Behind the Buccaneers: Bruce Arians

BTB-Arians

Bruce Arians sits across from me at his expansive mahogany desk in his even more expansive office, already clad with personal touches like photos and helmets and signatures from close friends that just so happen to double as current or future Hall of Famers. He has officially traded his Cardinal red for Buccaneer red, wearing a Bucs pullover and his signature hat.

The way Bruce talks immediately puts you at ease. He’s got this unique twang that falls somewhere between Mississippi drawl and Eastern Pennsylvania witticism, most likely the result of all the places he’s been. He also doesn’t say more than he needs to; doesn’t reiterate his point using a different order of words. You know how some coaches will talk a lot but actually say very little? Yeah, that’s not Bruce. Everything he says has a purpose. It’s efficient, just like he is with his time, which is why I was grateful to nab almost 25 minutes of it for this interview. The amount of documentaries he’s been the subject of, football features, books, there’s a lot already known about Bruce if you take the time to look for it.

Here, I wanted to focus on his relationships, whether that be with his wife, Christine, and kids, Kristi and Jake, his extended football family he calls his coaches or with former players he’s impacted along the way. This is a special edition of Behind the Buccaneers with Head Coach Bruce Arians.

I want to forget about football for a second, talk a little bit more about your family. You all seem like such a close-knit unit. I even accidentally interrupted a FaceTime with your grandson in the dining room the other day, is that an everyday thing?

No, I’d say weekly. My daughter is in the hospital right now and she’ll be in until they take the baby [his daughter, Kristi, is currently pregnant with her second child and Bruce’s second grandson]. I think they’re scheduled to deliver on the 27th, which of course is right in the middle of the Combine. I was pulling for the 22nd so I could be there. But whenever he was there, we’d do the FaceTime with her. I’ll probably hit him again tomorrow.

How old is he?

Twenty months.

So he doesn’t really understand why Grandpa is away all the time now.

No. He gets upset. When I call he’ll just start hollerin’ ‘Pop-pop, Pop-pop.’ But right now, he’s not really sure why Mom’s not there. They did a really good thing and they took him over to the hospital and they played for a while, then they had a little baby doll. They explained that the baby is coming home and he loved playing with the baby doll. They said this is going to be your brother. He probably forgot about it already but as soon as he goes back to the hospital to see her, they’ll do it again.

You and your daughter are extremely close, despite the fact that you always had to deliver the ‘bad news’ of moving to her growing up.

Yeah. Ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade. I moved 12th and she didn’t. My son got to stay in the same high school but then she got caught on the yearly trek to a different city.

I speak from experience when I say that’s tough on a teenage girl. What does it mean to have a family that will do that for you?

Everything. I grew up in a family that was extremely close. Mom, Dad both worked so we all took care of each other. My wife’s family is the same way. There’s 10 of us. We’re both one of five. We had a great family reunion at the lake last summer. I was able to get my mom down. She’s 93. She had a blast. I think we had five houses, I think 35 people and it was a great time.

[The Arians family has their 'forever home' on Lake Oconee in Georgia. It's where Bruce retired to after he left coaching to go into broadcasting. The retirement was short-lived when he was announced as the Bucs' new head coach just a season later.]

I heard Jake is getting married there, too?

Yeah, right there at the lake on May 18.

That seems like a pretty special place for the whole family then.

Oh yeah it really is. That’s kind of been our spot now for 11 years. A lot of good times there.

You got to spent a significant amount of time there last year – was it everything you kind of hoped it would be?

It really was. I thought it would be forever [gives me a pointed look]. This opportunity came, though, and I got excited and Chris got excited and here we are.

What was a typical day like for you up there?

This year was actually hard because of the travel with CBS. I’m so used to getting on the charter, go play the game, get on the charter, come home. Now it was go commercial, get to the airport, go through the line, get a rental car or get picked up. It was like oof. It was Fridays to Mondays and then Thursdays to Mondays and it was way too much traveling, so I never really could get into a routine. I was playing golf like five days a week and then I was only playing once. Of course, it was a lot of fun seeing a lot of people once I got to the game and calling the game but the travel – [shakes his head] no.

