© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2003
He came home a hero. He was a living doll. He captured a team, a town, a title.
He pushed buttons. He called plays. He raised expectations, standards, victory totals.
He pounded a rock. He took teams to the woodshed. He was worth every dollar, every draft pick, every bit of drama that it took to get him.
Compared with Jon Gruden's, how was your year?
The strange thing about the passage of time is how it manages to move so slowly and so quickly at once. In some ways, it seems like an eternity since Gruden became coach of the Bucs. In some ways, it seems as if he arrived five minutes ago. In other words, it has been a 12-month blur, strap in and hang on.
A year ago today, that long ago and that recently, Gruden was hired by the Bucs. And in the time since then, Gruden has owned the calendar.
Think about it. Ben Affleck has had a good year. And Serena Williams. But no one has had the 12-month run that Gruden has had. He has lived the charmed life of a heaven-kissed coach.
He won over his team. He allowed Sapp into his offensive huddle, Keyshawn into his ear and made time to get inside Kenyatta's skull. He rebuilt, reloaded, redefined.
He was the last straw for Mariucci. He closed down the Vet. He vanquished the dark knight.
He guested on Letterman. He jump-started the New York Stock Exchange. He hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
"Not bad for a slap---- like me, huh?" Gruden said, giving you that little boy's smile of his.
Gruden sat in his office, sorting through 12 months of mad, manic memories. There was a glow in the room, perhaps from the frozen video to his left, perhaps from the computer screen in front of him. Heck, perhaps it came from Gruden himself.
"I haven't even been here a year," he said, shaking his head. "That's amazing. It seems like I've been here forever. When you play as many games as we do, the season seems to last forever.
"In another way, it's been a blur. Heck, my whole life has been a blur. You get so caught up in the moment that you don't remember things."
Oh, he remembers. He remembers moving from one coast to another, bringing his wife and three sons to Tampa Bay. He remembers not knowing his new employers, his new staff, his new team. He remembers walking into a locker room full of strangers.
"I was so excited," Gruden said. "Maybe I bit off more than I could chew."
History will disagree. Gruden engulfed his team with his energy and his ideas and his drive. The Bucs were better the second half of the season than they were the first half, and in the playoffs, they were better than anyone.
"Winning the Super Bowl was amazing," Gruden said. "You look around, and you feel so good for so many people. It's like watching a kid at Christmas opening his gift and getting all excited. Or when a kid catches a fish, and he pulls it out of the water, this big, beautiful fish. It's like 'We got it. We got it in the boat. We're taking it home, and we're mounting it, and it's always going to be yours. It's always going to be yours.' "
Gruden spoke, and for a minute, he was back on the field, and the confetti was still falling, and the moment is frozen. Given the price for him, and the pressure upon him, and the passion around him, it meant the world to Gruden.
Mention this to Gruden, and he turns into an actor receiving an Academy Award. He wants to talk about the front office, the players, the fans, the assistant coaches.
Press him about what winning the Super Bowl meant to him, however, and finally, you will get this:
"I don't like to talk about myself," he says, slowly. "But what it does, to a large extent, is it kind of validates the early mornings and all the time away.
"All the study, all the work. It kind of says, 'It's worth it.' A lot of people get up early and work all day, and maybe they don't achieve the ultimate prize. To achieve that, it makes you want to get up five minutes earlier and stay five minutes later."
Yes, if you want to know, Gruden is already back at work, arriving before dawn, dissecting tape, figuring out the success rate of a particular play this year vs. its success rate in previous years.
Already, Gruden is thinking repeat.
"Winning it gives you a greater thirst, a greater hunger to feel it again," Gruden said. "You don't want to be a flash in the pan. You don't want to be a flicker of light. You want to maintain it, improve upon it."
These days, that's difficult. Thirty-seven teams have won the Super Bowl. Only seven have repeated, and none since Denver in 1998 and '99.
"I try to stay away from those 'can't' things," he said. "Like 'You can't win in the cold.' Or 'You can't win a playoff game on the road.' Or 'You can't beat Cleveland.' They'll have to come up with a lot of new ones, like 'These days, you can't repeat.' Fine. We'll just stay in Tokyo a couple of extra weeks, tour the grounds and bag the rest of training camp because we can't repeat."
Gruden looks at you hard, then cracks a smile.
"By God, we're going to try our ass off to repeat, I promise you that."
In the meantime, Gruden has become something of a celebrity. If he wanted, you get the idea Gruden could endorse about anything he wanted. Does he want a walk-on on Friends? Does he want to be center square?
"I always said that I wouldn't do anything that would keep me from being a football coach," Gruden said. "When I was with the Raiders, I got to go on the Jay Leno show. I took some heat from that, some people said I was self-promoting. But you live once. Who wouldn't want to be on Jay Leno? That was pretty cool.
"When the guy from Letterman called, damned if I wasn't going to go on. I was in there, and they were putting some makeup on my face. I had to remind the lady that I was one of the 50 most beautiful people and that I didn't need much of that stuff. They liked that."
Gruden shakes his head. Don't be fooled by his pounding of the rock, he's still, he's still Johnny from the block.
"Isn't this sick?" he said.
"Can you believe they'd put a guy like me on David Letterman? What is going on here?"
Perhaps a more down-to-earth image, we take you to Busch Gardens, and how excited the fans were as Gruden and his kids stood in line at the Rhino Rally, and how they were all dressing in Bucs' colors and yelling
Wait a minute.
Gruden stood in line?
"Oh, we're going to stand in line," Gruden said. "Those kids are going to be brought up right. We don't want any of that preferential treatment stuff."
One more image to remember: Remember when the 49ers came calling for Monte Kiffin a couple of weeks ago to talk about their head coaching position?
"How about this, Kif?" Gruden told Kiffin. "You be the head coach. I'll be the offensive coordinator. We need to keep this going."
In the end, of course, Kiffin stayed. Gruden hasn't lost many battles lately. The kind of year he's having, you'd love for him to pick out six Lotto numbers for you.
Need convincing? Consider this. For the past three or four years, Gruden has gone to work every day singing along, at the top of his voice with Jon Bon Jovi's It's My Life. Gruden has played it so often he refers to it as his theme song.
And so it was that his team wins the Super Bowl, and Gruden walks across the field to accept the trophy. And there, on the stage, is Bon Jovi, singing It's My Life.
Maybe, but it was Gruden's day. And Gruden's year.
Next year? Check back.
Gruden has applied for an extension.