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Bucs coach Bruce Arians’ outlook shaped by seminal moments in his life

Bucs 2019: A factory worker and a famed college football coach influenced the man Tampa Bay hopes can turn around the franchise.
New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians. MONICA HERNDON | Times [MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 1
Updated Sep. 2

TAMPA — Why do you jump? Because you think you can fly.

Of course, the laws of gravity insist that you either sprout wings or fall hard.

Bruce Arians has done both. But after every crash landing, he’s always gotten up, dusted off and started the perilous climb again.

When he was 5, Arians wanted so badly to be like Superman. So, he tied a red bath towel around his neck, climbed out his second story bedroom window and onto the porch roof of the family’s home in Marlowe, W.Va.

He dropped hard onto the grass below, fortunate to not break any bones. By the time Bert Arians reached his son, he was crying. Not from the pain of smacking the ground.

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“I can’t fly!’’ he kept repeating.

Arians related this story while sitting in his cavernous new office at the Bucs training facility one day shortly after being named the team’s new coach. A signed picture of Paul “Bear” Bryant, soon to be mounted, was propped on a shelf behind his desk.

“It’s always over my right shoulder,’’ Arians said.

The lifelong desire to please those two influential men — his father and the legendary Alabama football coach — has driven Arians for most of his 66 years.

‘S.Q. Smooth’

When he was 8, Arians’ family moved to York, Pa., a blue-collar town 100 miles west of Philadelphia. His father worked the lines at Caterpillar Inc. for more than 25 years. His mother toiled on the lines at the York Peppermint Patty factory.

“It was a blue-collar family,’’ Arians said. “I thought that’s what you did, you know? You graduate high school, you went to work.’’

Arians spent all his time playing nearly every sport at nearby Memorial Park, where many of the older kids were African American. He got to be friends with one named Eddie Berry, who tagged him with the nickname of S.Q. Smooth. S.Q. stood for Esquire and Arians loved it.

A great athlete, he was an outstanding baseball and football player at York Catholic High School.

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That’s where he met Christine, now his wife of 47 years. She was 14 when he sat behind her in home room. But it took him a year to conjure up the nerve to talk to her during French class.

Their first kiss happened after a football game in an alley behind Christine’s friend’s house. By the time they were juniors, she was pregnant.

“She lost the baby on Thursday and we were going to get married on Saturday,’’ Arians said.

They didn’t get married then because it wasn’t allowed if you wanted to remain in school. The day after football season, Arians and his teammates went on a retreat.

“Everybody gets drunk,’’ Arians said. “Twenty-nine guys get suspended for three days. I got expelled because supposedly I was already on probation. That changed a lot of things in me.

“I talk about the look of just abject disappointment I saw on on my dad’s face. I worked my whole life to change it.’’

Arians’ mistake proved costly. All but one of the many schools that were recruiting him to play college football withdrew their offers.

John Devlin, an assistant coach at Virginia Tech, was the only one not to turn his back on Arians. He even lied about Arians’ reason for leaving York Catholic to play his senior year at the public high school, insisting it was so he could take an advance math class.

Arians sat for three seasons as the backup to quarterback Don Strock, who spent 14 seasons in the NFL.

It was at Virginia Tech that Arians became the first white player asked to room with a black player, running back James Barber, the father of Ronde and Tiki.

Those moments cemented two tenants of his life and coaching philosophy. Because of the mistakes he had made and overcome in high school, he believed in giving players second chances. And being raised in a culturally diverse city like York had opened his eyes to racism and why skin color — or gender for that matter — had no relationship to the content of a person’s character.

Arians was getting ready to interview for coaching positions at a junior high school when Jimmy Sharpe became the Hokies’ head coach before his senior year.

At this point, Arians had long hair and a mustache. He was 20 pounds overweight and had little desire to continue playing. He was working at a bar in Blacksburg to make ends meet.

“Unless you break your leg, you’re starting every game this year,’’ Sharpe told him.

