NEW CASTLE —
Thirty years ago, almost to the day, Nick Rapone got a call from Bruce Arians.
“Hey, Nick,” Arians said to his old college football teammate, “Let’s go to Temple.”
And so Rapone packed his bags and left East Tennessee State University to begin a journey that came full circle late last week with another phone call and some familiar — not to mention life-changing — words from his fellow Virginia Tech alumni:
“Hey, Nick, let’s go to Arizona.”
So Arians, 60, and Rapone, 56, who went their separate ways after that long-ago, six-year stint at Temple, will team up once again, Arians as head coach and Rapone as secondary coach of the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League.
For Rapone, who has paid his dues in the coaching ranks for 34 years, it is the realization of a lifelong dream.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Rapone said. “A long time.”
Rapone got his chance when Arians was hired last week as Cardinals coach. One of Arians’ first moves was to bring in the Philadelphia Eagles’ Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator and then call Rapone to invite him to coach the secondary. Arians and Rapone coached Bowles at Temple before Bowles went on to an eight-year NFL career that was highlighted by a Super Bowl XXII ring while with the Washington Redskins.
Arians, who served as interim coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 2012 when head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, also has bided his time in both the college and pro ranks. He perhaps is best known to local fans during the eight years he spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004-11, first as wide receivers coach, then as offensive coordinator.
Arians and Rapone hit it off immediately when they met at Virginia Tech, where Arians was a fifth-year senior on the 1974 Hokies team that Rapone joined as a freshman after starring on New Castle High’s 1973 WPIAL championship team.
Rapone is much-traveled in the coaching ranks. After serving as a graduate assistant at the University of Pittsburgh, he became secondary coach at East Tennessee State before joining the Temple staff in 1983. When he left there in 1988, he returned to Pitt, first as defensive backs coach and then as defensive coordinator in 1992. Rapone spent 1993-94 as head coach at New Castle High before getting back into the college ranks at Connecticut and Temple, working under Bobby Wallace at the latter. In 2006, he joined the staff at the University of Delaware, where he has been part of two NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national runner-up teams, including the 2010 squad of 12-3. The Blue Hens led the nation in scoring defense at 12.1 points per game.
“I feel like my life has been a puzzle and this is the next piece of the puzzle,” Rapone said from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Monday night, where he joined Arians. “This has been a lifelong dream of mine, to coach in the NFL with the best athletes in the world.”
Rapone said while he was hopeful when he heard that Arians had gotten the Cardinals job that he might hear from him, he knew the list of candidates was a long one. He and Arians never lost touch over the years, speaking by phone often and occasionally picking each others’ brains.
“I have always been in Bruce’s circle, but when you’re a coach of his stature, you have a lot of circles,” Rapone said. “I coached with the guy for eight years and I know we have a lot of respect for each other, but Bruce has good relationships with a whole lot of coaches and he certainly can’t hire them all.
“We go back 39 years — that is a long time by any standard,” he added. “We clicked the day we met 39 years ago and I think we still click today.”
In Rapone, Arians gets a man whose respect in the game of football is matched perhaps only by his loyalty and work ethic.
“Bruce is a team guy and I get that,” Rapone said. “I understand the business and I understand where he comes from. He knows I’ll work my butt off for him.”
Rapone said while his age might work against him when it comes to an NFL head coaching job, he eventually would like to be a coordinator.
“For now, I am absolutely looking forward to working for Todd (Bowles),” he said. “I think it will be a wonderful relationship. I’m not a puppy anymore and I understand that my role is to help Todd in any way that I can. He will find no guy who works harder for him than I do.”
Rapone said his cellphone has been ringing from callers in New Castle.
“I heard from Jesse Moss, I heard from Chuck Cuba, so many of my former teammates and coaches and friends,” he said. “Guys I haven’t talked to in 30 years called to congratulate me. It makes a guy feel good to know you aren’t forgotten in your hometown. Once a Red Hurricane, always a Red Hurricane.”
“I know I’m prepared for this, because when you’re a Hurricane, you’re raised to lead,” Rapone added. “And I come from the best place in the world when it comes to football. My motto has always been wherever I am, I’m going to enjoy it. I can’t wait to see what the future holds with this great opportunity in front of me.”