Growing up as an athlete, Marcus Arroyo always seemed to be a step ahead of his peers, playing and excelling at the leadership positions — quarterback in football, point guard in basketball, pitcher and shortstop in baseball.
So those who know him best were not surprised when he decided to take on his most daunting leadership challenge yet — leaving his offensive coordinator post at Oregon in the Pac-12 Conference to take over a UNLV football program near the bottom of the Mountain West.
“He’s brilliant,” said Jim Mastro, who worked
with Arroyo as running backs coach and run game coordinator at Oregon. “One of the smartest football coaches I’ve ever been around.”
Mastro said Arroyo, who on Wednesday experienced his first national signing day for UNLV, has a knack for breaking down a complex concept into easy-to-digest details.
“That’s why the offenses at Oregon were so successful. He took the big picture and simplified it,” Mastro said. “That’s why he’s a head coach now.”
And that’s why Arroyo believes he can succeed where so many others have failed.
‘I like learning’
UNLV has been a place where head coaching careers go to die. The last and only coach to leave the Rebels immediately for what could be considered a better job was Ron Meyer, who became the head coach at Southern Methodist in 1976. UNLV’s last bowl appearance, one of only four, came in the 2013 season, which ended a 13-year drought.
But Arroyo has exceeded people’s expectations before and is confident he can do so again. It wasn’t until just before his senior year of high school that Arroyo even began to think of sports taking him beyond his hometown of Colfax, a one-stoplight Northern California town of fewer than 2,000 people less than an hour northeast of Sacramento.
I like learning. I’m OK asking questions. I’m OK screwing up. I don’t have an ego in that regard. Those aren’t chinks in the armor. They help you build your armor.
He signed a football scholarship with San Jose State over Ivy League offers because, he said, “of the people, I didn’t know any better.” As a sophomore in 2000, Arroyo led the Spartans to a victory over No. 9 Texas Christian. San Jose State won seven games that season, its highest win total in eight years.
After his playing career, Arroyo went on to became the Spartans’ play-caller at age 26 and their co-offensive coordinator at 27. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ interim offensive coordinator at 34. UNLV’s head coach at 39.
He believes he has advanced so quickly because of his inquisitive mind.
“I like learning,” said Arroyo, who turned 40 last month. “I’m OK asking questions. I’m OK screwing up. I don’t have an ego in that regard. Those aren’t chinks in the armor. They help you build your armor.”
Eye for recruiting
In addition to an inquisitive mind, Arroyo has something the other UNLV coaches didn’t have. He has new facilities. Previous coach Tony Sanchez was the driving force behind the creation of the $34.8 million, 73,000-square-foot Fertitta Football Complex, and Arroyo’s first team is scheduled to play several of its games at the $2 billion, 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium.
Win in those new facilities and Arroyo is confident he can create the kind of fan interest that has been missing in the UNLV football program. He sees Las Vegas emerging as one of the nation’s sports hotbeds, with Rebels football sharing that spotlight with UNLV basketball, the Raiders and the Golden Knights.
Arroyo is a coach, but he’s also a salesman. That’s one reason he was hired. He has a well-earned reputation as a top-notch recruiter, and he is off to a strong start in that regard at UNLV with an initial class ranked first in the Mountain West by Rivals and second by 247Sports.
Though attractive facilities help, Arroyo knows recruiting also is about effort and persistence. As the running backs coach at Oklahoma State in 2016, he was ahead of the other national recruiters when he went to Edmonton, Alberta, to find a little-known running back named Chuba Hubbard.
Hubbard became a Heisman Trophy contender this past season.
“He was one of the reasons I chose Oklahoma State,” Hubbard said of Arroyo.
Getting into coaching
Arroyo wasn’t even thinking about coaching for a living until being told that by becoming a graduate assistant at San Jose State the school would pay for his master’s degree in sports management. He never completed the degree, however, because he was hired full time at San Jose State in 2006.
“It was really a means to an end, and then I fell in love with being on the field,” Arroyo said of becoming a grad assistant. “I realized I couldn’t leave the game.”
He would use his winter, spring and summer breaks traveling the country to learn from others in his profession, visiting coaches such as Mack Brown at Texas and watching quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts and Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers.
His coach at San Jose State, Dick Tomey, knew Bill Belichick, and the six-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the New England Patriots dropped in twice for visits.
“I became a fly on the wall,” Arroyo said. “Those things I made sure I took advantage of and took a ton of notes. I still go visit anybody I can.”
By borrowing from many coaching perspectives, Arroyo formed his own vision of first running an offense and then an entire program.
Similar to Belichick, however, Arroyo constantly seeks ways to gain an edge.
That was true even at the beginning when Arroyo coached at his alma mater. He and current Spartans head coach Brent Brennan served on that staff; Brennan was the wide receivers coach in 2005-06 and the tight ends coach the following two seasons.
Arroyo wasn’t much older than the players he coached, and he was younger than most of the assistants.
“He earned everybody’s respect because he knew what he was talking about,” Brennan said. “He spent a lot of time studying and learning, so he was always bringing good ideas and talking about different ways to do stuff.”
That included often staying up Thursday night well into Friday morning to develop new schemes against that weekend’s opponent. Never mind the game plan was pretty well set that late in the week.
“When we were working together, I had a rule with him that he couldn’t put anything in on Friday,” Brennan said.
Arroyo quickly worked his way up the professional ladder, serving as the offensive coordinator at Wyoming and Southern Mississippi before becoming interim offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014.
He became the co-offensive coordinator at Oregon in 2017 before taking over the offense completely in 2018.
Most recently, Arroyo oversaw an offense that last season ranked 15th nationally, scoring 35.9 points per game. The Ducks won the Pac-12 Conference championship and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Small town to corner office
Though Arroyo has always been ahead of his time, his life has not been the easiest.
His parents divorced when he was 7. As a player at San Jose State, he went through a coaching change and as a senior lost his job as the starting quarterback. With the Bucs in the NFL, he was thrown into a nearly no-win situation when then-offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford suddenly was forced to step away because of health problems.
Tedford recruited Arroyo out of high school and later hired him at California as its passing game coordinator and brought him to the Bucs.
“I always thought he was bright and had a lot of energy,” said Tedford, most recently Fresno State’s coach. “He was a student of the game and was good with quarterbacks.”
Though his career trajectory indicates Arroyo may one day move on to lead a Power Five program, as he sat recently in his corner office at the Fertitta Football Complex, he emphasized that he is focused on and appreciates the opportunity he has in Las Vegas.
“It was very humble beginnings,” Arroyo said of his upbringing. “I do wear that as a badge of honor. … Those values have really been the thing that has made me who I am.”
Marcus Arroyo file
2019-present — UNLV head coach
2018-19 – Oregon assistant head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks
2017 – Oregon co-offensive coordinator, quarterbacks, tight ends
2015-16 — Oklahoma State running backs
2014 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers interim offensive coordinator
2013 – Southern Mississippi offensive coordinator, outside receivers
2011-12 – California, passing game coordinator
2009-10 – Wyoming offensive coordinator, quarterbacks
2007-08 – San Jose State co-offensive coordinator, quarterbacks
2006 – San Jose State, quarterbacks, play caller
2005 – San Jose State, offensive graduate assistant
2004 – Prairie View A&M, offensive coordinator