TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kevin Minter sat in the auditorium at the AdventHealth Training Center during OTAs, not sure what to expect when Bruce Arians, his head coach with the Arizona Cardinals for four seasons, took the podium for the first team meeting of 2019. It was the first time he’d addressed a team since retiring after the 2017 season.
Arians had endured several health scares in 44 years of coaching, and he had to pull some strings to get certain family members on board with a comeback. Had his one-year retirement softened his tough-guy approach?
“If you’re expecting a speech, you’re in the wrong f---ing place!” Arians quipped.
“I should have known better,” Minter said, laughing. “BA’s still BA, through and through, man.”
“The same guy,” said quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who spent the 2017 season with Arians in Arizona. “I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Right then and there, you knew he was back.”
Arians was ready to get back to the game he thought he needed to get away from -- the one family members could see pulling at him even though he stayed close to football as an analyst for CBS.
“I thought when he hung it up that he would be done,” said his son, Jake Arians, who also serves as his agent. “But I could tell pretty early. My wife [Shelby] and I took her daughter out to L.A. in early October last year -- the Raiders and Chargers, he was calling. ... I could tell the juices were flowing -- the way he talked about it was different than the whole offseason.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Arians is preparing to face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) in his 93rd NFL game as a head coach.
“I get more excited than nervous,” said Arians, 66 “and sexy,” as he described himself to Bucs ownership when he sat down to interview in January.
“I’ve gotten to where I can get some decent sleep [the night before games],” Arians said. “As Sunday grows during the morning, it gets more and more intense. I can’t take two 5-Hour Energys -- just one.”
‘You don’t want him coming out of that golf cart’
By all accounts, he’s still the same BA he was with the Cardinals, Colts and Steelers -- even back in the Temple days, where he coached several current staff members -- but with some slight modifications.
“I’ve learned to delegate more,” said Arians, who for the first time handed playcalling over to someone else: offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.
“[It’s] boring,” Arians said. “[But] it gives me a chance to turn my back and talk to the defense or talk to the special teams when I couldn’t before, trusting the fact that they’re going to handle this [and] I can go handle something else [and] get the situation ready rather than flipping buttons and try to get guys on the headset. It’s a lot easier to so-called 'manage the game.'"
He lets defensive coordinator Todd Bowles run the show on defense and relies on consultant Tom Moore as his sounding board and a mentor to his staff. He rounds them up every morning for an hour before the 8 a.m. staff meeting so they can pick Moore's brain.
“Dad can bring [Moore] to the office and say whatever the hell he wants," Jake Arians said, "and it’s never gonna leave that office, a guy that he trusts implicitly to say, ‘BA, you’re out of your mind’ or, ‘you’re spot-on,’ and he trusts him enough that regardless of what he says back to him, he takes it wholeheartedly.
“Having Tom Moore for the year and not just training camp is really going to be vital to keeping him rejuvenated."
Larry Rose, who was hired as an officiating consultant, helps with game management.
“Bruce is such a rare guy [in] that he's old school in some ways but very progressive in others," general manager Jason Licht said.
Arians rides around in a golf cart now, too, which helps his sciatica.
"I hate that he's old enough that he has to [use it]. ... It allows him to focus a lot more," Jake said.
“Yeah, if he gets out of the golf cart, it’s normally trouble," Minter said, laughing. “You don’t want him [coming] out of the cart. That’s normally bad news.”
One thing Arians grew to hate during practice? Music. That was his biggest takeaway from last year, when he’d travel to watch teams practice on Fridays in advance of the games he’d call.
“I just saw it as a total distraction everywhere I went. It’s just to please the players,” Arians said. “There is too much teaching that goes on in our Friday practice. A lot of teams just have it on Friday, but to me, teaching is more important.”
He’s gotten even more into sports science, hiring Greg Skaggs as director of the Bucs’ sports science program.
Skaggs uses GPS tracking devices to monitor the number of steps players take in practice, how fast they’re moving and the number of reps they’re getting, both on the field and in the weight room. The devices also measure pre- and post-practice weight and hydration. Arians takes that feedback at the team and player level to plan practices.
One week into camp, when lightning forced the team to work in the inside practice facility, Arians cranked the heat up to 85 degrees -- never mind that the high was 87 degrees with 100% humidity and it was a "special" practice limited to select season-ticket holders. It was so hot that fans were forced to wave paper fans to keep cool.
