PHOENIX — In a tiny corner of a packed ballroom, Bruce Arians delivered his sermon.
The bespectacled Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach held court, wearing his signature Kangol and offering his own unique brand of relaxed but straightforward candor.
And the gospel of Arians did not disappoint.
Surrounded by a handful of listeners, the respected coach casually declared the NFL needs to significantly improve its diversity hiring practices.
It took mere minutes for him to highlight the lack of opportunities for female and minority coaches within the NFL ranks, and more importantly, offer a simple solution: Hire more of them.
Last week, the Bucs became the first team in NFL history to employ two women as full-time assistant coaches, hiring Lori Locust (assistant defensive line coach) and Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning coach). But while their gender is an important detail, Arians insisted their credentials were the ultimate criteria.
“They’re good fits for what we need,” he said Tuesday during the NFL coaches breakfast at the annual league meeting. "The fact that their gender is different, who gives a s—?”
It was quintessential Arians. Blunt and unbothered. Understated yet impactful. Heartfelt and hyperbole-free.
The beauty of it all is that Arians’ intention wasn’t to make a political statement. It was simply to speak the truth. In a business dictated by bottom lines and maintaining the status quo, Arians is a gift of rare authenticity, progressive thinking and no BS.
“I always go back to Dot Murphy at Hinds Junior College when I was at Mississippi State,” he told the small group of reporters gathered around him. “She was one of the best receiver coaches I’ve ever seen. And this was 25 years ago. And somebody asked me, ‘Can women coach?’ Hell yeah. … So you have to have ownership and the general manager willing to let them come in and show they can. Now, if they can’t do it, you get fired like everybody else.”
The groundbreaking additions of Locust and Javadifar come on the heels of Arians becoming the first NFL head coach to hire three African-American coordinators — Byron Leftwich (offensive), Todd Bowles (defensive) and Keith Armstrong (special teams).
“And assistant head coach,” Arians said with a smile, referring to Harold Goodwin. “It’s not by design. It’s because they’re really qualified guys I’ve worked with and I know they can coach. I think they’re all head-coaching candidates. It’s not like, 'Let me find this guy to fit this role.' I’ve known these guys, I’ve worked with them, so it was just a natural fit.”
The league’s lack of diversity among head coaches was unmistakable this offseason. In a hiring cycle that included eight vacancies, only one minority candidate (Brian Flores) was hired. And the annual NFL coaches photo, which was taken Monday afternoon in Phoenix, reignited discussions about the NFL’s hiring system.
Currently, there are four minority head coaches, three of whom are black: Flores, Anthony Lynn and Mike Tomlin.
Asked if the lopsided figure bothers him, Arians said: “Yes and no. I want the most qualified guys to get jobs. But that pool should be stronger. And it was offensive hires this year. Everybody’s looking for Sean [McVay], and rightfully so. But there’s not enough guys in that pool from offense. We have to build that. We have to build that African-American offensive coordinator/quarterback coach that is going to be a head coach. I think that’s our job as head coaches — to find those guys.”
The pipeline for coaches of color, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, is indeed broken. And in his own way, Arians is showing the rest of the NFL that fresh perspectives aren’t difficult to come by, but are necessary.
All that matters to Arians is talent and whether his coaches can help him win games.
“Every NFL player is going to look at you and say, ‘How can you make me better?’” Arians said while raving about the qualifications of Locust, who previously coached for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football, and Javadifar, a former physical therapist in Seattle. “If you have an answer, you’re in. If you can’t answer the question, you don’t belong there anyway. They can answer the question.
“It really should be [more of the norm], ‘cause I think back to some of the best teachers I ever had, most of them were female. Football [coaches], we’re glorified schoolteachers. ... So why not take a great teacher, of any gender, and let them help your players? So I don’t see it as an issue. And I’m looking forward to the day when it’s not news.”
Dr. Jen Welter was the first female to join an Arians’ coaching staff when she was hired in 2015 by the Arizona Cardinals as the league’s first female training camp coaching intern. Years later, Arians is still providing much-needed opportunities for women, as well as minorities. And his hope is that female hires won’t be considered news in the not-too-distant future.
“Five years,” Arians said. “I hope sooner. I think the AAF is doing a great job of being a proving ground for a lot of coaches, especially female coaches. And I applaud [AAF co-founder] Bill Polian for making that happen.”
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