Andy Reid, Bruce Arians, and their Winding Paths to Super Bowl LV
by Scott Mangan (Twitter: @fantasyspatula)
Fade into a bar in Blacksburg, Virginia, 1974. The bartender — a recent Virginia Tech graduate — is a straight shooting, football loving, blue collar boy from York, PA. Son of a machinist father and a candy factory working mother.
Cogs and sugarcane. Just the kind of mindset a bartender needs. Grind those gears, keep the machine running, but also know when to charm some drunkard out of descending into darkness. Any bartender worth his or her weight in whiskey can connect and de-escalate with the best of them.
On this particular evening in Blacksburg, VA a rough and tumble, unstable man who lived in a cabin amongst the Blue Ridge Mountains stumbled down into the bar and declared, “Tonight, I’m going to drink and I’m going to fight!” The bartender promptly greeted him with a, “Well, then, let’s make the beer free for you, but go fight somewhere else.”
After a couple of hours of imbibing booze the drunken time bomb from the Blue Ridge Mountains began harassing women at the bar. The young bartender — who weeks earlier had been the starting QB for the Virginia Tech Hokies — now found himself having to ask the man to leave. The inebriated ignoble yokel responded by standing up, pulling out a .22, sticking it into the bartender’s gut and saying, “Throw me out now.”
“At that moment, with the gun pointed at me, I realized that perhaps coaching would be a better career path,” Bruce Arians would later recount.
He never stepped foot behind a bar again. It’s pretty safe to say he made the correct career choice.
11 years later and 2,692 miles away in the middle of the San Francisco State University campus. 28 year old offensive line coach Andy Reid is selling hot dogs in the university commons. He’s dealing frankfurters just to raise enough money for the school’s football program to afford pads and helmets.
Since offensive line coaches barely got paid, Reid would umpire baseball games just to get by. Three games per night (after family dinner) for $10 bucks a pop just to make ends meet for his wife and two kids.
They were poor, but it didn’t stop the Reids from having the entire SFSU offensive line over every week to watch film and study. Tammy Reid’s Mississippi Mud Pie was always on the menu. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t afford to entertain like this. He just wanted to include them in his family. He wanted to create that family energy with them. He had to.
Three years earlier in Alabama, 30 year old Bruce Arians was sitting across a large wooden desk from the legendary college football coach Bear Byrant. After working for one season as his running backs and passing game coordinator Arians was hired by Temple University to be their new head coach. While saying goodbye, Bryant had a piece of parting advice for Arians.
“Coach them hard,” Bryant said, “and hug them harder later.” Bear Bryant passed away just three weeks later. It was the last time the two ever spoke, but Bruce would later say, “Before he left us, he gave me my guiding philosophy.”
“From that day forward I would try to find out what makes a player tick and continually build on the player’s strengths and not prey on their weaknesses—just like Bryant did.”
And it’s obvious that Arians took the advice Bear Bryant gave him to heart. If you read about him and listen to Bruce Arians talk, one thing constantly rings through: the guy loves people and he’s willing to be real with anyone from any background.
“Bruce can talk street with anyone, and if he needs to, he can be the most intellectual guy in the room,” says current Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who played for Arians at Temple in the mid-1980s and was his defensive coordinator at Arizona in 2013 and ’14. “Because of his unique background, he can reach absolutely everyone on a football roster, and that’s the key to building chemistry and building a winning team.”
The stories of how he unlocked potential with mind games are countless. He’s been called a quarterback whisperer for most of his career. Think about it: he nurtured the early careers of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck. He helped revive late career Carson Palmer. He’s helped 43 year old Tom Brady back to the Super Bowl.
The secret? He’s always been able to understand that there’s a human behind the helmet.
“My quarterbacks have to be a member of my family, and that has nothing to do with football,” Arians says. “Trust is everything. We have to connect on a deep level in order to really be able to build something together. Trust brings a higher level of communication and a higher level of commitment and accountability. We have to care for one another. It’s all about family, family, family.”
The same guy who had that .22 pressed up against his belly back in Blacksburg, Virginia. The guy who met his wife in 9th grade. The guy who was the first white player to ever room with a black player in Virginia Tech history. The guys who’s staffs have been littered with old friends and ex-players. The guy that listens and cares for the people he meets. He’s been creating a family everywhere he goes.
Years before he was selling hot dogs to undergrads in the commons of San Francisco State, Andy Reid was just a sports obsessed Mormon child who grew up only a mile from Hollywood Boulevard. His father was an artist. His mother: a radiologist. He followed around his older brother Reggie like a puppy dog. He regularly united all the neighborhood kids for games of football.
Later on he lettered in basketball, baseball, and football at Marshall High School in Los Angeles. The same High School where the movie Grease was filmed and would later be home to Leo deCaprio and Will.i.am. But way before their time Andy Reid was wreaking havoc on the courts and fields of Marshall High.
