CINCINNATI - Around 5:30 every morning, the same group of men roll into their usual spots at a hillside Starbucks in Southern California.
Among the group of eight to 12 who have met here in Newbury Park on most days for roughly 20 years are a retired Northwest Airlines pilot, a hot rod enthusiast and an ex-Navy Seal. And up until recently, a future NFL head coach.
When Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor was an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams from 2017-18, he made it a habit of joining the morning crew before he drove east on U.S. Highway 101 to the team facility. Sometimes, it was for a quick exchange. In other cases, Taylor chatted for a few minutes before heading into work.
For as long as Taylor has worked in the NFL, coffee has been as much of a staple of his routine as watching game film or scribbling down plays. The order has been exactly the same for years -- a venti cup of Starbucks' Pike Place Roast, black.
And over the years, in addition to getting his daily caffeine dosage, he built relationships with the people inside his local Starbucks. Over time, it led to an exchange of numbers, sideline passes and multiple conversations on both coasts. In a business where Taylor is at work from somewhere between 6 a.m. to as late as midnight, it was his way of briefly tethering to a world that doesn't revolve around blitzes and touchdowns.
"I take a lot of pride in connecting with people -- period," Taylor, the NFL's second-youngest head coach at 36, told ESPN. "I don't care who you are. It's kind of nice. We're in the building of where you work more than most people. We really don't socialize with the outside world, to an extent.
"For three minutes a day, it's the only time in the last 10 years that I socialize with somebody outside of the building I've worked in."
'Always caring about people'
In 2012, Taylor was hired as an assistant for the Miami Dolphins. Every morning, he stopped at a Starbucks a shopping center in Weston, Florida -- a small, affluent suburb. That also happened to be the season HBO's "Hard Knocks" featured the Dolphins.
One night, Eddie Quinonez was watching the documentary series when Taylor was featured. Quinonez wondered why Taylor looked familiar. Then it hit him -- Taylor was one of the regulars.
As the relationship between Taylor and his baristas blossomed, he began to reap the rewards of consistent patronage. The moment Taylor's car was spotted through the glass windows, 20 ounces of Starbucks' signature roast awaited him at the counter. On Saturday mornings, Taylor was exempt from the line that stretched out of the door.
Because of the location, plenty of wealthy and notable people frequented that Starbucks. But Taylor stood out.
"He's honest, always trying to do the right thing, always caring about people," said Abishek Kitchloo, 29, one of Taylor's former baristas. "He would come in every day and ask how I was doing and we would have a conversation."
In December 2013, Taylor found out Quinonez, his brother and best friend were planning a trip for the Dolphins' road game in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. When they arrived at Heinz Field, the freezing trio had sideline passes waiting at will call.
When the Steelers and Dolphins kicked off, the wind chill was 16 degrees. Quinonez, who grew up in Ecuador, had never seen snow until that day. Taylor walked onto the field and saw how cold they were, so he went back into the locker room and grabbed spare jackets. The Dolphins won 34-28, kept their playoff hopes afloat and gave the group an amazing memory.
"(Taylor) just did it all out of his kind heart," Quinonez said. "We didn't ask, 'Hey, get us field passes to meet the players and spend pregame warm-ups with you guys.' He just did it because he wanted us to have that experience."
When Taylor left Miami after a coaching change in 2016 and took a job as the University of Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, he went by the Starbucks location and asked Kitchloo to help him unload the back of his car -- boxes of his personal Dolphins gear, some with Taylor's name on it.
Among the items Kitchloo kept was a pair of teal shorts he packed for a recent work trip to Alabama. Quinonez has several of Taylor's old belongings, including a jacket.
Finding a new Starbucks home
After spending a season at the University of Cincinnati as offensive coordinator in 2017, Taylor was hired as an assistant by the Rams. He found another local Starbucks with a small-town feel. Those men embraced Taylor as part of the group that met daily for roughly the last 20 years. Sometimes the conversation veered into how the Rams were doing, including what was going on with different players.
"You can't get it out of Zac, you know what I mean?" said Scott Williams, a 59-year-old contractor. "I respected that more than anything. He wasn't putting anything on the table. You'd have to figure it out yourself."
However, Taylor always talked. Pat Dappolonia, a 69-year-old consultant, said the length of the chat depended on how much time Taylor had on that given day. And like in Miami, it tended to be a two-way conversation.
"What we saw and what we dealt with, you couldn't ask for a nicer person who gave time of himself to talk to other people," Dappolonia said. "Especially in California, everybody's in a hurry and nobody wants to talk to you."
Taylor doesn't need long to pull up the exact Starbucks location on his iPhone. A small coffee shop in a quiet place was the right vibe for Taylor, who grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, a town with two high schools and the home of the University of Oklahoma Sooners.
But after his first season in Los Angeles, Taylor and his family moved east to Thousand Oaks, where the Rams' facility is located. He was headed for a new, busier Starbucks.
"We'd see him a couple of times," said Haze Arnold, 74, a retired pilot. "But after that, he got busy with football."
All-consuming life of a coach
Being a football coach at any level means a different daily routine than most of the working world. That's especially true for NFL coaches.
"You don't ever leave," Taylor said. "You don't ever walk out of the building during the day -- ever. To go to lunch? You don't do any of that. Dinner? Nothing."
Even when Taylor was a graduate assistant at Texas A&M, his wife, Sarah, would try to bring him his afternoon caffeine and steal a few minutes of his hectic day. But as Zac transitioned from being another face on the sidelines to the face of the front office, he has even less time than he did in Miami and Los Angeles. The Taylors' ideal Friday night consists of going to their son Luke's soccer game, ordering takeout and either watching a movie with their four children or streaming "Schitt's Creek" on Netflix.
"No more date nights in-season when you're the head coach's wife," Sarah said. "We'll make it up in the spring."
And the time he spends at Starbucks has dropped considerably. When he arrives each morning, he leaves his team-issued Chevy Tahoe running on the curb while he picks up the coffee he ordered on his phone. Out of curiosity, Taylor recently timed the whole routine. It took 15 seconds.
All of Taylor's in-season interactions have changed now that he's back in Cincinnati. He is starting to develop a daily rapport with the person he sees every morning, but his current Starbucks feels busier than the ones in Florida and California. And Taylor is different, too.
"I've never been much of a Bengals fan. But I kind of pay attention now just because, 'Hey, we know that dude.'" Haze Arnold on Zac Taylor
"People didn't know who I was," Taylor said of his anonymity in Miami and Los Angeles. "You're just kind of going in and talking to friends. You don't mind that you're sitting in the middle of the store, talking. Now, when I go into places, people talk to me that I don't know. Sometimes it's nice to get in and out. It's nice to not get caught up and go."
And the interactions he had with his fellow Starbucks regulars have been replaced by those with his neighbors in Mount Lookout, the same neighborhood he lived in when he worked for the University of Cincinnati in 2016.
But that doesn't mean he's forgotten about his fellow regulars. And they haven't lost track of him, either. Quinonez, one of his Weston baristas, still texts Taylor every few months. They talked before Taylor's first trip to Pittsburgh this season.
And because of those relationships, he'll always have a Starbucks-related cheering section. That includes Arnold and everyone else in the Newbury Park morning crew.
"I've never been much of a Bengals fan," Arnold said. "But I kind of pay attention now just because, 'Hey, we know that dude.'"