Here's how Bucs' Bruce Arians assembled historic coaching staff; 'They just happened to be black'

Kimberley A. MartinSenior NFL writer

TAMPA, Fla. — The Apple Watch buzzed as he sat in a church pew one ordinary Sunday morning.

The alert caught Harold Goodwin by surprise, but the three-word message he received needed no explanation.

“You’ve got everything,” it read.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

It was vintage Bruce Arians.

Direct. Succinct. Supportive.

As Goodwin sat inside that Chandler, Arizona, church a few offseasons ago, he understood what his longtime friend and Cardinals head coach was doing. Arians was giving his offensive coordinator license to coach the offensive installs the way he saw fit. In essence, Arians was freeing one of his most trusted coaches to take the next step in his development.

“He really doesn’t sit you down and give you the vision,” Goodwin said in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports. “He just tries to push you towards the vision.”

Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians (R) isn't micromanaging coordinator Byron Leftwich and his handling of the Bucs' offense. (Getty Images)
Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians (R) isn't micromanaging coordinator Byron Leftwich and his handling of the Bucs' offense. (Getty Images)

Arians is drawn to people like him: Talented, but oftentimes overlooked. Underdogs with something to prove. Driven individuals eager for an opportunity.

No matter their race.

No matter their gender.

No matter what others think.

“I don’t see color, I just see quality,” Arians told Yahoo Sports during a separate sit-down interview at the Bucs’ facility. “And opportunity doesn’t always come. I thought I should have had a head-coaching opportunity a long time ago. Called plays in the Super Bowl. Won the game. No phone calls.

“I guess that’s part of it too — to give people of quality opportunity. Regardless of gender or race.”

That has been Arians’ approach since he became one of the youngest Division I head coaches at Temple in 1983. And it’s the same philosophy he employed this offseason when he emerged from a yearlong retirement to accept the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head-coaching gig and configure a staff made in his image.

All three of his coordinators — Todd Bowles (defense), Byron Leftwich (offense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams) — are black. So, too, is Goodwin, his assistant head coach and run game coordinator. Arians also hired the first two female coaches in franchise history — Lori Locust, a defensive line assistant, and Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Arians is the first NFL head coach to have three black coordinators and the Bucs are the first NFL team with two female coaches. But Arians isn’t looking to fill quotas or earn political points.

His method is simple: Surround yourself with the best people.

And, in his mind, he has.

But there’s something deeper behind his motives, a mission far more intentional.

‘All you need is one’

Arians is more than just someone who doesn’t see race or sex. Such a simplistic characterization dilutes the deliberate essence of his actions. Rather, the 66-year-old has made a concerted effort to see race and gender for what they often are — liabilities in the eyes of the ignorant. In life. And in the NFL.

“I think the game needs it,” Arians said during a 20-minute interview in his spacious office decorated with commemorative footballs, family pictures and a large painting of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to the right of his oversized desk.

“They need the opportunity. When I coached guys that I knew would be good coaches, I kind of push them. And they’re going to be really good for the game.”

That approach makes him a rarity in today’s NFL, where executives and team owners charged with hiring the most innovative football minds often gravitate to faces that mirror their own reflections.

Harold Goodwin, the Bucs' assistant head coach and run game coordinator, has been with Bruce Arians across 11 NFL seasons. (Getty Images)
Harold Goodwin, the Bucs' assistant head coach and run game coordinator, has been with Bruce Arians across 11 NFL seasons. (Getty Images)

“Here’s what I tell black coaches — and, unfortunately, it’s just part of the deal — ‘All you need is one,’ ” Goodwin said. “And what I mean by that is: You need one white guy in your corner who has the power or leverage.”

In Tampa, Arians has assembled what he has always wanted: A staff forged through Virginia Tech (his alma mater) and Temple ties, fortified by loyalty and aimed at improving the play of quarterback Jameis Winston and a revamped Bucs roster. These coaches are some of his closest confidants. His brothers. His family.

Those bonds are what made Bowles, Armstrong, Leftwich, Goodwin, and others, immediately say “yes” when Arians called and simply asked: “You coming?” And it’s those connections that have this staff believing in the potential of their new team and Arians’ long-term vision.

“That was one of the big things in getting me back into coaching — that my guys were all available,” Arians said, seated behind his large mahogany desk.

He then smiled.

“They just happened to be black,” he said. “That’s the best way I can put it. They’re the best I know.”

Three of the Bucs’ past seven head coaches have been black (Tony Dungy, Raheem Morris and Lovie Smith), but this staff features the first trio of black coordinators. More notably, Leftwich is the only black offensive play-caller in the NFL.