“Oh my God. Everybody was just like, ‘What the f---?’” Minter said. “But we just strapped it on and got right to it (laughs). I’ve never seen him do that before. Everybody was looking around like, ‘Can we please go back outside?’”
The purpose of it wasn’t to be cruel to players (or fans) but so the players’ bodies could continue to acclimate to the heat despite not practicing directly in it. Skaggs consulted with the Korey Stringer Institute, which studies and advocates player safety as it pertains to heat-related illness.
“You’re trying to get their body temperatures up to 101, 102 [degrees] so they can have those [performance] adaptations [necessary for game day],” Skaggs said. “All the things your body does to cool itself -- so the rate at which you sweat, for instance, would be one simple measure that does change the more you’re exercising in heat. The body starts to adjust and get better at sweating.”
‘This game needs BA’
Gabbert remembers Arians’ final game with the Cardinals in December 2017 and his emotional retirement announcement made “in between tears of joy and peace” after a 26-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
“We had heard the reports and the rumors but you never know,” Gabbert said. “Fast forward 400 days and he’s back coaching. This game needs BA. Just what he brings on and off the field, just his energy, his personality, how good he is for the players and the coaches -- it’s always fun to have a guy like that in the NFL.”
Players appreciate his authenticity, passion and honesty.
“He gets two thumbs up from me,” defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “I like coaches that are passionate. He’s passionate and he’s gonna be the same way around everybody ... which I think you kind of appreciate as a player.”
Minter added, “I remember the first preseason game, when I heard him yelling again. I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m really back with BA again.’ His whole face was red. Spit was going everywhere. I was like, ‘Yep! BA is back.”
“He has a lot more energy,” said inside linebacker Deone Bucannon, who played for Arians in Arizona from 2013 through 2017. “He had energy, too, in Arizona my first two years, but you can tell, just because it’s a different situation -- just personal and things like that, healthwise, with things weighing on him -- but now he’s back to his old self. He looks healthy. ... It uplifts our team for sure.”
Fans saw that passion last week in the the fourth preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, when Arians screamed at an official, “It was a f---ing slant!” which was picked up by the WFLA television crew.
So much for retirement softening him.
“There’s no chance and that was nothing,” Arians said. “I have to apologize for being on the TV broadcast last week, but it happens.”
Even wife Christine can’t fix that one.
“No, she knows better. It’s not going to do any good,” Arians said, chuckling.
While several players believe Arians hasn’t changed, Jake said he sees a difference in his father, whom he also calls his “best friend.”
“I don’t know if the passion ever left, but it’s definitely back like it was the first year in Arizona, getting that first opportunity,” Jake said. “To the point where you’re in the fourth preseason game with a bunch of guys who aren’t gonna make the team and you’re MF’ing the official.”
Officials aren’t the only ones who feel the wrath of Arians, but there’s a soft side that comes with it, too, a side fans don’t necessarily see, in the form of parking lot celebrations after a game. He’ll have beers with his players.
"We'll leave the family waiting area and kind of go by his car and that kind of becomes the tailgate car, so if any of the guys want to grab a beer on their way home or any of that stuff, it's there," Jake said, "but it's really more just to see the guys.
“The biggest thing I can say that he does better than anybody I’ve ever seen is the whole ‘coach ‘em hard, hug ‘em later’ thing,” Jake said. “When he can ‘m-----f-----’ a player within an inch of [his] life, and make him feel like nothing, and have the ability to, five seconds later, put his arm around ‘em, smack ‘em on the ass and make ‘em feel like a million bucks -- I’ve never seen anybody be able to have that dynamic.”
Second-year safety Jordan Whitehead added, “Being held accountable is big -- by players, by coaches, by everybody. You want to play for somebody like that because you don’t want to make a mistake, but at the same time, when you do make a play, they’re right there to congratulate you.”
For Gabbert, that came after a victory with the Cardinals against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that drafted him. It was a back-and-forth game, and the win kept Arizona's playoff hopes alive.
“Those are the moments that you play this game for -- the little moments after the games -- a big win, we left it all out there and celebrating with the guys for a little bit,” Gabbert said. “He’s a players’ coach. That term gets thrown around so loosely and so often, it’s kind of lost its luster, but BA’s a genuine players’ coach. He does everything with us in mind and to make us be the best players we can be -- that’s all you can ask for.”