Can Bruce Arians help solve NFL's diversity-hiring issue?


TAMPA -- Bruce Arians approached one of his team captains during a training camp practice before the 1986 college football season and asked him a simple question: What are your plans for next year?

Keith Armstrong, a Temple Owls defensive back who was credited with one reception in his senior season, knew he had no chance to go to the NFL. He was going to go home, maybe spend some time at the Jersey Shore, then get a job teaching at an elementary school, bartend at night to make some extra money, and be an assistant for his old high school football coach. Armstrong's mom was a teacher and his dad ran a barbershop, and Armstrong had already done some student teaching to prepare for life after graduation. He was good.

"You've got a graduate assistant job here next year," Arians told Armstrong.

Temple was Arians' first head coaching job, and while the Owls weren't very good, it is where Arians' career first took root nearly 40 years ago. His proposal to Armstrong, it turned out, was telling about Arians' approach.

Arians, whose entire professional life has been guided by a mantra so catchy it could be a commercial jingle -- "No risk it, no biscuit" -- would not worry about what anybody thought. And he would be devoted to cultivating future coaches. When those two philosophies meshed, as they did in that job offer to Armstrong, they produced what is now in full flower with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Armstrong is Arians' special teams coordinator: The Bucs' new head coach might be the most important person working in the NFL today in the push to diversify coaching.

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"This is the way I grew up," Arians said during a recent interview in his Tampa office. "I never saw color."

Then, he quickly corrected himself: "I saw it in the riots. Both sides of it."

More than a half-century later, Arians has very purposefully created the NFL's most diverse staff -- including two female full-time coaches -- and perhaps its leading lab for how the NFL might be able to solve its coaching diversity problem. Color did not enter his mind when he was putting the staff together, Arians said. He wanted the best coaches he knew, the ones he trusted. It is not an accident that all three of his coordinators played for him.

Among his many stops, Arians spent eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose late owner Dan Rooney was the driving force behind the Rooney Rule, which mandates teams interview at least one minority candidate for every head coach and general manager opening. Arians' world view was shaped long before that, though.

He was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up in the blue-collar neighborhood of York, Pennsylvania, where his closest friends were African-Americans. He was a preteen when Philadelphia erupted in a riot in 1964, just a few years older when the country was riven by dozens of riots in the summer of 1967, including one in Newark. Then, when Arians was 16 years old, years of escalating racial tension in York came to a head in a riot in 1969.

The next year, when Arians was playing quarterback at Virginia Tech, his easygoing nature made him the natural choice to be the first white football player in school history to have a black roommate. He and that roommate, James Barber, grew so close that Arians would later babysit Barber's twin boys -- Tiki and Ronde, both of whom grew up to star in the NFL.

Arians began coaching as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech and especially by the wunderkind standards of today, he took an exceptionally long and winding road before he was in a position to give the NFL a chance to fulfill the Rooney Rule's promise. That the NFL has struggled with the results -- especially in recent years -- is why Arians' efforts bear such close watching now.

"In the post Bill Walsh era, there have been a few coaches -- such as Dennis Green, Tony Dungy, Andy Reid, Ron Rivera, John Harbaugh -- who have stepped up and out to advance coaches of color," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "But unequivocally, no coach has been more committed in words and deed to minority coaching mobility than Bruce Arians. Coach Arians has been intentional in providing opportunities through job shadows, internships, fellowships and hiring coordinators and assistant coaches. Enough cannot be said about the example he sets, except that more should take his lead."

In the past two hiring cycles, just two minority coaches have been hired as head coaches -- and one, Steve Wilks, was fired after one season with the Arizona Cardinals. This year, with teams desperate to find the next Sean McVay, eight coaching searches were accompanied by a lot of conversation about the perceived lack of qualified minority candidates with offensive backgrounds, especially those who had worked with quarterbacks. Five minority coaches lost their jobs. Just one -- Brian Flores in Miami, whose background is on defense -- was hired.

Not surprisingly, when teams ask how diversity can be improved, Vincent points to Arians as an example of what more can be done.

Arians has been around the NFL long enough to know that trying to decipher the vagaries of each franchise decision is usually fruitless and often confounding.

"Firings are firings and hirings are hirings," he said. "It's always been a copycat league. Mike Holmgren's quarterback coaches got a job no matter what they did. Then it was defensive coaches. Now it's Sean McVay's turn. It's always been cyclical."

In Tampa, Arians came out of a one-year retirement to replace Dirk Koetter and went to work assembling an enormous staff -- 28 assistants in all, perhaps the largest ever constructed. There are two primary reasons for that. The most basic is that Arians likes to divide his training camp practices into two teams - giving rookies a lot of extra snaps -- and having so many coaches means there are enough eyes on all those players, while Arians oversees practice from behind the wheel of a golf cart that he uses to zip around among position groups.