It’s certainly not as structured as team travel. But the tradeoff is you got to see other teams and their practices. That’s something that you got to do that is totally unique among active coaches right now.

You get to go watch Friday practices in 10 or 12 different places, I think we had the same team three or four times. It was really cool.

You said you picked up on some stuff while doing that?

Yeah, I did. Just different ways doing walk-throughs versus practices. It was a lot of really good, interesting stuff.

Christine has been with you this whole time and being together since high school, do you get asked all the time what your secret is? Is there a secret?

Yeah, the secret is move 18 times so you’re apart six months out of the year [laughing]. We’ve really only been married 25 years instead of 50 with how much we’ve been apart.

Being a coach’s wife is a challenging lifestyle in a lot of ways. What is it about her that you’re most grateful for or appreciative of?

Oh God, the two children she raised, because I wasn’t there, you know? I was there as much as I could be, but every time we had to move, I’d go pick out the house and she’d move them and have them excited about where they were going next. She did an unbelievable job.

I have to imagine that’s hard to get the kids excited each time about having to move to a new place.

Yeah, I certainly couldn’t do it. I just had to go on to the next job.

Well yeah, you guys have to dive right in. It’s not like you get a grace period once you get hired. But Christine was working, too. She went to law school and practiced law.

Yep, she started at Alabama. She had a three-year-old, a one-year-old and went full-time. And I left. I took a job. I took the head job at Temple and she finished up going nights at Temple. Graduated cum laude [the pride in his voice was palpable when he said that].

That’s absolutely incredible. It then ended up leading to your Arians Family Foundation.

Yeah, she practiced what she always called ‘broken family law’ and saw where the children were the ones that really needed an attorney, you know? So that’s where Kid’s Voice and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) started. I watched her save these kids one at a time for all those years and all the fundraisers, I would try to get players to be the face. In Pittsburgh, we had different players each year give out the backpacks and do stuff like that. When we had a platform of our own, that’s the first thing I wanted to do was to honor her work and raise awareness. Plus, we had a big problem in Arizona, we had 15,000 children in [Maricopa] county in foster care. It’s down to nine now. The number of CASAs are up. So, we raised enough awareness and money that we’re training more and more CASAs. That’s our goal when we start here in Hillsborough.

Is that the plan then? To start an initiative here? I know you still have CASAs in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, in addition to Arizona.

Yeah, we support all those. The people here in Hillsborough County already reached out to Chris to see how we’re going to set it up and what fundraisers we can do to keep raising awareness. Our goal, which will probably never be attained, but it’s for every child that needs a CASA to have a CASA. I always beg seniors, I know you’re bored but I know you’ll get as much out of this as the child. What better mentor for a child than a senior? The ones that did it in Arizona I know are really, really happy they did. It doesn’t take up all your time. That’s the biggest problem. ‘I don’t have that much time.’ Yes, you do.

Well yeah, especially when you look at how Chris raised a family while going to law school and starting this initiative – what excuse could any of us have? What’s all involved?

So, you’re assigned a case and you’re that child’s voice in court. Whether to remove the child from their home, do what’s best for the child. You’re not their attorney but you’re their voice in court. You study everything there is about that child’s life; school, what’s happening at home, everything and then you present it in court. You become really close with the child. The young girl that spoke last year at our event, Diamond, she was Miss Teen Arizona. She was in like five or six different foster homes before she got a CASA and that changed everything.

Those stories have to make that effort so incredibly rewarding.

Oh yeah, Chris has a ton of them. But I applaud foster parents. I wish we could do more for the kids that hit that age where they can opt out, because they’re not ready. It’s 16 or 18 usually, not sure what it is here.

I know you have golf outings for the organization.

