TAMPA, Fla. -- On a cold night at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Todd Bowles ran into some old acquaintances from New York. Bowles was preparing for his fourth season as the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a job that had brought him acclaim, his first Super Bowl ring as a coach (he also won one as a starting safety for Washington in 1987 and as a member of Green Bay's personnel department in 1996), but not a promotion. The NFL's annual tilt-a-whirl of a hiring season had already spun to a halt by that night, and Bowles had not been hired for any of the nine head-coach openings.
So when Bowles, 58, stopped to catch up with some people he knew from his days coaching the Jets, he mentioned the retirement house he had already built in North Carolina, his young son, Tyson, and his plan to perhaps coach just another five years and then step away. There was no yearning for or bitterness about the jobs that had eluded him and so many other candidates like him. Instead, Bowles sounded that night like he was resigned to never being a head coach again.
"I didn't even look at it that way," Bowles said more than five months later, after a recent training camp practice. "I resigned myself to being a great coach. I know there are a lot of good coaches that may not get a first or second opportunity because there are so few of them. Every time I won a game, I didn't look at stats like I was saying I should be a head coach because of this performance. I got into this game to make players better and to teach, and I went back to that and that's what got me back, if you want to say it, to the top. I didn't try to be a head coach. I tried to lead."
Little more than a month after that scene in Indianapolis, Bowles was a head coach once again. Late in March, Bruce Arians abruptly retired to shift to a front office role and passed the job -- one of the plum ones in the NFL today -- to Bowles, the hand-picked successor he had mentored since Bowles played for him at Temple University. Arians' departure stunned the NFL and even Bowles, who had flown to North Carolina to check on his house and to enjoy floor seats at the Charlotte Hornets game against the Denver Nuggets (Bowles wanted to see Nikola Jokic play in person), when he returned a call from Arians. He thought Arians was kidding.
He was not. Arians had long hoped to hand off the Bucs to Bowles, and the Glazer family that owns the team and general manager Jason Licht were also big supporters of Bowles taking the reins. When Arians became the Bucs' head coach in 2019, he assembled the league's most diverse staff. Bowles is the first member of that staff to get a head job, and that is both a triumph -- for Bowles and for the Bucs, top Super Bowl contenders -- and an indication of the NFL's broader problem.
The job was a victory for Bowles, a widely respected and well-liked (his players go to his son's football games) former Jets head coach, who not only gets a second chance, but also gets to skip the rebuild that attends most available jobs. Instead, he has taken over a veteran team less than two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, with the greatest quarterback of all time still playing at an MVP level. Bowles' career path suddenly looks likely to stretch much longer than five years. After a searing August practice, Bowles smiled when he was told how happy he looked.
"What's there not to be happy about?" he asked. "I'm in warm weather. I've got good veteran leadership. We've got a lot of continuity and they work. They're not prima donnas. That's the biggest thing."
Bowles' ascendance was also a victory for those who work on diversity in the NFL. Bowles' story of being passed over -- of not even having a packed calendar of interviews -- despite a full and successful résumé was not unusual. His own colleague -- Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich -- has had a similar experience. The failure of NFL teams to diversify the head-coaching ranks has been a blight on the game, especially in recent years, spawning committees and policies and angst, but very few hires of Black men. When the hiring cycle began last January, Bowles was viewed as a leading contender to get a job. His defense had helped lead the Bucs to their Super Bowl championship in the 2020 season and there was acknowledgement around the league that Bowles had not been in the best position to succeed in New York, because he did not have the benefit of working with a successful general manager or a franchise quarterback. The 10-6 record the Jets compiled in Bowles' first season, 2015, is the only winning record for the franchise in the last 11 campaigns. So when the hiring ended and Bowles had not landed a top job, it was particularly deflating for the league executives and coaches who had hoped to see more Black head coaches hired this offseason; of those to receive jobs this cycle, only the Houston Texans' Lovie Smith (who is Black) and the Miami Dolphins' Mike McDaniel (who identifies as biracial) were not white.
Bowles understands all this. But he wasn't particularly disappointed before Arians called with his news. Bowles is, as NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent puts it, "buttoned up." He is far from withdrawn -- he is most verbose when trash talking his own team during practice -- but he is also not demonstrative. He never vented, publicly or privately, about his situation with the Jets or the job opportunities that did not come his way. Licht said that even after Bowles was passed over in this cycle, he never sensed any frustration from him. The Bucs were preparing for free agency as usual when everything changed.
Even now, with the best possible opportunity secured, Bowles stresses that some of the available jobs were simply not a fit for him. Bowles knew, as most coaches do, that he had to be careful about taking a second head-coaching job, because if it was a bad fit and he failed, there was unlikely to be a third. So he did not look at his availability as a direct result only of a reluctance to hire Black coaches, but as the result of a combination of factors, none of which favored him.
"You don't want to take a job to take a job," he said. "I felt like I did that the first time around. It's a two-way street. Other than the racism, you've got to go through the offensive [coaches] and the system, whether they know you well enough. Or what they're looking for. There are a lot more general managers hired now and there are more package deals than there have been in the past. You hire a GM from another team, you pretty much know who they're going to hire. If you don't do the interview, you're 'ignorant.' If you do do the interview, you know at some point when it's a token interview.
"I'm at peace with the way I coach and teach and I'm in a place I love, so I'm good. I'm good. But there's a couple other guys -- Raheem Morris, Leslie Frazier, Byron Leftwich, [Eric Bieniemy] -- I feel for those guys. I've been there. I can see what they see and I understand it."