This design featuring new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians appears in a 48-page special section Bucs preview in Sunday's editions of the Tampa Bay Times, delivered to subscribers and available on newsstands in Tampa Bay. To subscribe, go to https://tampabaytimes.subscriber.services/. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Arians was an option quarterback with even more choices after graduation. Sharpe offered him a chance to remain as a grad assistant. The decision became much easier one night when what Arians described as “a Mountain Man,” came into the bar in Blacksburg and announced he was going to drink and fight.

When he started pinching the rear ends of women in the bar, Arians told him he had to leave. That’s when the man pulled out a black handgun and said, “Tell me I have to leave now.’’

About that time, the owner of the nightclub, swinging a blackjack, clubbed the man over the head and knocked him unconscious.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I want to be in the bar business,’ ’’ Arians now says, laughing. “I think coaching is a lot safer.’’

Arians and Christine have journeyed through life together since shortly after he arrived at Virginia Tech. She was attending York College and he was flunking out with a 1.6 grade point average when he called Christine and told her, “I can’t do this anymore.”

It was an awkward, if not desperate proposal. But they were married three months later.

But the grass has always grown under Arians feet. He was on the move again when Devlin alerted him to a job as a receivers and running backs coach at Mississippi State.

“How do you stay married 47 years?” Arians said. “You are probably apart 20 of them. You get fired, move to another job. She would raise the kids and come six months later. Just start all over again. New romance.”

In the spring of ’78, Arians became Mississippi State’s passing game coordinator. He was less than impressed with his selection of quarterbacks until one day he saw his kicker, Dave Marler, pick up a football and throw it to a teammate. Marler was actually listed as the team’s fifth quarterback but he could also read defenses and throw the football to the right player.

Marler was leading the Southeastern Conference when the Bulldogs prepared to play Alabama, which was known for his blitzes and cover zero. Prior to the game, Marler heard a pop in his thigh during warm ups.

Fortunately, Arians had planned to put Marler in the shotgun with backs on either side, something that wasn’t done much those days. Marler passed for a school record 429 yards in a 35-14 loss, but it made an impression on Bryant.

Two years later, Sharpe set up an interview between Bryant and Arians for a position as running backs coach. “Just go talk to him for 15 minutes,’’ Sharpe said. Arians was in Bryant’s office for an hour and a half.

The Bear

Bryant was an imposing figure, with his houndstooth fedora, a leathery face that resembled a deflated football and that long southern drawl. He had a couch in his office so low to the ground facing his desk, that when a visitor sunk down in it, he towered above you. “The ultimate home field advantage,’’ Arians called it in his book, The Quarterback Whisperer.

“Some people have a knack for looking at someone and knowing how they feel,’’ Arians said. “(Bryant) was a master of personnel. A master of people. He could walk in and see the secretary was having a bad day and say something sweet. Me? I was cockier than s---. He knew it.

“He must have thought I had some potential because he just ripped my (butt) to see if I would take it. And I wouldn’t take it. Until one day we were grading film. He went around the room until he got to running backs. I said, ‘Well, we fumbled twice.’ He said, ‘You didn’t ever watch the film. You don’t know how to grade the film.’

“This went on for weeks. One day I kind of looked at him and said, 'How do you want these damned guys graded?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You’re doing good. Get out of here.’ It never happened again. He wanted to see if I was going to keep coming back at him.’’

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Arians never felt overwhelming pressure to win a game except twice in his life. Once in 2012, when Colts owner Jim Irsay announced to the team before Arians’ first game as Indianapolis’ interim coach that they would take the game ball up to the hospital for Chuck Pagano, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia.

The other time was before Bryant’s last game in the Liberty Bowl against Illinois.

Bryant had announced he would be retiring. “Everybody thought he had lost it,’’ Arians said. “Naw, he hadn’t. But that was a helluva team we were playing, with Tony Eason at quarterback, who later took the Patriots to the Super Bowl.’’