Well, we try to have an event for the kids, whether it be putt-putt, Top Golf, where those kids can actually come in and play golf. We’ll have a bunch of players there. It’s not a fundraiser, it’s just a fun event. Then we try to have two fundraisers. We’ve had success with a dinner. The Mastro family was a fantastic supporter of ours in Phoenix. They gave up the entire restaurant and we just paid the staff. We had a player and a coach sit at every table for an hour and a half and sold out the entire restaurant. No speeches, just have dinner and they all knew why they were there. Then we have our golf tournaments. We’re probably just going to get it down to one here – don’t know when and where yet, I don’t want to infringe on guys here that already have foundations and stuff.

Have you had a chance to check out any of the courses here?

I’ve played Pasadena, which was really cool, on Sunday. Played Carrollwood, too.

I have to ask because I know you two are close, do you and [Cubs Manager and Tampa resident] Joe Maddon play golf together?

Well, Joe’s gone now. He’s at Spring Training and he’ll come out to the cocktail party. We’re having our last event in Arizona on March 22nd and 23rd so it’s right before the league meetings. Hopefully, we’ll get some of the other coaches, too. We did this the other year where like six or seven guys played golf.

If I can pry a little bit more into your relationship with him because he’s a prominent figure here in Tampa, too. You guys both just seem to be on the same page in so many aspects.

Yeah, we grew up not too far apart and very similar upbringings. Didn’t know each other back then but Jason [Licht] actually introduced us about five years ago. We instantly became good friends. As soon as I came down here, I went over to the restaurant and had dinner with him. He drives that RV all the way to Phoenix so I couldn’t get him before he left.

What are your conversations like? Is it more than both just being head coaches?

Yeah, we talk a lot about charity work. He does a ton of stuff. I was on a board in York [Pennsylvania], I grew up in a park. All the kids went to parks. Mayor Bracey started an initiative and I was the chairman and then she didn’t get re-elected. It was to try to make sure we get these parks back going in York. And it was a similar thing Joe was doing up in Hazleton at the same time. He’s got a big sports complex, almost like a Boys and Girls Club up there.

That’s funny to think you were doing the same things at the same time without even knowing. Your similarities don’t stop there, though. You both have this, uh, ‘Old Man Swag’ I think is the only way I can describe it…

[He starts laughing]

While it affords you both this awesome sense of style, more importantly it allows you to connect with young black athletes in drastically different circumstances than you. How do you connect with those guys?

To me, I never look at it age-wise. We have relationships that are built on trust and honesty. I have most of them talking about their football. I do take an interest in them personally because you have to know them personally to get that trust. It’s just been one of those things that’s never been a problem, you know? I grew up in the streets, then I coached out in Mississippi and Alabama and I got to learn and like country music. I’m either Motown or country so, I’ve got it covered.

What’s the first thing you do to try and get to know these guys?

We talk about three words: trust, loyalty and respect. I kind of put up the meaning of those words on a Powerpoint and talk about them. They all lead to accountability. Once guys are accountable to each other, then that ‘chemistry’ word is used [puts ‘chemistry’ in actual air quotes] that I don’t like. Accountable. It’s accountable. Then everybody is on the same page and making decisions for the same reasons – and that’s to get a ring.

[*Makes mental note to use the term accountability instead of chemistry whenever possible*]

You see former players of yours talking about you with such affection long after you’re done coaching them. What does that mean to know the lasting impact you’ve had on these guys?

Mmm, that’s the most important part of this job – is building those relationships. I’ve got guys – it’s hard to believe, they’re 58 years old – and they call all the time. They’ll tell me, ‘I gave your speech from 1985,’ I don’t even remember that speech. They obviously do. That means more than anything. The wins and losses [waves his hand dismissively], it’s the relationships.

When you got hired here, it seemed people were coming out of the woodwork to congratulate you. Former players, current players, you’ve spun an incredible web.