The other reason is that Arians is trying to identify and groom coaches he thinks have futures. This year, he went heavy on offense -- there are nine coaches for offense, not including Arians himself -- because that is the current NFL trend. Not only does he want to cultivate future head coaches, he wants to have a stable of assistants ready to slide into open spots when his top people get hired away. Arians is essentially creating his own pipeline.

"I think it's good for the game," Arians said. "That is the best way to fix it. I just saw the inequality in it and tried to do something about it. I had talked to Troy a number of times. We said that's the way we're going to have to grow, we're slowly going to force owners to hire guys."

With no mechanism to compel owners to choose a minority candidate, Arians has focused on preparing coaches and putting them in a position to be noticed when the job openings come along. He started the effort in Arizona, when he told Michael Bidwell he wanted to hire a few former players who were interested in starting their coaching careers. The result is the Bill Bidwill Coaching Fellowship, created in 2015, which provides opportunities for recently retired players who want to pursue coaching. The NFL has had similar programs, including one named for Bill Walsh that focused primarily on giving college coaches the chance to work during off-seasons and training camps with NFL teams. That program produced, among others, Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin. But as the college season has gotten longer and NFL training camps have been shortened, there is little chance now for NFL teams to get to know college coaches. So, Arians came up with the program for former players. It is how he got Byron Leftwich to Arizona.

All three of Arians' coordinators in Tampa, including Armstrong, are African-American -- believed to be the first time that has ever happened on an NFL staff -- and his assistant head coach, Harold Goodwin, is, too. His defensive coordinator is former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, another one of Arians' players from Temple. His offensive coordinator is Leftwich, a former quarterback who played for Arians in Pittsburgh, retired after the 2009 season and finally gave in to six years of Arians' entreaties to join his Cardinals coaching staff in 2016. Last year, Leftwich was thrown into the Cardinals' offensive coordinator role after Mike McCoy was fired during the season and inherited a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen.

This year, in just his fourth season of coaching, Leftwich is calling the plays for Jameis Winston, a job Arians says is considerably easier than the one Leftwich had in Arizona. Leftwich is running the offensive meetings and Arians has made it plain he will not be in Leftwich's ear to constantly suggest play calls -- Arians admits this might not always be easy for him -- and that is not an accident either. One of the dings against some head coaching candidates is that they do not have play-calling experience. Arians wants to make sure Leftwich's resume is complete so he will get consideration for the next wave of openings.

"You have to identify and recruit," Arians said of unearthing coaches from former players. "The hardest position to find is quarterbacks coaches."

Leftwich rejects the premise that there is not enough diversity among offensive coaches to feed the head coaching pipeline.

"That's tough, because I've been around good football coaches of color all the time, offensive-minded coaches," Leftwich said. "I don't know if there is a shortage. There may be a shortage of opportunity. I hate when we talk about it in a way that there are not enough people qualified. I think there's a lot of people qualified. I think a lot of people don't have the opportunity to do it. Qualifications and opportunities are different to me."

"The only way to get more opportunities is to get more opportunities," he continued. "It's not the responsibility as a coach to be given opportunities. Someone else has to give you opportunities. What is the pipeline? Two years from now, it could be something different. Ain't this a different subject matter? I've been coaching a very short time, but I've heard this said a different way before."

Armstrong has observed a similar issue whenever the pipeline is mentioned.

"If I'm a quality control guy on offense and I'm working with quarterbacks, then the next elevation shouldn't be to wide receiver," he said. "Why isn't it to quarterbacks coach (a much more fast-track position)? A lot of those quarterbacks coaches have never played quarterback. To say this (black) guy can't coach quarterbacks because he played receiver ��� well ��� this (white) guy didn't even play."

Arians has 11 African-American assistants in all and he has broken another significant barrier with two women in fulltime roles. He has been a vocal proponent of women coaches. He likes to say that one of the best receivers coaches he's ever seen was Dot Murphy at Hinds Community College in Mississippi when Arians was the Mississippi State offensive coordinator 25 years ago. In 2015, Arians hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern for Cardinals training camp and the preseason, making her the NFL's first female coach. When he got to the Bucs, he spoke to one of the team owners, Darcie Glazer Kassewitz, about the possibility of having a woman as a fulltime coaching intern.

Then Arians' wife, Christine, "chewed my ass out," he said. "She said, you're going to have another lady and after a year send her on her way? If she's good enough, why don't you hire her fulltime? I said, you're exactly right."

So, the one coaching intern became two fulltime assistants -- Lori Locust, the assistant defensive line coach who had played semi-pro football, interned with the Baltimore Ravens and has been a coach in the AAF; and Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach.

