Three decades ago, as Todd Bowles was winding up his final season as a defensive back at Temple, his young coach Bruce Arians had some advice.
“I actually told him: ‘I don’t think you’re going to be making it in the pros. You might want to start coaching,'” Arians recalled. “He only played for about 11 years and got two Super Bowl rings.”
Actually, it was one Super Bowl ring in eight NFL seasons, but obviously, Bowles didn’t take the advice.
“I had a broken wrist at the time and I couldn’t do a pushup,” he said. “They told me I’d have arthritis later on in life, and he was just being honest with me. At the time, I was too immature to probably realize he was being honest with me, but I realized that later on in life. But, I was hard-headed and wanted to play anyway.”
The two men grew to be great friends.
“It went from father-son to uncle-nephew to we’re almost like brothers now,” Bowles said. “Anything that he can help me with, he does. Anything I can help him with, I do. … He taught me so much in life and in football. Words can’t describe how I feel about him.”
The two will be on opposite sides of the field Monday night, when Bowles’ New York Jets face Arians’ Arizona Cardinals.
Bowles was a team captain at Temple, “one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen,” Arians said, and he seemed destined to be a coach.
“You knew right away because of the type of person he was and the type of player he was,” Arians said, “if and when he decided to coach, he’d be a hell of a coach.'”
Back in 1986, Bowles went undrafted, signed with the Washington Redskins, and played seven seasons there.
Then came the coaching.
Both men climbed through the ranks.
Arians served as an assistant coach for 37 years. He was offensive coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013 when Chuck Pagano contracted leukemia and had to leave the team. Arians took over as interim coach, directed the Colts to an 8-2 record to become NFL Coach of the Year. At age 60, he was hired as head coach of the Cardinals.
His first hire was Bowles as defensive coordinator.
Bowles had come up the hard way, too. He spent two years in Green Bay’s player personnel department, had defensive coordinator gigs with Morehouse College and Grambling State before going to the NFL as defensive backs coach of the Jets in 2000.
He and Arians were together on the staff of the Cleveland Browns for three seasons. From there, Arians went to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he won two Super Bowl rings, before being forced out of the offensive coordinator’s job and going to Indianapolis.
Bowles moved on to Dallas and Miami, where he served as interim head coach after the Dolphins fired Tony Sparano with three games left in the season.
When Arians was hired in Arizona, Bowles was coming off a difficult season on Andy Reid’s staff in Philadelphia. Bowles began the year as secondary coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator when Juan Castillo was fired six games into the season. The Eagles finished 4-12 and Reid and his staff were out, just in time for Bowles to join his old friend and mentor in the desert.
While Arians concentrated on the offense, Bowles took over the defense. He built an aggressive, blitzing unit and established a reputation for making the right adjustments at halftime.
Arians was elated when Bowles got the Jets job.
“I take great pride in that phase of raising young coaches,” Arians said. “With the help of (Cardinals President) Michael (Bidwill), we’ve been able to start the Bidwill Fellowship program. Watching Daylon McCutcheon and Marcel Shipp (now Jets assistants) come here as interns and get full-time jobs.”
Bowles went to New York and the Jets were 10-6 in 2015, narrowly missing the playoffs. Arians’ Cardinals were 13-3 and made it to the NFC championship game.
This year. both have had problems. The Jets are 1-4 and Arizona, expected to be a Super Bowl contender, is 2-3.
Through it all, Bowles and Arians have kept in contact, mostly in the offseason, when Bowles has visited Arians’ lakeside retreat in Georgia. During the season, they still stay in touch.
“We’ll text back and forth,” Arians said. “Our wives talk more than we do, but I’ll text him every other week or before games.”
The Jets’ slow start has put some pressure on Bowles in the media glare of New York. Bowles can take it, Arians said.
“He’s a Jersey guy and a Philly guy,” Arians said. “He doesn’t get any tougher.”
AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed to this report.