STROUD: Super Bowl brings fulfillment after lifetime of coaching for Yorker Bruce Arians

RICK STROUD
The Tampa Bay Times (TNS)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians is doused with a cooler by defensive lineman Vita Vea during a celebration of their Super Bowl 55 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs after taking part in a boat parade, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

There had been so many magical moments replaying in his mind since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl 55.

The Gatorade bath, the soggy family embrace, the confetti and his first words to quarterback Tom Brady about a promise fulfilled.

York High graduate Bruce Arians still wanted to drink it all in, like the cold Budweiser Light in his right hand, the Lombardi Trophy in his left, as the boat parade drifted down the Hillsborough River on a sun-splashed Wednesday afternoon.

That’s when all the moments became so momentous that they started to leak from the corners of his eyes.

“It still didn’t hit me until we were about halfway down the river and I’m holding the trophy over my head and I said, ‘Holy (crap), this is real!’” Arians said. “I didn’t cry, but I had a few tears fall and welled up. I said, ‘Oh, man!’”

For the 68-year-old Arians, winning the Super Bowl as a head coach is validation of a remarkable career that began as a grad assistant at Virginia Tech more than 4 1/2 decades ago.

It’s not like he woke up the morning after the Bucs’ 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs as a smarter coach.

“Heck no,” Arians said. “But it changes life. It really does.”

To understand what Arians and the Bucs accomplished this season, you should begin with the ending.

A quarterback away: Shortly after the clock hit 0:00 and the cannons began exploding in the north end zone at Raymond James Stadium, Arians went looking for quarterback Tom Brady.

When he found him, he threw his arms around the quarterback’s neck and shouted in his ear above the noise, reminding Brady of their first conversation back in March.

“I said, ‘Remember the first talk we ever had? I said we were going to do this,’” Arians said. “He said, ‘Hell, yeah!’”

The premonition was based on Arians’ belief that the Bucs were a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender when the 2019 season ended at 7-9.

A year earlier, Arians was lured out of retirement from coaching by Licht, who needed someone to see if they could salvage Winston, the turnover-prone Heisman Trophy winner who was entering his fifth season with the Bucs.

“We went on that really good stretch with Jameis and I thought we had it corrected, and then those last couple of ballgames, it popped its head back up,” Arians said of Winston, who threw 30 interceptions, including pick-sixes that cost the Bucs the final two games against Houston and Atlanta.

“And it wasn’t that we were done with him, it was ‘Okay, what’s behind Door No. 2? Let’s research it.’ When Tom’s interest was as high as it was, it was ‘Oof, let’s move on it.’”

By the time Arians was able to talk to Brady in March, his sales pitch was brief and to the point.

“I said, ‘We have one missing piece, and it’s you and what you bring, more as a leader than a player,’” Arians said. “Because this was a talented, talented football team a year ago, and we couldn’t get out of our way because of the penalties and the turnovers and beating ourselves.”

The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, wasn’t ready to give up on Winston just yet, even if his contract was up.

“Then it became, ‘Well, what if it’s Tom Brady?’” said Arians’ son, Jake, a former NFL kicker and contributor to The Draft Network. “They said, ‘If that’s the case, we’re on board.’ Tom is brilliant. He knows the game. This is the best roster he’s ever played with. He said, ‘I’m in on all that.’”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, right, pose for a photo during a celebration of their Super Bowl 55 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs after taking part in a boat parade, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

"You need to opt out:" The COVID-19 pandemic, which began to shake the world in March, called into question whether someone as old as Arians, who had battled cancer several times, should risk his health by coaching in the NFL.

“People were like, ‘You need to opt out. You’re 68 years old. You’ve had cancer twice,” Jake Arians said. “He called me. We talk about everything. I was like, ‘You know what? I think you’re healthier being at the complex and being tested every day, having those protocols than you are playing golf. Then you’re going to be pissed off that you’re at the golf course instead of coaching the team.”

His dad also was fortunate that, a year earlier, he was able to fill his staff with former coaches and players who he trusted and could delegate some authority to.

“He goes after you,” Jake Arians said. “There are no pulled punches off the field. To be able to go after someone so hard, yet they know he genuinely cares about you.”

Brutal honesty comes into play: That brutal honesty came into play in 2020 and may have helped define the season. Running back Leonard Fournette, who signed as a free agent after being unceremoniously released by Jacksonville, was sulking on the bench behind starter Ronald Jones.

Fournette was made inactive for the Bucs’ 26-14 win over Minnesota in Week 14. The next day, he met with Arians.

“I said, ‘This is your situation. It can change at the drop of a hat,’” Arians said. “But this is your situation. Either embrace it, or you say, ‘Cut me.’ I said, ‘What do you want? Because this is a very special team that you’re part of. I think you’ve got a feeling of that. Just see if you can hang in there to see what happens.’ And he did, and I’m really proud of him.”

Fournette got a chance to start two of the final three regular-season games when Jones went on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Then Jones pulled a quad muscle prior to the Redskins game and “Playoff Lenny,” as Fournette became known, was born. He combined for 448 total yards and four touchdowns in the postseason.

Surprising playoff run: The Bucs’ run through the playoffs caught many by surprise. After beating Washington, they dispatched Drew Brees and the Saints, then upset league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

Arians brought the team up for the last time the afternoon before the Super Bowl. As the coaches began to funnel out of the locker room, he overheard Brady’s players-only speech that still sends chills.

“I thought Tom’s pregame speech was perfect,” Arians said. “It was about honor. ‘You win this game, and people honor you. You’ll be honored for the rest of your life.’ He was speaking from experience for those guys who hadn’t won it.”

The Bucs were as well prepared for the Super Bowl as any game they had played. “We know what they’re going to do. We have all the answers to the test,” Brady told his teammates.

Of course, he was right. The Bucs built a 21-6 halftime lead, and the defense pressured Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes relentlessly.

"Best embrace of my life:" As the final seconds melted off the clock, Arians was drenched with blue Gatorade.

“It was everything you could ever dream about,” he said. “Even the Gatorade bath, because that’s a big part of it and it’s the first one I ever had. They tried it at Temple, and I was faster then and I got away. I also had a brand new suit on and I said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to ruin this suit.’”

After his embrace with Brady, Arians, his wife Christine, Jake and daughter Kristi Anne had a big family hug.

“I wish you weren’t so soggy,” said Christine, who is a York Catholic graduate.

“It easily was the best embrace of my life,” Jake said. “My sister and my mom and dad hugging on the field with confetti coming down. I had pictured it, I had daydreamed about it, but actually doing it? He’s soaking wet with Gatorade. Unreal.”

There are bound to be many more opportunities for Arians and his family to bask in the memories of the time the Bucs won Super Bowl 55. When they do, the tears and beers will overflow.

“What it means to him, I think, is the icing on the cake to an unbelievable career,” Jake said. “It’s funny, I don’t think he’s a better coach now because he won it, but the view of him has changed. The way the world sees him, you’re now a Super Bowl champion as a head coach. ... I think that was kind of like to prove to himself that he could, the fulfillment of a lifetime of doing this.”