When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were looking for a head coach after the 2018 season, Chris Arians knew her husband, Bruce, was talking to general manager Jason Licht.
She wasn’t excited. She also wasn’t surprised.
“I was certainly resigned to it,” Chris told ESPN. “We’ll be married 50 years in June, like, I do know the man.”
Bruce took the 2018 season off following five seasons as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. If he was going to return to coaching, Chris would have some say in it.
So, at the kitchen table at their home on Lake Oconee in Georgia during breakfast, she laid out a list of requirements: They would rent a house, not buy; she would have an unlimited travel budget to see her grandchildren; and Bruce would work on his health.
‘All the things kind of just added up’
The 68-year-old Arians had to find the right situation to return, and Tampa Bay was it — even before he had quarterback Tom Brady. The Bucs and the Tampa area had everything Arians wanted.
On the professional side, they had infrastructure Arians believed was needed to create a winner — from ownership to the general manager to the roster. And on a personal level, it’s a quick six-hour drive to Lake Oconee straight up I-75 — where Bruce and Chris stay from right after the draft until returning to Tampa for training camp. It’s also an hour flight from Birmingham, Alabama, where his grandchildren live.
Arians could build the staff he wanted. He essentially got the band back together, hiring 12 coaches who worked for him in Arizona, along with others he’s known for years like quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, who was on his staff at Temple in the 1980s, and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, who played for Arians at Temple.
As Arians went through the steps of figuring out if he wanted to take the Bucs job, “all the things kind of just added up.”
“The whole staff was available so it’s like, why the hell not do this right,” Arians told ESPN.
But among all those reasons Arians decided to return to coaching, there were two that rose above the rest: Licht and Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.
“I wouldn’t have taken the job if it wasn’t for Jason, and probably wouldn’t have taken the job if Byron Leftwich wasn’t available,” Arians said.
In Licht, Arians had a good friend as his general manager who he knew, trusted and got along with seamlessly. It also helped that the Arians were friends with Licht’s wife, Blair, who they befriended when Bruce and Jason worked together in Arizona in 2013.
“Having a head coach like Bruce and the relationship that I have with him — I don’t know if it will ever be repeated,” Licht said. “He is just such a unique guy and we have such a unique, strong bond. We get along well and we even argue well to get the results that we want and make the decisions that we’ve made. It’s been awesome.”
However, it was Leftwich who made the biggest difference in Arians’ return. When Arians started to consider coaching again, he knew he didn’t want to call plays. But Arians would give up the playcalling duties only if Leftwich would take them over. Leftwich was fired by the Cardinals after the 2018 season, making the timing perfect.
Arians has long made it a priority to prepare his staff for the next step. This was his chance with Leftwich. Of course, Arians still clicks over on the headset a time or two, such as in the NFC Championship Game, when he called the play that resulted in a 39-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half to put the Bucs up 21-10.
Giving Leftwich playcalling responsibilities has given Arians freedom from wearing two hats as head coach and offensive coordinator. He could fully embrace the CEO element of the job.
“It’s an unbelievable difference,” Arians said. “I spent a lot more time probably fooling around with special teams and defense and still have my hand in the offense but I’m just a head coach now. I’m not trying to do too many jobs. I watched more college film than I’ve ever watched in my life just to see what’s up for the next draft.”
Outside linebackers coach Larry Foote, who played for the Steelers when Arians was an assistant, and then played and coached under him in Arizona, quickly noticed Arians was on the defensive headset more and a “little more chatty.”
Finding a balance
One benefit of having less on his plate is Arians has been home to eat dinner with Chris nearly every night in Tampa, a drastic difference from his time in Arizona.
It’s also affected his health in a good way.
Arians is a three-time cancer survivor, with the last bout coming in 2016 when he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma and had a piece of his kidney removed in early 2017. He also was hospitalized with chest pains in November 2016 and went to the hospital before a preseason game in 2016 because of diverticulitis.