What they see is white coordinators getting more opportunities than Black coordinators, especially because the vast majority of hires now come from the offensive side of the ball and those coordinators are almost exclusively white. Vincent talks to minority coaches frequently, and in some, he hears a loss of hope. He did not hear that from Bowles. Nor did he hear any finger-pointing at Mike Maccagnan, the former Jets general manager with whom Bowles was paired and who was unable to secure a franchise quarterback, or at team owners Woody and Christopher Johnson, for whom he worked. Bowles still speaks to the Johnsons, and it says something about the coach that everyone who still works for the Jets and is asked about Bowles, to a person, says they are rooting hard for him to win. Even in private conversation, Bowles took the blame for why things went bad, telling Vincent that if you're not scoring enough points or getting off the field on third down, you won't have a job for long.
"He was just like, 'I think I'll be a better manager if given another opportunity,' " Vincent said. "It's good to see because people that have coached with him, that play for him, many of them have wanted to see him getting another chance. What you hope is he's an example. The opportunities are just slim. They don't happen often. We want to normalize it."
This opportunity came so late in the cycle for Bowles that he said he's had no time to reflect on it. He also kept things almost exactly the same as Arians had them, retaining Leftwich as offensive coordinator to work with Tom Brady and not hiring a new defensive coordinator. Bowles felt it would take too long to coach up that new coach. The status quo has worked well for the Bucs, who went 13-4 in the 2021 regular season and had the second-ranked scoring offense and fifth-ranked scoring defense.
As extreme as the differences are between the two jobs, Bowles said the Jets one shaped him, and there are lessons he learned there that he is applying to the Bucs now.
"I learned that I had a lot of patience," he said, laughing. "Going in as a first-time head coach, you want to be on top of everything. You learn not to sweat the small things the second time around. You have coaches that are available to do certain things for you. My first year with the Jets -- maybe the second year, too -- I did so many things trying to be in the offensive room that it took away from my defensive game. Those guys get paid to do a job. You have to trust them to do it. This time around, I will stay on the defensive side, but we will talk offensively, game-situation wise. My benefit to them is to tell them what the defense is trying to do to them."
At one recent Bucs practice, defensive lineman William Gholston said, a wide receiver made a great catch in a two-minute situation. Bowles praised the receiver but told him he had to remember to step out of bounds, because the defense had brought him down inbounds and the clock was running. And he told the defensive players to keep their outside leverage.
Early on, Licht and Bowles discussed the new head coach's plan for working with the offense and defense, which Licht summed up this way: "He doesn't want to mess up a good thing. He's not stubborn."
Licht has known Bowles since 2013, when they both worked for the Arizona Cardinals, Licht as the vice president of player personnel and Bowles as Arians' defensive coordinator. Licht said he realized right away that Bowles would be an excellent head coach, and that he can see the imprint Arians and Bill Parcells, another mentor, have made on Bowles. Bowles is extremely intelligent, but he also reads people well and knows how to push the right buttons. Carlton Davis III said Bowles tells the players he appreciates them. But not too often. Davis also likes Bowles so much that he ends a conversation saying, "Make my boy look good!"
That affection is genuine. As a former player, Bowles knows the value of being honest with players -- there is no gray area, Gholston said. But he is also open to discussing life issues with them. And he expects greatness of every player, sometimes not too gently.
"You can't go by his office without seeing two or three players in there working extra with him, just giving them the blunt truth," Licht said. "Deep down under the tough exterior, he does have compassion. Through his life's journey, he understands people go through tough times. He's not quick to give up on players. He's a tough love guy. He's a master smack talker and a master psychologist, the way he talks to players."
If there was a consistent complaint about Bowles in New York it might have been that he was too stoic, at least for the tastes of NYC fans and media, who were coming out of the performative art of Rex Ryan. Bowles did not blow up on the sideline or in a press conference. There was no showman in him then, and none now. Still, Arians and Parcells both advised Bowles to be himself -- Bowles notes that he was not asking for anybody's approval -- and that has already been on display this summer. There was no panic when center Ryan Jensen was injured, and Bowles laconic delivery did not change as he explained that Tom Brady would miss nearly two weeks of training camp for personal reasons.
"He is very cerebral," said Parcells, who first got to know Bowles when Parcells was coaching the Giants and Bowles was calling the defensive plays as a member of Washington's secondary. Eventually, Bowles worked for Parcells. "He's calculating and not impulsive -- that's a good thing. He has a lot of experience now -- his opinions are usually based on something that he's gone through. I just like him. He's one of my homeboys."
Licht and the players say they have never heard Bowles talk about how much this second opportunity means, to him or to the league. But Bowles has sat with Vincent when he debriefed him on disappointing interviews. He looks at his own staff and sees how many of his assistants deserve more chances to advance. He knows that if he and the Bucs win, it might help prove more Black coaches, more defensive coaches, should get a chance.
It would seem to be an enormous responsibility that rests on Bowles, then, to try to win a Super Bowl and improve the fortunes of an entire class of candidates at the same time. He does not see it that way. His circumstances may have changed dramatically since that February chat with old Jets friends, but Bowles hasn't. He has nothing left to prove -- he, like many others, belongs here.
"I feel a weight of responsibility to be myself," Bowles said. "I know what color I am. I wake up every day. It's funny because I wasn't a Black defensive back coach. I wasn't a Black coordinator. But now I'm a Black head coach. So the responsibility there is to do the right thing, be the right person, not to go out and say, 'I'm Superman, here I am, look at what I'm doing.' It's to lead. And always have your hand out to pull somebody up. If that helps them be successful, I'll try my damnedest."
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.
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