TAMPA, Fla. — Bucs head coach Bruce Arians retired once from the NFL over health concerns. But the three-time cancer survivor has no intention of opting out of the 2020 season despite his increased vulnerability to the surging COVID-19 infections.
With cancer known to significantly compromise an immune system, nobody could blame the 67-year-old Arians for feeling differently, especially as Major League Baseball has seen younger coaches prohibited by their teams from doing their jobs this year.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month, Arians said he will take extra precautions but not forfeit the chance to coach Tom Brady and the Bucs as they enter the season as Super Bowl contenders.
“I got to be real careful,” said Arians, who played quarterback at Virginia Tech in the mid-1970s. “I’ll probably double with a mask and a (face) shield. You know, because l already had my scare out there [in Arizona] once a couple of years ago.
“For me personally, I’ve got a plan and I just have to be smart enough to stay with it.”
There are older coaches in the NFL. The Seahawks’ Pete Carroll and the Patriots’ Bill Belichick are both 68.
But neither had cancerous tumors removed from their prostate, skin and kidney the way Arians has. The last diagnosis prompted him to hang it up with years left on his contract with the Arizona Cardinals after the 2017 season.
In fact, until last year, Arians had not ended a season as a head coach without at least one trip to the hospital.
Perhaps scarred — but not scared despite concerns about his health — Arians knows some changes will be needed this season.
As other professional sports leagues agree to protocols for players and coaches to return to the games they love, the NFL is still in the middle of the process.
Time, which was once an ally, is running out as rookies and quarterbacks may be permitted to arrive in training camp a few days before the July 28 reporting date.
Citing health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Twins announced last week they will not allow bullpen coach Bob McClure, 68, and major league coach Bill Evers, 66, to work games this year.
There is concern about older NBA head coaches such as the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich (71), Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni (69) and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry (65) and several assistants who are beyond retirement age.
In fact, before the Bucs signed Arians to a four-year contract with an option, he had to pass a physical.
Arians took steps last season to improve his health. He rode a golf cart during much of practice to take pressure off his legs. He turned over the offensive play-calling and designing of practice scripts to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and didn’t stay at the training facility late at night.
Coronavirus, however, will require more measures to keep Arians and other elder members of his coaching staff safe.
Offensive consultant Tom Moore is 81. Safeties coach Nick Rapone is 64. Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen is 64.
“Tom is probably the healthiest one of all of us,” Arians said. “We’ve got to be careful. The players, they’re going to all get sick, that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of how sick they get.”
Except for a few days when the Bucs’ opened the AdventHealth Training Center for coaches, Arians has spent most of his off-season with his wife, Christine, at their lake house in Georgia.
He fished and played some golf, driving his own cart for social distancing. But that was about it.
“The grandkids all left so it’s been kind of boring around here,” Arians said.
The coach had no other choice but to stay put, given his medical history. Arians was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007. In 2013 he had cancerous cells scraped from his nose. And in December 2016 he found out he had renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer. He decided to finish the season before having surgery to remove part of his kidney in February 2017.
Greg Skaggs, the Bucs Director of Athlete Performance, devised some protocols for Arians and his staff after they returned to the facility last month to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even so, an assistant coach for the Bucs tested positive and two more were sent home to quarantine for two weeks.
“[Greg] Skaggs is on top of this. He’s done a great job with all our protocols,” Arians said. “I brought the staff in for that reason, to make sure they all bought into the protocols, that we all walked the right way in the hallways and had our masks on. I jumped on a bunch of their asses because the players aren’t going to do it if we don’t do it.”
Arians has some specific precautions he plans to take during training camp that could be extended to the regular season.
“All my team meetings, we’ll do in the indoor facility like a big auditorium and I’ll use a microphone, which I hate using, but I have to,” Arians said. “If I’m going to take my mask off, I’ve got to be far enough away to get my point across and the Bucs have some big TV screens to put my messages on.”
It’s possible the Bucs will travel to some cities the day of the game, like they will for a Week 3 preseason game now scheduled at Washington. The NFL canceled the first and fourth preseason games but wanted each team to experience at least one road game, so the Bucs will no longer host Tennessee Aug. 29 as scheduled.
“It’s the team that adapts and has the most discipline, they’re going to win,” Arians said.
To that end, Arians called a virtual meeting with six of his top players, including linebacker Lavonte David and linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul.
“We’ve got great leadership,” Arians said. “I had a real good talk with the top six guys a couple weeks ago about what it’s going to be like. We’ve got to buy in and stay at home.”
What will game days look like during the regular season?
Arians insists not much will change for him. He still plans to coach from the sideline. He can communicate through the headset with quarterback Tom Brady if he chooses to.
“I don’t think it will look too different other than I will still wear a mask for sure,” Arians said. “And we’ll see how the headsets work and stuff talking through a mask. That part of it. And being outside.
“Being in an indoor stadium, that worries me a bit more. And I’m really concerned about the away hotels and away locker rooms. That’s a big point of emphasis. The ventilation in those locker rooms is terrible with guys getting out of the showers and getting treatment.”
It will take a lot of planning, some extra precautions, but Arians isn’t about to turn in his whistle.
Nobody said this would be easy. Sacrifices, Arians said, will have to be made.