After 11 different teams and 45 years, Bruce Arians' wild coaching journey leads to Super Bowl LV

Frank Schwab
·5-min read

When Bruce Arians was asked who influenced his coaching style, he mentioned some advice he got from Bear Bryant.

Bryant died in 1983. Patrick Mahomesdad was 12 years old then, still nine years from making his major league baseball debut.

To say it has been a long journey for Arians is an understatement. His first job in coaching was as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech in 1975. He didn’t get a shot to be an NFL head coach until he was 60, and that was only as an interim for the Indianapolis Colts when Chuck Pagano battled leukemia.

Arians, who was retired in 2018 and said he didn’t have any plans to get back in the game, is the head coach of a Super Bowl team for the first time. He’s 68 years old.

“It’s not time to look in the rear-view mirror yet. We’re still looking ahead,” Arians said of his journey. “There will be a time in the spring to look back and reflect and hopefully we’ll have a Lombardi Trophy on the wall to look at and smile.”

Arians is different than most coaches. It could be because his path is so unique.

Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and Tom Brady will face the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians and Tom Brady will face the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Bruce Arians has had a long road

Arians has been a coach with 11 different teams, including two stints with Alabama, Mississippi State and the Indianapolis Colts. He was seemingly asked about every stop in his Super Bowl media availability on Monday.

That advice from Bryant? It came when Arians was leaving Alabama’s staff to be Temple’s head coach after the 1982 season, and he kept it close to his heart.

“The last thing he told me when I was going off to Temple was, ‘Coach ’em hard and hug ’em later,’” Arians said. “That’s been my mantra ever since.”

Todd Bowles was one of his players at Temple. Bowles, now Arians’ defensive coordinator, remembers that “coach ’em hard” philosophy. He said in training camp, Arians had the players do two 330-yard runs and a 660-yard run and they had to finish it in “Olympic time,” according to Bowles. Bowles said he trained all summer. Then he saw a teammate go before him.

“He passed out and they took him off on a stretcher,” Bowles said. “There was no hope for me.”

He didn’t pass. Nobody did, and Arians said they needed to be up at 6 a.m. the next day to run because nobody was in shape.

“At that point you could see the determination he had, not taking defeat as an answer,” Bowles said.

He hugs ’em hard, too. There are seven assistants with Temple ties on Arians’ staff. Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen said that speaks to Arians’ loyalty, and the loyalty people have for Arians.

“This thing is built over a lot of years,” Christensen said.

Arians thankful for this Buccaneers team

The relationship between Tom Brady and Arians was dissected earlier this season because Arians was critical of him. He’s critical of everyone.

“His leadership style is very straight, to the point. He doesn’t beat around the bush a lot,” Bowles said. “He gives you tough love, and then he loves you up at the same time.

“He doesn’t hold back and he likes us to throw every punch we can throw.”

Arians is known for being more blunt than most coaches when it comes to practically everything. Like when he talked about his time at Temple.

“I thought I knew everything, didn’t know s***,” Arians said.

Or his displeasure that offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich didn’t get a look for any head-coaching opportunity.

“I was very, very pissed that Byron didn’t at least get an interview this year for the job he’s done,” Arians said. “I get way too much credit, and so does Tom Brady, for the job Byron has done.”

This isn’t Arians’ first Super Bowl. Arians has won two Super Bowls before, as a wide receivers coach and then offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That didn’t lead to a head-coaching gig.

“I didn’t get a shot until I was 60, and Chuck Pagano had to get sick with leukemia for me to even become a head coach,” Arians said. “I was a winning Super Bowl offensive coordinator and didn’t even get a phone call.”

Arians took that opportunity and ran with it. He won NFL Coach of the Year as an interim with the Colts, something that will probably never happen again. He won that award again after he got a full-time opportunity with the Arizona Cardinals. Now he’s the head coach in a Super Bowl.

Arians said he didn’t have an itch to coach again, it just came together in Tampa Bay. He knew general manager Jason Licht. Many of his preferred assistants were available. He said if he couldn’t get the assistants he wanted, he would have stayed in his broadcasting role at CBS. He had health issues in Arizona, and he was also at an age in which it seemed like he would be done.

Had he stayed retired he would have missed the peak of his long career, taking a Buccaneers team that had to come together in the strangest season ever due to COVID-19 and leading them to three straight road wins and a spot in Super Bowl LV.

“It’s amazing,” Arians said. “This is the most rewarding year I’ve had in coaching.

“It’s been a fantastic year. I’m very, very thankful.”

Arians’ coaching stops

Virginia Tech, 1975-77 (graduate assistant, running backs coach)
Mississippi State, 1978-80 (running backs/wide receivers coach)
Alabama, 1981-82 (running backs coach)
Temple, 1983-88 (head coach)
Kansas City Chiefs, 1989-1992 (running backs coach)
Mississippi State, 1993-95 (offensive coordinator)
New Orleans Saints, 1996 (tight ends coach)
Alabama, 1997 (offensive coordinator)
Indianapolis Colts, 1998-2000 (quarterbacks coach)
Cleveland Browns, 2001-2003 (offensive coordinator)
Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004-2011 (wide receivers coach, offensive coordinator)
Indianapolis Colts, 2012 (offensive coordinator/interim head coach)
Arizona Cardinals, 2013-2017 (head coach)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2019-current (head coach)

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