A glass ceiling shattered in the NFL in July 2015, when Bruce Arians — then the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals — hired Jen Welter to the team’s coaching staff as an intern, making her the first woman to hold a coaching position of any kind in the league.
Now at age 68, in his second season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arians is in the Super Bowl for the first time as a head coach. And he’s gotten there with a coaching staff that’s as diverse as one will see in the NFL.
All three of his coordinators — defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong — are Black. So is assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin.
Additionally, the Buccaneers are the only team that has two full-time assistant coaches that are women in assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar. Tampa Bay’s front office also includes Jacqueline Davidson, the team’s director of football research, and Carly Helfand, a scouting assistant.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of anything like this,” Leftwich said in a session with reporters Monday in the lead up to Sunday’s Super Bowl LV between the Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs.
“This is unique. This is different. This is not the norm. This is not the norm of how this league and how the coaching staff looks across the league. It’s a blessing that BA has his view that he has. I just hope no one believes that he’s just giving us anything. If you know him, you know he’s not giving you anything. You’ve got to earn everything that you pretty much get from him or his view of you.”
For Arians, “inclusivity and diversity are great ways to teach,” he explained when talking to reporters last week.
It’s that kind of philosophy that in October led tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King, founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation, to present Arians with the Champion for Equality Award for his work fostering inclusion and commitment to growing participation for girls in football.
“I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving,” King said at the time.
Arians said Monday about his staff: “If you can teach, you can coach. As far as the women, it was time. It was time for that door to be knocked down and allow them because they’ve been putting in time, and they’re very, very qualified. The ones we have are overly qualified.
“As far as race, that was not by design. Those are the best coaches I know. But to hear voices in a staff meeting that aren’t the same, don’t look alike, but they all have input, you get better output.”
Last year, San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant Katie Sowers made history when she became the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl. A year later, Locust and Javadifar now have the chance of being the first female coaches in the sport to help win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“You have to understand this is not something that’s done because of checking boxes,” Locust said.
“It’s not done because of an initiative. It’s who BA is and has always been. I think that’s why it works so well here is that he’s gathered individuals that he knows will benefit the organization. He has talent. He has people he can trust around him. And it doesn’t matter what we look like. He’s put together that staff because it’s people that he feels will help the team win.
“Clearly, that combination has worked. … And hopefully it will set an example for the rest of the league to kind of take notice and stop being maybe so narrow in their candidate search.”