GLENDALE, Ariz. – Just four years ago, James Bettcher was linebackers coach and special teams coordinator for the University of New Hampshire.
Today the former Saint Francis player and coach is the new defensive coordinator for an Arizona Cardinals team that expects to contend for the Super Bowl. He replaces the popular, successful Todd Bowles, who moved on to become head coach of the New York Jets.
It’s a rapid rise for the 37-year-old Bettcher, who worked with Bruce Arians in Indianapolis and followed him to Arizona, where he was outside linebackers coach the past two seasons.
"I’ve been fortunate who I’ve worked for," he said. "I’ve been around good people. I’ve got parents that taught me how to work hard, taught me the value of a tough day’s work. My parents are blue collar. I’m the first person in my family to go to college.
"I think that’s a big part of it. Keep your head to the grindstone. You work, you have goals, you have a vision of what you want to do and you work every day to accomplish those goals."
Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano hired Bettcher in 2012 as special assistant to the head coach and outside linebackers coach. When Pagano fell ill, then-offensive coordinator Arians took over as interim coach.
Arians obviously liked what he saw.
Not wanting to change the Arizona defensive scheme after Bowles left, the head coach looked to promote from within and chose Bettcher for the job.
"He’s very bright, knows the defenses, extremely articulate with the players, commands a room with the players," Arians said. "I always go back to John Abraham and Robert Mathis, two Pro Bowl veteran players who thought he helped them get better. That’s all you can do as a position coach. But he had the insight to become a coordinator."
Bowles, winner of the Associated Press’ inaugural assistant coach of the year award last season, is a tough act to follow. He was a master at mid-game adjustments and employed a dizzying array of blitz schemes.
"With the vets that we have here, with the coaches I have as a defensive staff, the transition has been smooth for me personally," Bettcher said. "I can’t thank those guys enough because they’re all in. We all have one common goal, and that’s to be playing in February."
Bettcher played on the offensive line for Saint Francis, and, after graduation, stayed as special teams coordinator and defensive line coach. He also held assistant positions at Bowling Green, North Carolina and Ball State and spent one season at New Hampshire before going to the NFL.
"I’ve been really fortunate," Bettcher said. "I’ve worked for a lot of phenomenal defensive coaches, Todd being one, and I work for the best coach in the National Football League."
Bettcher is already getting some practice at calling defensive sets.
He and Arians, who calls the offensive plays, go at it in 11-on-11 drills over a 20- to 30-minute span in practice, neither knowing what call the other is making.
"Every day he’s putting me in a situation I’m calling games in practice," Bettcher said. "We’re playing real football. We’re not just scripting periods."
Arians called it "invaluable experience."
"If you don’t put a guy in that situation," he said, "then he’s only going to have preseason games. Now he’s getting a good taste."
Bettcher was the position coach for outside linebacker Alex Okafor, who led the team in sacks last season with eight.
"He’s just very detail- oriented," Okafor said, "and I think that’s what he adds to our group. He’s going to get everybody knowing what every other position does, not just teaching that one position. I think it’ll help the overall knowledge of the defense and help us work better together."
But will the new coordinator be as aggressive as his predecessor was? "We’ll see first game," was all that Bettcher would say.