Gruden's ways still too much about him

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
Published January 13, 2008

TAMPA - There is no facility that provides a better environment and more tools for winning than One Buc Palace.

From emerald practice fields to spacious meeting rooms, training rooms, cafeteria, players lounge and video capabilities, it's built for comfort and efficiency.

But inside those walls, it can be a pretty lousy place to work.

That's thesentiment oftoo many assistant coaches, front office personnel and beloved players when they get away from Jon Gruden.

You can choose to look through pewter-and-red glasses and kill the messenger. Fan-site chat rooms are ready for you.

And from the perspective of a reporter covering the team, there is not a more accessible coach than Gruden. He knows our job and can fill a notebook with unique insights in minutes.

He can stand on his resume. Youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. Five division titles in 10 years, three during his six-year reign in Tampa Bay. Other numbers, such as the 28-28 record since 2002 and two home playoff losses, are less flattering. Nobody can outwork him.

But Gruden might want to sharpen his people skills.

Former assistant head coach Art Valero made his feelings known last week. But many others who left before him have expressed the same frustrations privately - from Oakland to Tampa Bay.

These aren't typical Gruden bashers, folks. They work for the man. He put rings on their fingers. They paint a picture of a head coach more in love with his play sheet than focused on the players that make those diagrams come alive.

They go on for hours about a self-centered tyrant who doesn't follow the advice of his staff - if consulted at all - on game plans or personnel decisions.

Take last week's wild-card loss to the New York Giants.

Did you watch the first quarter? The Bucs took a 7-0 lead with running back Earnest Graham touching the ball on seven of 10 plays during the touchdown drive for 41 yards. Meanwhile, the defense took advantage of field position and held the Giants to three three-and-outs in the first quarter.

Then inexplicably, Gruden made it about Gruden.

He wanted to unveil the plan the Bucs had worked on all week, the one he built around an injured Joey Galloway and ineffective Jerramy Stevens. Both finished with one catch each.

Graham touched the ball two more times the rest of the first half, and the Bucs quickly surrendered field position and the lead, trailing 14-7 at halftime. Micheal Spurlock's fumble of the second-half kickoff made it a two-score deficit.

There are still coaches in that building on MLK Boulevard that can't understand why Gruden would play into the Giants' strength. They led the NFL in sacks with 53, yet Gruden chose to expose his young offensive line, whose weakness is pass protection, to waves of pressure during 39 pass attempts.

Despite public comments to the contrary (what do you expect to hear with cameras and microphones humming?), there was a lot of discord about Gruden's decision to rest starters the final two weeks of the season.

Bottom line: tough call, but it didn't work, and many assistant coaches, including Valero, disagreed with it from the start.

There have been some stories this year about how Gruden has evolved as a coach, and that's true to a degree. He listened to veterans and changed the way the team practiced after all the injuries, conducting virtual walk-throughs on Wednesdays for most of the year.

When he went for it all on fourth and 1 in New Orleans, his team was with him.

"I think he's demonstrated some willingness to be with us. It's not all about Jon all the time," cornerback Ronde Barber said at the time.

But too often, maybe it is. That's why when Gruden spots an assistant coach wearing a new hat of his favorite baseball team during a walk-through, he tells him never to wear it again. But Gruden has no issue conducting practice in his Minnesota Golden Gophers shorts.

Attention-seeking? You bet. Why else would he dress differently from all the assistant coaches on game day? It's not so the quarterback can spot him on the sideline. He's the one talking into their headset while other coaches provide hand signals if necessary.

On most teams, players play for their head coach. In Tampa Bay, Valero and others suggest players play for position coaches or coordinators, past and present. Rod Marinelli. Joe Barry. Mike Tomlin. Raheem Morris. Monte Kiffin. Bill Muir. Richard Mann.

"We still have some champions on this team who can lead this team," general manager Bruce Allen said last week.

Eventually, they will be gone. Wonder what they'll have to say about working for Gruden?