It’s funny because Ronde Barber, and Tiki, their dad was one of my roommates. I got to know a lot of the guys, Sapp and those guys, through television and things that they were doing. It’s just building respect levels. When players respect you, especially the older ones, the young ones follow.

[Bruce, then the Hokies’ quarterback, roomed with James Barber, their running back, while they played at Virginia Tech together. At the time, they were the first black and white players to room together on the team.]

Bring that to your current staff and after sitting down with your coordinators, all of you are even more connected than I ever knew. How does this staff compare to the one you had in Arizona?

It’s very similar. Keith [Armstrong] was under contract but Amos [Jones], my special teams coordinator in Arizona was up. So, this time, Amos was under contract, Keith wasn’t and the Amos wasn’t under contract, so I got both. It’s always finding those young guys because Goodie [Harold Goodwin] and I have been together 16 years, Byron [Leftwich] since he started coaching, Todd [Bowles], obviously way back. All the Temple guys: Clyde [Christiansen], I think his first job was at Temple in ’83. Nick [Rapone] played with me and coached with me at Temple. There’s an instant chemistry with those guys.

I look for young, bright guys, too. Kevin Garver, who was with me the whole time in Arizona but a good friend of mine recommended him. He started entry level and shot right up the board fast. I really can’t wait to get Antwaan Randle El in here and his energy that he brings. Larry Foote was a player and I instantly made him a coach because I just knew how good of a coach he would be. Cody Grimm’s dad and I are close and I’ve always been a big fan of Cody. His dad and I worked together, plus he’s a Hokie so [laughs]. Now, John Van Dam is a young guy I’ve heard so many great things about and I just want to see him take off. El take off. Cody take off. One of these guys is going to be a head coach soon. That’s part of my job. Have the next guy ready and keep pushing them.

You push them and your players in a very effective way. It seems like you walk this tough love line of being able to break down the player without breaking down the man.

When we’re talking about football, we’re talking about your football. So I’ll talk real ugly about your football but I’m not talking to you personally. Don’t take it as criticism, take it as coaching. I love you as a guy but your football really sucks. If it’s not perfect, it’s going to get coached. Not criticized - coached. Some guys really have a tough time with that. They all learn differently, they all express different ways of communication. We’re just glorified school teachers, so you have to learn how to teach.

I think that’s a little lost at this level. The teaching and developing doesn’t stop once they get out of college.

No, as a coach it doesn’t matter how much sh-t ya know. If you can’t teach it, it’s not any good! You can put it on the blackboard, the blackboards don’t play, you know? You have to be able to teach it.

What have you seen from the players here so far?

A talented roster. There are some spots where we need to sign our free agents. I’ve never walked into a team with as many skill players as we have here; quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, we’re loaded. We need to work up front. Defensively, we have speed. Whether we’re 4-3, 3-4 – that’s schematics. We’ve got players and we’ll put them in position to be successful. I would like to build this defense back to what it was when the Bucs won the Super Bowl.

I think that will be music to Bucs fans’ ears… but excuse me if I’m a little confused. You’re an offensive guy…

Yeah, but you have to have a quarterback and you have to have a defense. We have those. We’re just going to make the defense even better. I think we’re fine offensively. We’ll score points. I want to stress this year a lot on defense and special teams. Special teams is really where I think we’re lacking, big bodies that can run – 4-3 teams have always had that problem. When you have four linebackers on the field at a time, you have more of them on your team, so you’re a faster team.

Well, you know I talked to your coordinators last week. I think one of the funniest things came from Coach Bowles when I asked him the difference between you as a head coach now and you as a head coach when you were coaching him at Temple. His answer? You cussed more.

[Belly laughs], oh back then I would be arrested if I coached now like I coached those guys. Back then, it was needed, though. We may not have been as talented as those other teams, but we were more physical. I promise you that [he said with a smirk].

Sounds like it couldn’t have been that bad if you have all these guys from that team still with you after all these years.

Four captains and three coaches. It really worked out.

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