Marshall’s football and basketball coach, Dick Kiwan, recalls coaching Reid on the basketball court, “I put him in at forward and he had four fouls in less than 2 minutes,” Kiwan said laughing. “I remember pulling him out because he was just dribbling down the floor and running over people. I remember taking a timeout and saying, ‘Andy, what are you doing?’ and he looked at me like, ‘What?’
“The competitive juices were flowing so much from leaving football and getting into basketball, he couldn’t help himself.”
That ferociousness was left on the field though. He was a kind friend to many. Including his coaches. To this day he’s still close friends with Coach Kiwan and many from his high school and college years.
“I still talk to my basketball coach, my football coaches—I talk to all these guys from high school. Half of them raised me; half of them were in my brother’s class. They saw me as a baby.”
“One of the things we’ve always said about Andy that is so hard to find, is that Andy never forgot where he came from,” Kiwan said. “He maintains his relationships with the guys he played with in high school and even his old coaches.
“It’s something that you just don’t find with someone in his position. You just don’t find that.”
Bruce Arians had just been promoted front the wide receivers coach to the the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. He and starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not really get along at the time. “He thought I yelled at the wide receivers too much,” Arians said. Bruce knew that the key to success would be connecting with Roethlisberger.
“Ben lost his mother when he was young, and that was hard on him,” Arians said. “I never want to be a father figure to my quarterbacks. I’ve got my own kids. I want to be the cool uncle you’d like have a drink with.”
Bruce invited Ben to his lake house down in Reynolds Plantation, Georgia. The two spent the day golfing, drinking beers, and talking life. “We built our communication on the golf course,” said Roethlisberger. “I even bought a house down there to be close to Bruce.”
Roethlisberger went on to have the highest rated season of his career that year. And the two went on to win a Super Bowl together just a few seasons later.
But Arians isn’t just a softy with a penchant for connecting over brews with his players. He can be quite demanding and downright nasty.
“Like (Bear) Bryant, I would be hard on my players when we’re on the field. But that’s just coaching. The players need to know that I’m probably going to talk to them real ugly out on the field, but that has nothing to do with them personally or with their personality. Their football can suck and they can still be good people. Don’t take it personally. It’s coaching, not a criticism. Don’t worry if I’m hard on you on the field. It’s business, not personal,” Arians said.
“And I vowed that day after leaving Bryant’s office that when I walked off the field with my players, I would hug the ones I had MF’d only moments earlier—just like Bryant did. I’d tell them we’re going to get our football perfect, we’re not going to beat ourselves, and now that we’re done with football for the day we can talk all night long about our personal lives. And I would care about all my players, from the starting quarterback down to the third-string tight end.”
“More than anything, I hope this is what I’m remembered for.”
Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback Matt Moore had just joined the team after training camp. In the quarterback meeting room he was getting his first glimpse of the relationship between Head Coach Andy Reid and 3rd year quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
“We were sitting in a meeting room and coach Reid was talking about a “read” and where the [receivers] were, and they were in a triangle formation, and literally at the same time as coach said, ‘there’s a nice little triangle here,’ there was a pause, and then at the same exact time [Mahomes and coach Reid] both said, “isosceles,” Moore laughed. “And I was like, ‘What the hell, I mean, it blew me away. There was no story behind it. There was nothing for them to both think of that word at the same time. It was so strange.
“At that moment, I knew these guys were tight.”
Former Head Coach Bob Stull — who hired Andy Reid back in the 80’s to coach his offensive line at UTEP — recognized Reid’s connection with his players early in Reid’s career.
“He had a way that you always knew he was on your side,” Stull explained. “He’d get on you, but you knew you probably deserved it. He was never a yeller, a screamer or harsh like that, but he’d get on you pretty good if you weren’t doing the right effort and learning what you’re supposed to be learning. The offensive line guys really liked him a lot because, again, he was a great teacher. He wouldn’t let you get away with anything.
“He worked them hard, but he could also laugh. He could see something funny, they could make fun of him about something and he was all right with that. He had a really good sense about him like that.”
We’re on the eve of Super Bowl LV. Two head coaches with 85 years of coaching experience between them square off for the ultimate prize in professional football. These are two men with storied histories and countless friendships. And they’re on the verge of creating a new chapter in their lives and careers.
I can’t remember the last time I watched a Super Bowl where I was rooting for both coaches. Sure, it’ll be nice to see Andy Reid get a second Super Bowl win in a row (maybe the beginning of the next great dynasty), but if come late Sunday night Bruce Arians is raising his first Lombardi Trophy as a head coach, it’ll not just be a victory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It will be a victory for every person that has grinded through the years of their life encouraging, evolving, accepting, and enjoying the people they’ve loved along the way. It’ll be a victory for every one of us that has been that bartender in the dive pub at 2 in the morning, with a .22 caliber pistol stuck in our guts being asked who we want to be and what we want to do with our lives. What we want to live for.
Yes, NFL football is a gigantic monster of a machine, but for any machine to work even the cogs need to be cared for. Both of these head coaches know that. They’ve lived it and they’ve built their own personal machines through hard work and love. That recipe is tried and true. And the resulting concoction will be on display on the field come Super Bowl Sunday night.