Bryant used to climb a tower erected in the middle of the practice fields to watch the throng of more than 100 players practice. Today, Arians tools around in a customized golf cart.

“He was just amazing,’’ Arians said. “We played 66 players a game. Three quarterbacks. Nine running backs. He substituted every player. If you tried to send a guy in you were fired.’’

Alabama won the Liberty Bowl in 1983. By this time, Arians had just landed his first head coaching job at Temple at age 30. Bryant was excited for him.

The last words Bryant told Arians when he met him in his office a couple days later was, “Coach them up and hug them up later.’’

Twenty-eight days after his final game, Bryant died of a massive heart attack at age 69.

So much for retirement

At Temple, Arians first understood the toll coaching football can take on your health.

He began to have debilitating migraine headaches.

“It almost killed me,’’ Arians said. “I had no clue what the word, ‘delegate’ meant. I was the head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, fundraiser, recruiting coordinator. You couldn’t sign a player unless I watched him. I was the ultimate micro-manager. And I really didn’t learn how not to be until Chuck (Pagano) got sick.’’

Had Pagano not been diagnosed with leukemia near the start of 2012, Arians likely would’ve never become an NFL head coach. Despite all his success as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, tutoring players such as Peyton Manning, Tim Couch, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and eventually Carson Palmer, he had been passed over for jobs and even fired by the Steelers after two Super Bowl appearances with them.

Arians remembers the call he got from Pagano asking him to become the Colts interim coach, but he told owner Irsay he would do it only if they left Pagano’s office light on until he returned.

The Colts went 9-3 under Arians and he was named NFL Coach of the Year. The lost in the playoffs to Baltimore, but he had proven his point.

Interviews with seven teams were lined up, but because the Bears put the paperwork in first, he started in Chicago and thought he had a deal. Unfortunately, the Bears called to say they were going with Mark Trestman.

“Within 36 hours, five other teams dropped me and said they were going another direction,’’ Arians said. “Arizona was left and I had decided I wasn’t taking that interview” because the team had fired his Steelers coaching buddies, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm.

“I never thought it was in the cards after Super Bowl 43 when I didn’t get so much as a phone call. I said, ‘It ain’t happening.’ ’’

But it did happen. Arians turned around the Cardinals in his first season, going 10-6, then 11-5 and 12-4.

Health scares have always been a part of Arians’ head coaching career. He was hospitalized in Indy for his blood pressure. There was a cancer diagnosis with the Cardinals.

Finally, with a year left on his contract following an 8-8 season in 2017, Arians told his team after the final game he was retiring. He wanted to spend more time with his kids and grandchildren.

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He and Christine went back to their forever home on a lake in Georgia and he took a job with CBS as an NFL color commentator. But there’s only so many rounds of golf you can play, so many sunsets on the boat you can watch. Plus, the TV job with all its preparation and travel on commercial jets left him fatigued.

During one game he called with the Texans, he found himself wanting to coach former Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu and the fire was lit.

By the time Bucs general manager Jason Licht called, Arians was ready to take the plunge. He believed in quarterback Jameis Winston, whom he had known as a teenager at his son Jake’s camps in Birmingham. He was able to hire Todd Bowles and most of the coaching staff he had assembled from Arizona and other coaching stops.

“You know what, he’s going to have health scares no matter what he does,’’ Christine said. “He could be sitting in the recliner at home. But when I heard the excitement in his voice I thought, my gosh, this is so much better for him than sitting at home.”

This wasn’t about trying to restore the family name or change the memory of that expression on his dad’s face. “For me, it was gone after we won Super Bowl 40,’’ Arians said. “I looked up into the stands and saw he was beaming. He died shortly after that.’’

No, this is just who Bruce Arians has always been. It’s about taking that big jump into an open space and hoping you can fly.

Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens hugs Bruce Arians after the Bucs' 13-12 preseason win over Cleveland on Aug. 23. Kitchens was Arians' quarterback coach in Arizona. [MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times]

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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