You hear it every time the Browns search for a new head coach: No one wants the job in Cleveland.
Well, Bruce Arians defies that narrative.
The problem is the Browns have never given him a shot to lead them, and now Arians is considered one of the best coaches in the NFL.
As Arians guides the Arizona Cardinals (5-2) against the Browns (2-5) beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, he’ll undoubtedly reflect on his three seasons (2001-03) as the offensive coordinator in Cleveland and how he fell in love with Northeast Ohio’s rabid fans.
“There were great, great years in Cleveland,” said Arians, who directed the offense of only Browns team to make the playoffs during the expansion era. “The greatest game ever was the beer bottle game. Ever seen 40,000 beer bottles thrown on the field at one time? That’s Cleveland.”
Most people don’t look back at the Dec. 16, 2001, debacle known as “Bottlegate” fondly, but Arians can’t help himself.
“The fans and the people in the city are just fabulous,” Arians said. “I go back to  when I came in there [as the quarterbacks coach for] Indianapolis. It was the last game of the year. It was snowing like crazy. We’re out there warming up, and there’s nobody in the stadium, and I told Peyton [Manning], I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about crowd noise today.’ We go in the locker room and come back out, and there’s [a butt] in every seat, and they’re going crazy. I think we kicked a field goal on the last play of the game, and they were 2-13 at the time. I said ‘Now this is a fan base.’?”
The Browns went 9-7 in 2002 with Arians in charge of the offense and lost 36-33 to the Pittsburgh Steelers after they blew a 17-point lead in a wild-card playoff game Jan. 5, 2003.
Former Browns coach Butch Davis fired Arians following the 2003 season, when the Browns went 5-11. Arians said he believes he was fired “probably because I was a Tim Couch supporter.” Davis viewed the quarterback situation differently.
“I think Tim Couch is still one of the most underrated players because Timmy took us to the playoffs and then broke his leg,” Arians said. “Kelly [Holcomb] had the great game [in the playoffs against the Steelers], and then all of a sudden there was a controversy.”
Arians is amazed the Browns haven’t been able to dig themselves out of the hole since his departure.
“Yeah, I’m shocked because they have one of the greatest fan bases in the world,” he said. “It just comes down to a quarterback. We’re all tied to our quarterback. Some good coaches have come and gone. It’s a shame. I really loved my time there, and I wish I would have had an opportunity.”
After being ousted by Davis, Arians spent eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, including five as their offensive coordinator.
He was their wide receivers coach when they won Super Bowl XL during the 2005 season. He was their offensive coordinator when they won Super Bowl XLIII during the 2008 season and when they reached Super Bowl XLV but lost during the 2010 season.
Still, Arians didn’t land his first NFL head-coaching gig until the Cardinals hired him in 2013 at age 60. (He said it might have happened sooner if the Browns had won “that dadgum playoff game like we should have” against the Steelers when he was the Browns’ offensive coordinator.)
The Browns didn’t even interview him in 2009, when then-owner Randy Lerner hired Eric Mangini, in 2011, when former President Mike Holmgren hired Pat Shurmur, or in 2013, when owner Jimmy Haslam and ex-CEO Joe Banner hired Rob Chudzinski. Mike Pettine, who’s 9-14 with the Browns, succeeded Chudzinski last year to become the franchise’s seventh full-time head coach since 1999.
Arians said the lack of interviews frustrated him.
“Very much so because I was notified that I was going to be contacted, and then somebody else was hired that same day,” said Arians, adding it was Mangini.
After the Steelers forced Arians out following the 2011 season and framed it as his retirement, he became the offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 and led them to a record of 9-3 as an interim head coach while Chuck Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia.
He parlayed that into his current job and immediately turned the Cardinals around.
The key to success was halting a quarterback carousel by signing a backup who knew his system, Drew Stanton, then trading low-round draft picks to the Oakland Raiders for starter Carson Palmer.
“We had two legit quarterbacks,” Arians said, “and everybody on the football team, all of a sudden, they believed we could win.”
The Cardinals are 26-13 (10-6 in 2013, 11-5 in 2014, 5-2 in 2015) with one playoff appearance under Arians.
“He’s got it all,” said Browns inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, who played for Arians’ first Cardinals team in 2013. “X’s and O’s, you see it in the way his offense is playing. They’re ranked second in the league in points scored. The X’s and O’s are covered.
“His ability to relate to guys and inspire them to play at a different level, you see it. When he came in, we went from 5-11 the year before to 10-6, and year after year, they’ve been able to be in the running in that division, which is a tough division. So his ability to inspire guys to play at a different level is uncanny.
“It’s hard to group him with everybody else. He kind of sticks out. He’s got an aura about himself, and it’s a God-given gift. You can see the glow on him when you walk in the building, so you just feel his energy. He’s cut from a different cloth. I loved playing for him.”
If only the Browns would have given him a chance.
“I always felt like if you could deliver a winner to Cleveland how special that would be,” Arians said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.