Todd Bowles focused on leading Bucs, elevating minority coaches during second stint in the big chair

Bowles’ ancestry 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 acknowledgment 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 He is far from withdrawn — he is most verbose when trash talking his own team during practice — but he is also not demonstrative.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.

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