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Growing up Gruden

His family tells of a focused, serious boy who grew up to be Bucs coach.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2002


His family tells of a focused, serious boy who grew up to be Bucs coach.

Jon Gruden was home for the summer of 1983, before his sophomore season as the University of Dayton quarterback. Home back then was Tampa. His father, Jim, was the Bucs running backs coach. It was early and Jon was already in his competitive state, getting ready for his daily 2-mile run.

Jay, four years younger, went to Tampa Chamberlain High then, and he was where he often spent his mornings that summer. In front of the television.

That drove Jon nuts. Then again, almost everything drove Jon nuts, especially his brothers.

"Jon was a workout fiend," said Jay, quarterback of the Arena League's Orlando Predators. "I was more of a laid-back type guy, watching cartoons with my bag of potato chips while he'd be out running around and throwing a football. He'd say, "Why don't you get up and run with me?' That went on for weeks."

Finally, Jay got up. He ran with Jon. "So we're coming down the home stretch," Jay said, "and I opened it up into a new gear. I beat him and did the Rocky dance in the driveway.

"I think that destroyed him."

Well, maybe for a moment. Jon Gruden has been beaten. His teams have been beaten. But never his psyche.

"For me, Jon was the perfect brother to have," Jay said. "I was an aspiring athlete and he was a very dedicated athlete. He taught me a lot about the work ethic, stuff like that. Nobody busted his tail to get ready for a season more than Jon did. He was a great influence on me. ...

"Yeah, we had fights. There was one in the street that lasted something like half an hour. I think it was about the running."

Kind of a hobby

Dr. James Gruden, at 41 three years older than the Bucs' new coach, called Jon "the proverbial middle child. If there was a fight involved in the house Jon was probably involved in the fight. ... He was always serious, always focused, and not very tolerant."

Slurp cereal, tap a pencil, wiggle a foot, walk in front of the television, and you'd get an earful from Jon. One time, Jay scratched an itch and Jon started calling him Dog Boy.

"Growing up, there weren't a lot of laughs with Jon, except for laughing at his intolerance," said James, a cardiothoracic radiologist at Emory University in Atlanta. "Driving Jon nuts was kind of a hobby for us."

He and Jay would gang up on Jon, Jay sitting in one corner slurping his cereal, James in another corner wiggling his foot, both watching him squirm.

"The funniest thing I think was when our great aunt lived with us," James said, failing to suppress a laugh. "We'd have these family dinners and when she chewed, her tongue would hit the roof of her mouth and she'd make this sucking sound.

"Jon really could not stand it. He would put his elbow on the table and his ear on his hand, slouched over, and put one bite of food in his mouth and cover his other ear while he chewed," James said. "It was like that every night, this poor old woman living with her relatives, trying to have a decent meal, and having to watch this kid glaring at her, this little blond-haired freckled guy with the snarly look just like he has now."

'Better this, better that ... '

Jon Gruden didn't have many friends in Tampa. Before his father became Bucs running backs coach, and later the team's director of player personnel, he was an assistant at Notre Dame. Jon went to high school in South Bend. Most people he ran with in Tampa during summer visits were connected with the Bucs: coaches' sons and some younger players. He was tight with Michael Morton and Melvin Carver, a couple of free-agent running backs.

"He used to throw us footballs all the time," Morton said. "He threw the ball so damned hard. When he handed it off, same thing. Hard. I think he was trying to prove to us he could play."

When Carver and Morton went fishing, Gruden tagged along. "As far as he was concerned, his fish was harder to pull in than ours, or it was bigger or it was somehow better," Morton said. "He got a better fishing pole, better this, better that ... "

Football, as much as anything, was Jon Gruden's life. Thinking about it, playing it, practicing it, or watching it -- even when he wasn't supposed to.

The Bucs were practicing for their final game of the 1982 season. The Bears were coming to town. A victory would put Tampa Bay in the playoffs. "We closed practice," Jim Gruden said. "We wouldn't let anybody in to watch, not even family."

The Hall of Fame Inn was across the street from One Buc Place. "I look up and (Jon) is laying on the roof of one of the units, trying to watch," his father said. Coach John McKay sent Phil Krueger, owner Hugh Culverhouse's assistant, to chase him off. "I don't think they knew who he was. I still don't know how he got up there."

'You're short, you're slow ... '

If Jon Gruden wasn't throwing footballs to Jay or one of the Bucs, he was throwing a bunch of them to nobody.

"When he wasn't working (shucking oysters at the Hooters restaurant on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa), he was always out on a practice field with a bag of footballs," said his mother, Kathy. "He would throw them down the field and then go to the other end and throw them back the other way. He did it at the Bucs camp, and at Tampa Chamberlain's field, and in a big open field not far from our house."

James, more studious than Jon, would tease him because the teachers always expected him to be a clone of his older brother. In fact, he was quite the opposite. Jon didn't like to waste his time studying things he knew he would never use.

"He would kind of scrape by," James said, "and we all thought he just was not very bright.

"I used to say, "God, how long are you going to just throw the football? You're short, you're slow, you're not going to be a pro. You'd better get a job because I'm not going to take care of you when we get older. You'll be pumping gas for me; maybe I'll let you drive my car.'

"Then Jon took his SATs in high school. I'd done all the studying and took the courses, and he just walked in cold and got some ungodly score, about 1,380 out of 1,600, maybe a hundred points better than I'd done. And suddenly everyone was like, "Oh, my God, he's not so stupid after all.' "

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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