TAMPA — Bruce Arians sat in the center of the table in the clubhouse at Old Memorial Golf Course, surrounded by his golf buddies as laughter echoed off the mahogany lockers lining the stately room.
He had cut his round short by three holes on this Tuesday afternoon because a few chilling drops of rain had begun to fall and the muscle extending from his hip was barking. When he hits a good drive, about 260 yards, Arians likes to walk to his golf ball. But he’s been told there might be something in his lower back that’s causing the pain and he’s in no hurry to get that checked out. Surgery is not on his semi-retirement schedule.
It’s why after tearing all but nine percent of his Achilles tendon last season he chose to slip orthotics in his shoes rather than undergo the knife and nine months of rehab.
Wearing a black vest jacket and his trademark flat cap, the 70-year-old former Bucs head coach would normally be game-planning and meeting with his staff about a must-win game at Arizona on Christmas Day.
But being the senior advisor to general manager Jason Licht has its perks and Arians has always felt the most comfortable telling stories from his 46 years as the coolest coach in football.
“Would I love to be coaching? Yeah,” Arians said between sips of a vodka tonic. “It’s what you do. It kills me to go upstairs. I’m on the sideline in pregame and it kills me to have to go upstairs and just sit there. It kills me. It’s hard. It’s what I do. I’ve done it my whole life. I’m smart enough to know it’s over.
“It’s not the same. That daily interaction with the players and the coaches, the relationship I’m in. I sat and talked to Mike (Evans) and Vita (Vea) for an hour. The new guys are told, ‘That’s the old coach. You don’t want him cussing you out.’ I just (cussed out) a couple of them for the hell of it.”
Arians was reminded of where he doesn’t belong in September when he stood on the sidelines of the Superdome and began screaming at officials and the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore because he believed the cornerback had held Bucs receiver Scotty Miller.
Lattimore fired back at Arians and a scrum ensued on the field that resulted in Lattimore and Evans getting ejected. The Bucs receiver was also suspended one game without pay.
The NFL sent Arians and the Bucs a warning letter about who belongs on the sideline and the comportment expected.
“I think I was supposed to sit right behind the media in New Orleans,” Arians said. ‘But I can’t stay quiet so I said, ‘No, I’ll stay on the sidelines.’
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“At home, I’ve got my own box or I sit with the scouts. I never thought I would sit with my wife during a game.”
Arians will come down from his personal sky suite at halftime of Sunday’s game against the Panthers and become the 14th person inducted into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor. The ceremony was supposed to be held during the intermission of the Oct. 2 game against the Chiefs but was postponed due to Hurricane Ian.
It is a remarkable honor for Arians, who only coached three seasons in Tampa Bay but managed to win Super Bowl 55 in 2020 and an NFC South title last season, going a combined 5-1 in playoff games with Tom Brady at quarterback.
“In my wildest dreams, I never imagined being in somebody’s Ring of Honor,” Arians said. “They didn’t have to do this.
“I know the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame is the ultimate. But that’s such a longshot and it doesn’t mean anything to me. Everybody gets pissed when I say that because I’ve never dreamt of it. I have dreamt of this far away dream.”
The long wait
There is serendipitous surrealism to Arians’ short but spectacular stint as the Bucs head coach.
He had been passed over for so many NFL head coaching jobs during his long career as an assistant. It wasn’t until Arians filled in for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who left the team while battling leukemia, that Arians got the top job on an interim basis at age 60.
That led to being hired for five seasons as the Cardinals head coach, where he helped build a career .624 career winning percentage. Twice he was named the NFL’s Coach of the Year.
But a series of health problems — he is a three-time cancer survivor — forced Arians to retire from coaching after the 2017 season. He worked a year as a broadcaster for CBS, but said the travel was murder.
When the Bucs called asking if he would be interested in coaching again, he wasn’t planning on agreeing to it. But then his former coaches and coordinators, such as Todd Bowles, Byron Leftwich and Keith Armstrong, were suddenly all let go from their coaching jobs and he realized he could fill an entire staff with “his guys.”
Arians probably deserves the most credit for the successful recruitment of Brady. Although Licht had built a playoff-caliber roster, not every head coach could handle a celebrity quarterback.
At age 43 and in his first season with the Bucs during a global pandemic no less, Brady and Arians overcame a bumpy 7-5 start to win eight games in a row, including becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl in its home stadium when the Bucs defeated the Chiefs 31-9.
Both Arians and Brady bristle at the narrative that there was ever any bad blood between them, much less their relationship being a reason for Arians stepping aside to let Bowles take over as head coach.
“(Arians has) been amazing. He’s a big reason why I came here,” Brady said. “He’s just a great person, he’s a great leader, he’s obviously a great coach, Coach of the Year a couple times. But he’s going into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor because he’s a Super Bowl-winning coach, as he should be. That was a magical year and it’s nice to be able to be celebrated for when you do amazing things.
“I have a great relationship with him. I can’t say enough good things about him and how I feel about him. I think we’re going to be friends for a long time.”
The family sacrifices
Arians began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech, where he played quarterback. He says he has moved 20 times and often his kids weren’t the better for it.
“I moved my daughter in 9th grade, 10th grade and 11th grade,” said Arians, apologetically. “I did that. The last time, when she was a senior, I moved (to Indianapolis) instead of her. She graduated early.”
Arians’ son, Jake, who was a kicker at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and one season for the Bills, had a whole athletic career that his dad regrets not seeing more of.
“That’s how I learned how you don’t coach,” Arians said. “So when I got my guys, I told them, ‘If you miss a game or a recital, I will fire your ass.’ Those days don’t come back.”
Arians’ decision to step away came 17 days after Brady’s 40-day retirement ended.
He knew he could set Bowles and his entire coaching staff up for the future. He also admits he was worried about his health.
In fact, in October, on the eve of a game against the Falcons, Arians had a house full of family and friends for a spaghetti dinner. He started having chest pains, thought it was indigestion but was rushed to the hospital. It turned out to be pericarditis, the swelling of the sac surrounding the heart. He was treated with antibiotics and fully recovered.
Wanting to be around for his four grandchildren became his priority. On his right wrist is a bracelet for each: granddaughters Presley, 27, and Brylie, 13, and grandsons Asher, 5, and Mills, 3.
“It was big. I had so many scares that you’re going to die before you get out of this game,” Arians said. “I decided I’m going to get out of this game before I die. I need to stay around for the kids.”
They will all be on the field Sunday with Arians as he is inducted into the Ring of Honor. The ovation will be long even though his time as head coach seemed too short.
“I can’t really put into words what it’s meant,” he said. “The little things of walking my grandchildren out on the field in pregame and seeing that pirate ship. Winning the Super Bowl, it’s always the dream. The Glazer family, they are fantastic. … I just can’t say enough about the embracement of Tampa for me and my family. It will always be home.
“It was a short ride, but what a ride!”
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