Raiders latest Gruden glory
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2001
Watching him work the Oakland Raiders sideline, Jon Gruden seems a handsome young man with ugly old heartburn.
What a glare! NFL's best sneer. Competitive emotions worn not on Gruden's silver-and-black sleeve but in a 37-year-old coach's cutting eyes, grimacing lips and snarling nose.
Magnetic, escalating star.
This season Gruden's methods earned a 12-4 record and won the AFC West, the proud Raiders returning to post-season opportunities after an uncharacteristic six-year drought.
For the first time since 1980 -- before Al Davis went Hollywood, taking his franchise to Los Angeles for a spell that generated a Super Bowl XVIII championship -- there'll be an NFL playoff game in Oakland, Saturday against an old AFC cross-country rival, the Miami Dolphins.
Jon and Al ... stability?
Gruden ... next John Madden?
Grimacing and winning.
"Jon might've learned some of his facial expressions from Bob Knight," joked Gruden's dad, Jim, in his 32nd NFL season as a coach or scout, paid since 1986 to locate talent for northern California's other team, the five-time Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers.
"I mean, Jon picked up a lot from Knight first-hand, when my kid was barely into his teens. He was a buddy of Bob's older son, Tim, when my coaching career touched down for five seasons (1973-77) under Lee Corso with Indiana.
"There's no basketball state like Indiana, and I've always been an admirer of Bob Knight. People ask me if I would've liked having my sons play for Bob, and my answer is "Absolutely!' I believe in many of the same principles, beginning with teaching and discipline."
In the Gruden house, schooling was high priority. Academics, deportment, personal style, but also an evolving education for two coaches-in-training who learned occupational lessons from a father with a wealth of football-teaching experiences both sweet and sour.
Jon's younger brother, Jay, set a bookful of passing records as a University of Louisville quarterback, then led the Tampa Bay Storm to four Arena League championships. He went into coaching in Orlando, where the 33-year-old Gruden has won two more Arena trophies with the Predators.
For Jim, seasons are near-endless.
"My boys these days put a lot of stress on a father's heart but also much delight," said the elder Gruden, a 1982-86 member of the Bucs staff who has lived in Tampa 18 years. "I get maybe two months a year to recover, after agonizing with Jon during the NFL season, then bracing for Jay's next summer shot in Arena ball."
He should've expected ...
Jim, who turns 64 this month, was a high school coach in Fremont, Ohio, when Jon was born Aug. 17, 1963, in nearby Sandusky. "Ironic, isn't it, after 34 years, that Jon's first No. 1 draft pick with the Raiders in 1998," noted the patriarch, "would be Charles Woodson from Michigan, who played at Fremont High."
Jon was a preschooler when his dad became a college coach at Heidelberg (Ohio) in 1966. Three years later, with Kathy teaching school to help support the family, the elder Gruden went to the University of Dayton, where a generation later Jon would be an intense, glaring, cerebral quarterback.
The Hoosiers were next, more than a quarter-century ago, for the traveling Gruden coaching clinic. "What a wonderful family they are," Knight said by telephone from Bloomington, where the deposed coach is assessing his future. "Jon was my ballboy. I enjoy watching him succeed now."
After the Bloomington stretch, the developing firm of Jim and Sons played the biggest of collegiate stages at Notre Dame (1978-80). Jon went to high school in South Bend, often sharing a workout room with Irish football players. Dan Devine was N.D. coach, bringing a national championship in 1977, but it ended for Gruden with a painful bounce.
"We went 10-1-1 in 1980, losing the Sugar Bowl to Herschel Walker and Georgia, which finished No. 1 that season," Jim said. "Devine decided to retire. Gerry Faust (a high school coach from Cincinnati) was hired as replacement, and he fired three-quarters of Dan's staff, including me."
"That was all part of Jon and Jay's upbringing, seeing the high times and the lows of the coaching profession," said the father. "Our older son, Jim, who's now 40, went another direction, becoming a radiologist. He's now department head at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta." Dealing with heart palpitations of a different sort.
Kathy Gruden retired this year as a teacher. "She deserves most of the credit for raising our children," Jim said. "A wonderful job accomplished while I was either spending days and nights in coaching offices or traveling the country as a 49ers scout."
Another hurtful departure was coming for Jon and Jay's pop. After coaching the Bucs' running backs in 1982-83 under John McKay, the Tampa Bay franchise was headed for a doomed hiring, bringing in Leeman Bennett as coach for back-to-back records of 2-14.
Jim moved to personnel director in 1984, suffering through the Bennett seasons, then being there in January 1987 when Ray Perkins became boss.
"Everything seemed to be going well with Ray," Gruden recalled. "Day after day, the two of us worked together, alone in a room, scoping the college draft."
Perkins picked quarterback Vinny Testaverde with the No. 1 choice. The morning after the draft ended, he fired Gruden. Since that downer, Jim has been with the Niners, enjoying three Super Bowl championships.
"Jay was in high school at Chamberlain when Jon played college football at Dayton," he said. "In the summer, Jon would come stay with us in Tampa. When we began summer camp at One Buccaneer Place, my sons wanted to watch practice. Phil Kruger (assistant to owner Hugh Culverhouse) said no family was allowed.
"Jon doesn't take setbacks too easily. He went next door to the Hall of Fame Inn, slipping up to the motel's roof to watch practice." Could even the youthful Gruden have imagined that by 1999, the Bucs having become strong and motoring toward the NFC Championship Game, that he would temporarily disturb their trip when his Raiders put an inconceivable 45-0 hurt on Tampa Bay.
An obvious thought: Might Jon hire brother Jay for his NFL staff? "He'd like that, but Jay enjoys what he's doing," Daddy said. "It might not be the best of ideas since they are quite different in personalities, Jon being so intense and Jay being quite laid back. "Jon is so immersed, so dedicated, spending most every hour on the job.
"This season, when (quarterback) Rich Gannon, who is also incredibly ambitious, showed up at the Raiders facility at 5:30 in the morning, the only way he could get into the building was by getting Jon's attention by tossing pebbles at his office window."
Jim Gruden, while attending to 49ers duties, sees most Raiders games on TV. "I'm not a calm viewer," he said. "When at home, I go through a bottle of wine before the fourth quarter. My blood pressure zooms.
"When things go real bad, I may leave for a little walk, then slip back into the house, hoping to see a pleasant surprise in what has transpired."
Jon talks four or five times a week with his father. "He knows I'm one football guy with whom he can be totally honest," Jim said.
"Your kid is in such a fish bowl. Kathy and I are proud of all our sons, each a solid achiever in his own way. But wouldn't it be something really special if Jon's Raiders could play a Super Bowl right here in Tampa?"
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
Times columns today
From the Sports pages