They call Bruce Arians, head coach of the Super Bowl Tampa Bay Bucs, the “quarterback whisperer” because of his influence on the careers of such superstars as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer, among many others.

Not to mention, Arians now coaches a guy named Tom Brady.

Turns out, Arians may have done his best whispering to a quarterback named Dave Marler at Mississippi State way back in 1978.

Rick Cleveland

Marler, from Forest, transferred to Mississippi State from Mississippi College after his sophomore season. He walked on, made the team as a placekicker and earned a scholarship as State’s kicker for the 1977 season under head coach Bob Tyler.

“The only passes I threw were on the sidelines, when I wasn’t practicing kicking,” Marler said Tuesday by phone from his home in Hamilton, Ontario. “I was a kicker, period.”

Turns out, Marler’s holder was Breck Tyler, the coach’s son, who was Marler’s receiver on the sidelines. “Breck was telling his dad that the best passer on the team was over on the sidelines.”

Bruce Arians at Mississippi State in 1980 when he still had a head full of hair.

Tyler hired Arians, a former Virginia Tech quarterback, in the off-season for Arians’ first full-time college coaching job. Breck Tyler lobbied Arians on Marler’s behalf, again telling the new quarterbacks coach that Marler could really, really throw the football. At the time, Marler was listed No. 7 of seven State quarterbacks.

Arians was intrigued. He called Marler onto the practice field during a big spring scrimmage. “Let’s see what you got,” he said. Marler led the second team offense on two long touchdown drives against the No. 1 defense. So, Arians took Marler and ran with him. Actually, he passed with him.

State football hero Rockey Felker was on that State coaching staff. “Bruce had a gift,” Felker said Tuesday. “He was one of the best coaches I have ever been around. His knowledge of the passing game back then was way ahead of the time. Plus, he really knew how to motivate people. He knew when to cuss you out and he would, but he knew when to put his arm around you. He had a real knack for all that. Clearly, he still does.”

Dave Marler led Mississippi State to a 34-21 victory over Tennessee in 1978 at Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis.

Long story made short: Marler broke State and SEC passing records and became first team All-Southeastern Conference in his only season as a Division I quarterback. Marler still marvels at memories from 1978.

“What’s amazing to me thinking back on it was that Bruce and I were nearly the same age,” Marler said. “He was just three years older than I was. He had been a quarterback, he thought like a quarterback. He understood what a quarterback goes through. He tries to take all the stress and clutter out of a quarterback’s mind. And that’s what he does. If you look back at his career and the quarterbacks he’s coached, most of them had some of the best years of their careers when they played for him.”

A glance at Arians’ career indicates just that. It also indicates that it takes more than a glance to even begin to comprehend the odyssey that has been Arians’ career. He has had two stops at State, two more at Alabama. His first head coaching job was at Temple. In the NFL, he has had stops in Kansas City, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis again, Arizona and Tampa Bay.

He worked for Tyler and Emory Bellard in his first stop at State. He was part of the coaching staff on the 1980 team that beat No. 1 Alabama and Bear Bryant 6-3. The following off-season, he left State for Bama and Bryant. I covered that State team as a beat, and I remember asking him why he left. “I could not tell that man, ‘No,’” he said, not needing to say what man he was talking about.

Perhaps Marler’s best memory of his one year with Arians came against Alabama and that man. As was so often the case then and now, that Alabama team would go on to win a national championship. It featured Jeff Rutledge at quarterback, Tony Nathan at running back, Marty Lyons in the defensive line, Barry Krauss at linebacker.

State coaches, including Arians, were worried about protecting Marler against Bama’s fierce pass rush. Arians had an idea: Put Marler in the shotgun, a full eight yards behind the line of scrimmage to buy him more time. That strategy became even more important when Marler pulled a thigh muscle kicking in pre-game warmups.

“I couldn’t move more than two or three yards without excruciating pain,” Marler said. “I was basically a stationary quarterback.”

Arians, with Bob Tyler’s blessing, scrapped the playbook and just put Marler in the shotgun.

“They couldn’t get to me before I had time to throw it,” said Marler, who passed for 429 yards, at that time the most Alabama had ever allowed in a single game. Bama won but the reputations of both Marler and Arians skyrocketed that day.

“We had three running plays out of that formation, about 25 passing plays, plus we just drew some up as it went,” Marler said. “Bruce was amazing. He was up in the press box sending the plays down. We didn’t win, but we sure gave them a game.”

John Bond remembers Bruce Arians fondly. Credit: Rick Cleveland

Marler, who played for five seasons in the Canadian Football League, would go on to pass for twice as many yards as any other SEC quarterback that season. The very next season, Arians would coach the wishbone offense under Bellard. A year after that, Arians helped groom freshman quarterback John Bond into a record-breaking running quarterback.

“Just a great coach,” Bond, now the head coach at St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison, said of Arians. “He was just so passionate about teaching, so confident in his own knowledge of the game. He didn’t hold back, either. He let you know what he thought when you did well and when you didn’t. I still use much of what I learned from him in coaching my guys today.”

Arians would return to State for three seasons (1993-95) as offensive coordinator under Jackie Sherrill. They parted ways in 1995.

Said Felker, “The thing about Bruce, you look over his career, and he’s left some jobs on his own and others maybe he didn’t have a choice in the matter. But no matter what, he always landed in a great position.”

And he has usually landed with a great quarterback. Either that, or he has created one.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.