Women coaches are still very much a new frontier for the NFL. Coaching staffs are bastions of familiarity, a self-perpetuating network based on who played or coached together. None of that network exists for women, who, of course, have never coached or played college or NFL football. Locust and the handful of other women in the NFL, including Katie Sowers from the 49ers and Jennifer King, a coaching intern for the Carolina Panthers, joke that their parallel universe to those networks are the coaching clinics they attended together just a few years ago.

Locust was working as an insurance underwriter while raising two sons and playing women's semi-pro football when she blew out her knee and started coaching her own team. She coached high school football. She had stints as an assistant for semi-pro men's team and in the National Arena League -- the backwaters of football. But she had known Arians and Bowles for years, because her ex-husband, Andrew Locust, played for Arians and with Bowles at Temple, and Locust volunteered at football camps.

When she learned the NFL was ramping up efforts to recruit female coaches, she applied for fellowships and drove to conferences.

Last summer, she got her biggest break: The Ravens brought her on as a training camp intern to help coach the defensive line. She was at a crossroads when the internship ended and her insurance job did, too. She decided she wanted to pursue coaching fulltime. She got a call from Samantha Rapoport, who is leading the NFL's efforts to get more women in the game, asking if she would like to be an assistant coach for the new AAF team in Birmingham, Ala. While there, she attended a coaching clinic at which Arians was speaking. Sowers encouraged Locust to contact him. She did and found out the general manager of the Birmingham team had already spoken to Arians about her.

Now 55, Locust spends her time breaking down film, running the punt show team for Armstrong and focusing on players' technique. She believes that is a strength of female coaches; because they did not learn the game as children, they have had to learn the details of how to properly play the game as adults, and they can pass that on to players who may never have learned the finer points.

"It looks different, but it's just normal," Locust said. "I still get (addressed by players as) 'Ma'am' (but) I'm not going to knit you a sweater, g--dammit."

Locust and Javadifar have worked with men for so long that all of this feels familiar. Javadifar grew up in New York playing basketball, and since she was a high school student, she worked out with the local college football team, C.W. Post. Since then, she also has regularly emailed Sue Falsone, who was the first woman to become the head athletic trainer in a major American sports league when she worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Javadifar now meets Winston at 5:30 a.m. to work on body mechanics before the day begins.

"No one has acted shocked," Javadifar said. "I had one of the players say, 'You're one of the coaches, I'm going to talk to you like a coach.' That happened because someone (at practice) asked for my autograph."

The greatest hurdle Locust and Javadifar may have faced so far in Tampa is infrastructure. There was no women's locker room. So, for weeks during off-season workouts, they sat in their sweaty clothes for the rest of the workday after practices. Arians got a locker room built for them.

Arians has little use for the slow pace of change. In NFL meetings, according to those who have heard him, he looks at other executives and asks what is wrong with them. His case for female coaches is breathtakingly obvious. Many players were raised by their mothers. Their teachers in school were women. They have had female trainers and doctors. Then, Arians asks the bosses: "Where we at? What are you talking about that people aren't ready for this?"

More progress will be dependent on one thing -- victories. It's been nine years since the Bucs had a double-digit win season, 12 years since they were in the playoffs, and 17 since they won a playoff game -- that came after the 2002 season, during the Super Bowl championship run under Jon Gruden. This is an especially tall order in the hyper-competitive AFC South, where the Saints went to overtime of the NFC Championship Game last season, the Falcons were in the Super Bowl three years ago, and the Panthers were in it four years ago.

The hope is that Arians, whose book is called "The Quarterback Whisperer", can make Winston look like the first overall draft pick he was in 2015, and the results will follow (Winston's promising Week 2 performance against the Panthers -- 16-of-25 for 208 yards and zero turnovers -- led to his first road victory since Week 13 of the 2016 season). If they do, Arians' experiment could finally bear fruit.

Already, after just two weeks, there is buzz in the league about the job Bowles has done with a defense that in 2018 ranked 27th in yards and second-to-last in points allowed. Many believe he will get another look as a head coach.

"If we win, these guys will be head coaches," Arians said. "I'll be pushing them, because I'm grooming guys to take their place. I'm really excited about (offensive assistant) Antwaan Randle El. I want to have a (coaching) tree when I'm done. I want to have four or five guys out there I can go drink with."

Such success might also answer a more profound question beyond the wins and losses: Does a staff as diverse as the one Arians has assembled make a difference?

One of the first people to whom Arians gave a chance thinks he knows the answer.

"From a players' standpoint, it's a form of respect," Armstrong said. "When they walk into the training room, you see people that look like you, you're accepted. Walk into the coaching room, see people that look like you, you're respected. When you're done playing, you feel like you have a chance in that building. Other than in the kitchen."



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