“He’s not doing me no favors by just giving me a job,” Leftwich, 39, said while seated in his office overlooking the team’s outdoor practice field. “I know this man really cares for me. I know it’s bigger than just giving me a job.”

‘Shoulder to shoulder’

Because of that love, Arians has purposely kept his distance from the Bucs’ offense.

For his sake. And Leftwich’s.

Health issues (Arians is a two-time cancer survivor) and stress forced an abbreviated retirement from coaching after the 2017 season. But when “the perfect storm” converged this past offseason — “Ownership. The general manager I really trust and worked with [Jason Licht]. All my guys. And the quarterback,” he explained — Arians was more than eager to return to the sideline.

But this time, he’s entrusting his unit to Leftwich. For the first time in his career, Arians won’t be calling the plays on gameday — a notable departure from his admitted micromanaging ways of the past.

Allowing others to lead doesn’t come naturally, but it now is a necessity. Because of his age. Because of his health (“The two things that create the most stress: injuries and officiating. The officiating’s so bad, that’s the other thing that put me in the hospital,” Arians joked).

And because he is surrounded by staffers he implicitly trusts.

“I’ve always been shoulder to shoulder with him the whole time. It’s just the rest of the world didn’t know,” said Leftwich, who was Ben Roethlisberger’s backup in the 2008 and 2010 seasons when Arians was the Steelers offensive coordinator.

Leftwich later became Arians’ coaching intern in Arizona in 2016 before being promoted to quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator under Arians’ successor, Steve Wilks.

“I know how this man thinks. I know how he sees the game.”

In an effort not to step on Leftwich’s toes, Arians avoids the offensive meeting rooms. After the Bucs’ first preseason game against Pittsburgh, the coaches and quarterback whisperer-turned-Bucs’ season-long consultant, Tom Moore, gathered to watch film. But Arians was noticeably absent.

“He doesn’t want Byron to feel any pressure,” said Goodwin, who spent 11 seasons coaching under Arians in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Arizona. “I remember things always being this way and I just think B.A. wants Byron to have that freedom.

“I’ve been on the sideline during preseason calling plays, and Bruce is so antsy about it, like, ‘Why would you call that?!’ ” Goodwin screeched, mimicking Arians’ frenetic energy. “But at the end of the day he’ll say, ‘Don’t listen to me. Do what you want to do.’ ”

Arians may not be drawing up weekly gameplans, but he’s still in his office scouring game tape of opponents. He has plenty of extra time on his hands these days, but still arrives at 6:30 most mornings, even if he only ends up watching the NFL Network’s morning show.

Training camp days began with quick staff meetings, followed by team meetings. “Then I leave and Byron takes over, Todd takes over, Keith takes over, and I come up here and mess with Nelson [Luis, the Bucs’ vice president of communications],” Arians said, with a laugh.

The rise of young, offensive minds left many veteran and defensive coaches — especially men of color — on the periphery during the latest wave of head-coaching hirings. But Arians believes Leftwich is on the verge of breaking through. And this season, he sees his young offensive coordinator being a valuable resource and sounding board for Winston.

“Byron, having been an African American in the NFL, has a totally different perspective,” Arians said. “I think it helps Jameis, having someone who looks just like him. He may ask him a question or make a comment he would not make to me, just because of that.”

Winston enthusiastically agreed.

“I love it,” the 2015 No. 1 overall pick told Yahoo Sports. “Because it’s not only credibility, it’s relatability and having someone in that position who’s not only played in B.A.’s system but has experience of being an African-American quarterback and who created a better path for me.

“I don’t think you see that often in the NFL at all,” Winston added, as he walked off the practice field following the first of two joint training-camp practices with the Miami Dolphins last month. “I think when you have a coach that looks like you, you’re probably more apt and open to listen, more apt to apply what they’re coaching you.”

On the heels of hiring three black coordinators, Arians defended his decision to hire two female coaches as only he could. “Who gives a s---? They’re good coaches,” he said at the annual league meeting, when asked about Javadifar, a former Seattle-based physical therapist with a sports science background, and Locust, a former Temple student who became the NFL’s third full-time female assistant and the Bucs’ first full-time female position coach.

Arians also implored other teams to ensure their hiring practices reflect the wide-range of talent available.

“I want the most qualified guys to get jobs. But that pool should be stronger,” he said at the NFL coaches breakfast, referring to the lopsided number of head coaches of color (four) among the 32 NFL teams. “… 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.”

