TAMPA — It was going to be his last year of coaching. Bruce Arians was pretty sure about that.
Whether he lifted a Lombardi Trophy over his head or hurled a headset in disgust after a five-win season, he had decided he wasn’t going to remain on the sideline beyond 2022.
“It was 90 percent that (this) year would be my last, anyway,” said Arians, who will turn 70 in October. “Seventy (years old) was going to be it.”
Arians sat on the patio at the Advent Health Training Center shortly after the second of three mandatory minicamp workouts had ended.
He had just spent about an hour talking with Tom Brady as the Bucs quarterback received his post-practice therapy.
“I was giving him s--t about the interception he threw,” Arians said. “We were laughing our a-- off about it.”
It’s only been about 10 weeks since Arians stepped down as head coach, transferring that title to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
He and his wife, Christine, have sold their house in Tampa and are now renting. He has an ambiguous title — senior advisor to the general manager — no defined role and a smaller office.
It seemed odd to watch Arians still rolling around the fields during practice in his golf cart, swapping his trademark Kangol for a Panama Jack safari hat, stopping to talk with a few players or coaches but mostly staying in his own lane.
Since walking out of the building following the NFL draft ― “I had a few tears,” he says ― Arians had been back for only a couple organized team activities but mostly has spent his time at his forever home in Georgia. “I’ll be here every day once the season starts. But I won’t have to be here every night,” Arians said.
Why Arians decided to forgo a chance at another Super Bowl ring ― and perhaps near-certain election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame ― to stand on a principle rather than a podium in Canton still is the subject of a lot of skepticism and intrigue.
Remember, Arians didn’t become an NFL head coach until 2012, at age 60, when he took over on an interim basis with the Colts after Chuck Pagano took medical leave to battle leukemia. A two-time NFL Coach of the Year, Arians left the game due to health reasons after five seasons as Cardinals head coach only to be talked into returning four years ago by Bucs general manager Jason Licht.
Upon learning that Brady had decided to end his retirement and return to the Bucs, was Arians still excited to quit?
Arians has consistently pushed back against reports that his relationship soured with Brady by the time the Bucs lost to the Rams in the NFC division playoff game. Brady said Thursday that there was “zero (truth) whatsoever” to them as well.
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“It was time,” Arians said.
Time for whom? Arians or Bowles?
“Both. It was time for the whole situation to change,” Arians said. “The narrative had to change. I was very upset with the hiring cycle.”
Arians said he expected both Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich to be hired as NFL head coaches.
“I had a bunch of people lined up to take their jobs,” Arians said. “When they were both here and Tom came back, I thought it was the perfect time.”
But Arians has admitted he was contemplating — if not planning — this move as far back as early March at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
At that time, he said his focus had shifted to improving the quarterback position without Brady, who had retired Feb. 1.
“I was going the other way. I was thinking he wasn’t going to play,” Arians said. “I was thinking about who are we going to get? Who wants to trade? There wasn’t anybody to draft. That was obvious. Me, to the public, I was fine with the two we had: Blaine (Gabbert) and Kyle (Trask). Because I’ve seen Blaine win with a good team behind him. Had Tom not come back, I probably would still be coaching. I couldn’t give Todd that situation.”
But long before March 13, when Brady formally announced he was ending his retirement, Arians had this move in mind.
His son, Jake, spent several weeks coordinating the timing of the announcement. Ultimately, they contacted Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times and Peter King of NBC.com and brokered the simultaneous release of a story that Arians was stepping down.
According to Arians, succession was more important to him than personal success.
Arians said he contacted Brady, who was vacationing in Italy, to inform him of his decision.
“There was nothing that came between me and (Brady),” Arians said. “It was just what I want to do. I asked if he was okay with the plan and he said, ‘Hell yeah!’”
According to Arians, Licht and Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer were always in the loop. Succession is always a topic during end-of-the-year meetings, especially when your head coach is approaching 70.
Arians hoped to execute a similar exit strategy when he left the Cardinals, but owner Michael Bidwill wouldn’t go for it. The Bucs did.
“Let me stay and do what I want to do and have a big hand in it,” Arians said. “It doesn’t look like a big hand, but to me it’s a big hand because I’m here. I’m on the field, I’m coaching. ... I’m going to go to practice and see little things and go to Byron and say, ‘Look at this.’”
Arians knows he will never change the narrative. His decision to retire shortly after Brady’s return almost feels like an ultimatum by the Bucs quarterback. Arians would call it altruism.
The Glazers announced Arians would also be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor. That feels like appeasement.
“If I coach, those 15 wins on my resume don’t mean as much to me as succession,” Arians said. “Thirty-four families (of Arians’ assistants) have got jobs. They’re all set. They just got to win. It’s up to them, but they’re all set.
“This is everything. It’s the golden dream for me. I get to watch it. I know what’s going to be said. You just want to make sure our guys are taken care of. And if we win another Super Bowl, I still get to be a part of it.”
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