In walking away, Bruce Arians is walking the talk.
The Super Bowl-winning coach is stepping down as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so his longtime friend and extremely qualified defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can get his shot at running a successful team.
“I wanted to ensure when I walked away that Todd Bowles would have the best opportunity to succeed,” Arians said in a statement Wednesday night. “So many head coaches come into situations where they are set up for failure, and I didn’t want that for Todd.”
Arians has long been an ally to Black people and minorities. As the starting quarterback at Virginia Tech in the 1960s, he became the first white player to have a Black roommate. He’s a champion for diversity in NFL coaching ranks, adding women to his staff and having three Black coordinators on staff.
As well as any white NFL coach can, Arians has known the struggle and plight of the Black football coach. That is, in part, why I believe he has made the unusual decision to retire from coaching as late as March 30.
Leaving now ensures not only that Bowles gets the job but a great job at that. So often, NFL coaches become head coaches of bad teams. That’s likely why the job was open in the first place. As we know, Black coaches rarely get head coaching jobs. The ones they do usually stink worse than the other ones that are available.
And if you’re a Black former head coach like Bowles? Good luck getting that second gig. Only seven other Black men have ever been the permanent head coach of at least two NFL franchises in their careers.
Bowles’ first crack at coaching was a failure. His New York Jets went 24-40 in his four years there, and they were marred by poor free agency decisions, worse draft picks and inconsistent quarterback play. I spoke with him during the 2020 season about how he wouldn’t just jump at the next opportunity just to be a head coach again.
“I think the situation has to be right and you go from there. If the situation’s not right … if it’s not a match, I won’t take it to take it,” Bowles said then. “First time around, probably, because you really want to be a head coach and do good and save the world. But after going through it with experience and you know situations have to be right for you to succeed anywhere, and obviously, you have to bring a lot to the table. But they have to bring something to the table, too. And if it’s not a match then it’s just not a match.”
The move to install Bowles, the fourth Black head coach in Buccaneers history, comes against a backdrop of the NFL continuing its decades-long battle with diversity in its head-coaching ranks. Just this week, the league (again) tweaked the Rooney Rule, required all teams to hire a minority offensive assistant coach and created an expert panel to submit recommendations to NFL team owners. All while Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL will reportedly get two new plaintiffs in the coming days.
Arians’ decision to retire while promoting Bowles reminds me of what legendary UNC men’s basketball coach Dean Smith did in 1997. He shocked the sports world when he retired just before the start of the season with a team ready-made for the Final Four, just so that he could ensure his longtime assistant, Bill Guthridge, would finally get his shot. Arians has known Bowles since the former played under him as a starting cornerback for Temple in the mid-1980s.
And Arians doesn’t turn over just any team. It’s one with Tom Brady back looking for an eighth Super Bowl title.
Already there are conspiracy theories, though. For people who can’t subscribe to Occam’s razor, they’d rather believe a fairytale that goes something like this: Brady returned to Tampa under the condition Arians no longer be the head coach. The GOAT didn’t have a great relationship with the blunt head coach. Without making it obvious, Brady engineered a return from his clunky retirement but only if the Bucs would can Arians. And in a league that’s a sieve for information, it would all be kept under wraps for nearly a month.
There’s no Babushka Lady or Umbrella Man here. Instead, the answer here appears to be rather straightforward.
A lifelong ally who’s nearing 70 years wanted to do right by a successful Black coach and longtime friend.
Arians could have gone out on top after the 2020 season with his championship but decided to try for a second and ultimately came up short on the field. I’d say by making this move, he still went out on top.