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles: "We wake up every day and we ain’t gotta look in the mirror — we know we’re black. That's a given. But to say we got these jobs because we’re African American is not true. I think sometimes people say, ‘Wow, you guys are three black coordinators, instead of, ‘Wow, you guys are three good coaches who <em>happen </em>to be African American.” (Getty Images)
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles: "We wake up every day and we ain’t gotta look in the mirror — we know we’re black. That's a given. But to say we got these jobs because we’re African American is not true. I think sometimes people say, ‘Wow, you guys are three black coordinators, instead of, ‘Wow, you guys are three good coaches who happen to be African American.” (Getty Images)

Carrying the torch

Bowles understands the interest, but it’s a topic he would rather not harp on.

Nevertheless, the Bucs’ new defensive coordinator took a seat in a near-empty room down the hall from the media workroom and beamed as bright as his red, long-sleeved shirt on this mid-August day.

“I love where I am right now,” he said. “I’m in a very good place.”

This time last year, Bowles was running his own practices as the head coach of the New York Jets. Now, he’s back alongside Arians.

They were a formidable pair over two seasons in Arizona, where Bowles earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors from the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers of America in 2014 for coaching one of the league’s top defenses.

His history with Arians has been well-documented, but their reunion, coupled with the arrivals of Armstrong, Goodwin and Leftwich, is now a part of Bucs’ and NFL history. But it’s a distinction that can unintentionally be misconstrued.

“The fact that we all happen to be on one team and it’s the first time you’re seeing it, that’s great, I get that part,” Bowles said. “But at the same time, you can’t take away from what we’ve done. There are accolades behind each one of us that we fought and clawed for to get respect in this league.”

The Jets went 10-6 in his first season in New York, but they failed to make the playoffs during his four-year tenure. Bowles, who had a 24-40 record, was fired in Dec. 2018, five months before GM Mike Maccagnan was surprisingly jettisoned.

“We wake up every day and we ain’t gotta look in the mirror — we know we’re black. That's a given,” Bowles said with a laugh. “But to say we got these jobs because we’re African American is not true. I think sometimes people say, ‘Wow, you guys are three black coordinators,’ instead of, ‘Wow, you guys are three good coaches who happen to be African American.’ ”

Armstrong and Leftwich echoed those sentiments, noting that if they do a good job, their aptitude will speak for itself. “Trust me, he’s not doing us no favors,” Leftwich said. “B.A feels: ‘I’m going to get the best people I know.’ And this just happens to be the best people he knows. And I’m happy to be one of those people.”

Goodwin acknowledged their collective presence is “a significant issue” that he takes pride in and credited Arians for “trying to push coaches that he thinks are good enough to go to the next step. ... We’ve got to somewhat carry the torch and he's given us that platform to carry it."

Arians has, of course, employed and advocated for plenty of white assistant coaches over his 40-year career. And when he accepted the Bucs job, he quickly corralled longtime friends, among them, Nick Rapone, Amos Jones and Rick Christophel. But it’s Arians’ desire to champion qualified minority and female candidates that make him an outlier in an NFL beholden to the status-quo.

“If you get somebody like Bruce who will empower you, who will push you, I think doors can be opened,” Goodwin said. “If you don’t have a person of a different race willing to push an individual who may be of color, then I think it’s a little tougher. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be with Bruce.

“Mike Tomlin has helped develop me as a coach. So has Lovie [Smith]. So has Chuck Pagano. But I think it’s been Bruce, in my professional career, who’s pushed me the furthest. And he just happens to be a white guy.”

Arians’ vision has always entailed empowering men and women like himself — individuals with a “blue-collar” work ethic, a desire to be great, and an understanding of what matters most.

“Trust, loyalty and respect,” Leftwich said. “Nothing else really matters.”

It’s why Arians offered two of his former players — Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El — positions on this staff. It’s why Locust and Javadifar are now in the fold. And it’s why Arians took a special interest in seeing Bowles, Goodwin, Armstrong and Leftwich become successes on and off the field.

Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong gives instructions during training camp. (Getty Images)
Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong gives instructions during training camp. (Getty Images)

Three decades ago, Armstrong was a senior at Temple with aspirations of being a high school coach in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. But it was Arians who single-handedly changed the trajectory of Armstrong’s career.

“We were out at training camp, stretching, and he walked up to me and said, ‘Hey man, you’ve got a [graduate assistant] job here next year,’ ” said Armstrong, now in his 26th year of coaching and first with Arians since 1988. “Whatever he saw in me, I don’t know. But he knew I was from a single-parent family. My mom was a school teacher. He just always reached out to people to give them a chance. … He’s always looking for that underdog, that type of personality because you’ve got a little fight in you.”

It’s why guys like Bowles, Goodwin, Armstrong and Leftwich have become branches in Arians’ coaching tree. And it’s why he would return to coaching only if his guys were available.

Asked how much longer he plans to coach, Arians smiled again.

“Until we put a ring on our fingers," he said. "Then I can hand it over to one of them.”

More from Yahoo Sports:

What to Read Next