It got to the point that Chris thought Bruce was going to have a stroke during a game because of how worked up he’d get.
“I don’t have that worry about him [anymore],” she said. “I’m sure his blood pressure still gets high but I’m not worried about it as much for whatever reason.”
Because Bruce is healthier and doesn’t carry the responsibility of, essentially, two jobs, Chris feels like he could keep coaching “for a long time.”
Arians has taken control of his health in the past three years. He lost 25 pounds in 2018 and then gained it back, but was able to lose it again this season — something coaches typically do during the offseason.
Because Arians is healthier, eating better and feeling better overall, he’s been able to start working out again, running a couple of miles on the underwater treadmill three to four days a week.
Chris also credited assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar for helping get Bruce on track.
“Love that woman,” Chris said. “I mean, she is amazing.”
Bruce’s son, Jake, said his father’s health wasn’t the reason Bruce retired after the 2017 season, but was the reason he thought he should retire.
“When you take the stress out of your life, the aches and pains go away,” Bruce said. “I knew I could take some of the stress back but not all of it.”
And he hasn’t.
Tampa Bay linebacker Kevin Minter, who played for Arians for four seasons in Arizona and then the last two with the Bucs, said Arians is not as “high-strung” as he used to be. He’s also handling certain situations differently this go-round. Instead of cussing out players for certain behavior, like he’d do in Arizona, Arians has conversations — sometimes stern — instead.
“It wouldn’t be at the same volume it used to be,” Minter said.
“He still got the point across.”
But in many ways, Arians has remained the fiery, “coach-em-hard, love-em-later” coach in Tampa Bay he was in Arizona. He’s just not as stressed.
“Being around him, I’m not gonna say he’s mellowed out because he hasn’t mellowed out, for sure,” said Bucs tight ends coach Rick Christophel, who first coached with Arians at Mississippi State University in 1993 and 1994.
But, Christophel added, not having the added stress of playcalling has helped. A lot.
Location, location, location
There’s one more reason coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been a good fit.
And as they say in real estate: location, location, location.
Right off the bat, Tampa had two things going for it: it was close to the grandchildren and it was warm.
The Arians are an East Coast family. Bruce and Chris are each one of five siblings and all their in-laws, nieces and nephews are on the East Coast, along with one of their two children and most of their grandchildren. Jake moved to Arizona when Bruce got the Cardinals job in 2013 and has stayed, but the Arians’ daughter, Kristi, lives in Birmingham with her family.
The grandchildren come in about once a month and stay for the weekend — something Bruce said they couldn’t have done if he was still coaching in Arizona. They play with “Pops,” which is what they call Bruce, in an inflatable water slide in the front yard near two big oak trees.
But Chris is still being safe. Everyone who comes to her house — family included — gets a negative COVID-19 test before they’re allowed in.
The rest of the time, Bruce and Chris see the grandkids through the Facebook Portal.
“It’s been unbelievable just being able to get to see them all the time and this year, with the pandemic, we can’t leave town, so it’s hard to get back to the lake, but we’ll get back there sooner or later. But to have them here, that’s what it’s all about,” Bruce said.
When the grandchildren come to town, the Arians household is about them. There’s very little football talk.
“It’s just having them around allows you to totally get away from it,” Jake said. “It’s almost like a bye week for a couple days even though you got to go to the office and that kind of stuff.”
Bruce is healthier than he’s been in a while, winning more than he has won in a while and as happy as Jake has seen him in a long time.
Life has been good for Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay.
While Arians said this week that he has no intention of retiring after the Super Bowl, he’s also made it clear that Tampa Bay will be his last NFL job.
The only thing that would make it better would be a win Sunday.
“Everybody has a great affection for him, for the person he is,” his quarterback, Brady, said of Arians. “There’s nobody that would ever say anything bad about BA. He’s just so endearing to everybody. And I think everyone wants to win for him.”