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Bucs-Cards: How Arizona hiring Bruce Arians influenced Bucs' hire of Dirk Koetter

Published Sep. 18, 2016

The more Bucs general manager Jason Licht got to know Dirk Koetter as a head coaching candidate, the more he reminded him of someone.

Salty. Unapologetically blunt. Creative play-caller. So politically incorrect that it explained why another NFL team hadn't hired him for the top job despite his success as an offensive coordinator.

Licht was vice president of player personnel for Arizona in 2013 when the Cardinals hired Bruce Arians as head coach, an outlier at age 60, and a man with two Super Bowl rings as offensive coordinator with the Steelers. Beloved for his honesty and likely bypassed for jobs because of it.

Licht insists he wasn't looking for the next Arians, even if he may have found him.

"It was really striking to me, especially getting to know him during the interview process because I really didn't know him," Licht said of Koetter, named the Bucs head coach in January, a month before his 57th birthday. "We only talked football. It's just became more and more glaring to me how similar they were, not just in age, but they coached in college and were coordinators but they both were really, really respected play-callers."

So what should we make of the over-the-hill gang? Or is it the top of the hill?

Like Koetter, who coached at Boise State and Arizona State, Arians had some experience as head coach at Temple. But nothing could prepare him for the sudden onslaught of responsibilities.

"I think you hit the major word, 'experience,' " said Arians, 63. "You know, you've seen a number of different systems, styles, you grow from each and every one of those. You take bits and pieces. You see what makes teams successful, what organizations are successful that you've been a part of and try to take that experience and build with it. Also, you've got some scars on you so it's not as hard to go through the ups and downs as a head coach with some experience."

And yet, the over-the-hill gang in the NFL, even though they are an outlier, have all enjoyed a measure of early success.

Arians got his big break when he became the Colts' interim head coach after Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. The Colts went 11-5 before losing to the Ravens in the AFC wild-card game, but Arians was named NFL coach of the year. Weeks later he was hired by the Cardinals and went 10-6. Last year, Arizona was 12-5, lost to Carolina in the NFC title game and Arians grabbed his second coach of the year award.

Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was 58 when the Vikings hired him in 2014; he went 7-9. Last season, they were 11-5. A missed field goal cost them a wild-card game against Seattle last season.

Jim Caldwell was 54 when he took over the Colts from Tony Dungy in 2009 and lost to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Pagano was 52 when he was hired by the Colts; Chip Kelly was 50 when he left Oregon and had back-to-back 10-6 records with the Eagles.

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"I was like Dirk as a college head coach early and went through the ranks of the NFL and whether or not it was going to happen, it's really not in your control," Arians said. "But I always felt confident I could."

That confidence is the result of experience. Because of their age, Koetter, Arians and those like them know this will be their only bite of the NFL apple. Chances are they won't get a second head coaching job. Because of that, they exude urgency.

"There's a bluntness about them," Licht said. "They're not going to tell you what you want to hear. There's no politician to them. For some, it is how is this guy going to be in the media? How is he going to be in the community? How is he going to be in front of the team? He's not the razzle-dazzle guy. I think that's kind of been the case with some of these guys.

"I don't think of Dirk as old. From a coaching standpoint, the young guys are in their 30s and 40s. When you get a head coaching job at his age, Dirk will tell you, it's, 'I'm doing it my way. I'm going to go for it, and I'm hiring the best people who I think are best for me. It's my way. I get one shot. But if I'm going down, I'm going down doing it my way.' "

Like Arians, Koetter doesn't lack for confidence.

"I know I can coach," he said. "I know I can handle all that stuff now. That's just managing your time and managing your emotions."

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