There is no gray area with them, and all players want that. Be consistent, stay true to who they are, win lose or draw.”

Dungy, also considered an outstanding communicator when he was on the sideline for Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, concurs.

“These are two guys who are very confident in themselves after all the time they have spent in the league,” Dungy says. “And they should be given their success. They deserve all the praise they receive.”

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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