Bowles’ rise was also a win for those working for diversity in the NFL. Bowles’ story of being passed over—that he didn’t even have a full schedule of interviews—despite a full and successful resume was not uncommon. His own colleague – Bucs Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich – has had a similar experience. The failure of NFL teams to diversify the ranks of head coaching is a plague to the game, especially in recent years, spawning commissions and policies and fear, very few hirings of black men. When the hiring cycle began last January, Bowles was seen as one of the top job candidates. His defense had helped the Bucs to their Super Bowl championship in the 2020 season, and it was recognized throughout the league that Bowles hadn’t been in the best position to succeed in New York because he didn’t have the advantage of working with a successful team. general manager or a franchise quarterback. The 10-6 record the Jets collected in Bowles’ inaugural season, 2015, is the franchise’s only winning record in its last 11 campaigns. So when the hiring ended and Bowles hadn’t landed a top job, it was mostly a drain on the league leaders and coaches who had hoped for more black head coaches to be hired this off-season; of those who landed jobs this cycle, only Lovie Smith of the Houston Texans (who is black) and Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins (who identifies as biracial) were not white.
Bowles understands all this. But he wasn’t particularly disappointed when Arians called with his news. Bowles is, as Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, puts it, “knotted.” He’s far from reclusive – he’s most expansive when he pulls his own team over the line in practice – but he’s not demonstrative either. He never gave open or private air about his situation with the Jets or the vacancies that didn’t come his way. Light said that even after Bowles passed in this cycle, he never felt any frustration from him. The Bucs were preparing for free agency as usual when everything changed.
Even now, with the best possible chance assured, Bowles insists that some of the jobs available just weren’t right for him. Bowles knew, as most coaches know, that he had to be careful about taking a second job as head coach because if it was a bad match and he failed, there was unlikely to be a third. So he saw his availability not as a direct result of an unwillingness 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 get a job,” he said. “I felt like I did that the first time. It’s a two-way street. Apart from the racism, you have to go through the offensive [coaches] and the system, whether they know you well enough. Or what they are looking for. Many more CEOs have now been hired and there are more arrangements than in the past. If you hire a GM from another team, you pretty much know who they are going to hire. If you don’t do the interview, you’re “ignorant.” If you do the interview, at some point you know it’s a symbolic interview.
“I’m at peace with the way I coach and teach and I’m in a place that I love so I’m good. I’m good. But there are a few other guys – Raheem Morris, Leslie Frazier, Byron Leftwich, [Eric Bieniemy] — I feel for those guys. I have been there. I can see what they see and I understand.”
What they see is that white coordinators get more opportunities than black coordinators, especially since the vast majority of hires now come from the offensive side of the ball and those coordinators are almost exclusively white. Vincent often talks to minority coaches, and with some he hears a loss of hope. He didn’t hear that from Bowles. Nor did he point the finger at Mike Maccagnan, the former Jets general manager with whom Bowles was linked and who couldn’t get 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 anyone who still works for the Jets and is asked about Bowles tells one person that they are rooting hard to win him over. Even in a private conversation, Bowles took the blame for why things went bad, telling Vincent that if you don’t score enough points or come third off the field, you won’t be in a job for long.
“He was like, ‘I think I’ll be a better manager if I get another chance,'” Vincent said. “It’s good to see because people who coached him, who play for him, many of them wanted him to have another chance. What you hope is that he is an example. The chances are just slim. They’re coming. not often we want to normalize it.”
This opportunity came so late in the cycle for Bowles that he said he didn’t have time to think about it. He also kept things almost exactly the same as Arians had them, keeping Leftwich as the offensive coordinator to work with Tom Brady and not hiring a new defensive coordinator. Bowles thought it would take too long to coach that new coach. The status quo has worked well for the Bucs, who scored 13-4 in the 2021 regular season and had second-scoring offense and fifth-scoring defense.
As extreme as the differences between the two jobs are, Bowles said the Jets job shaped him, and there are lessons he learned there that he is now applying with the Bucs.
“I’ve learned that I have a lot of patience,” he said with a laugh. “When you first become a head coach, you want to be on top of everything. You learn not to sweat the little things the second time around. You have coaches who are available to do certain things for you. My first year with the Jets – — maybe second year too — I’ve done so many things to be in the attack 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, stay I’m on the defensive side, but we’ll talk offensively, game situation wise. My advantage to them is to tell them what the defense is trying to do to them.”
During a recent training session from Bucs, defensive lineman William Gholston said, a wide receiver made a great catch in a two-minute situation. Bowles praised the receiver but told him to remember to go out of bounds as the defense had knocked him down inbounds and the clock was running. And he told the defensive players to keep their external influence.