KANSAS CITY — On Friday night, in his final production meeting with the Monday Night Football crew in a Kansas City hotel, Jon Gruden explained with tears in his eyes why he was leaving the program and the network to return to coaching. It was the end of an odyssey for Gruden, who spent much of his time at ESPN as the subject of recurring rumors regarding his interest in returning to the coaching ranks, where he’d found success with the Raiders and Buccaneers, winning a Super Bowl with the latter.
It was back in early May 2009 when Gruden launched this new phase of his life—he and a top producer at ESPN sat across a table at the Michelin-starred Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan’s Flatiron District to talk television. Gruden had been fired by the Buccaneers months earlier after his seventh season with the team, six seasons removed from winning a Super Bowl over the Raiders. Jay Rothman, who had produced Monday Night Football since ESPN acquired the rights beginning in 2006, told the coach he believed he could be the Y2K version of Madden—“with the Chucky factor,” Rothman added, referring to the scar-faced, redheaded doll antagonist of the Child’s Play horror films.
Eight seasons and six Sports Emmy award nominations later, Gruden sat at a conference table at the Raphael Hotel with about 30 MNF staffers to run down the plan for the upcoming broadcast, his last. At the end of the meeting, Rothman asked those who wanted to speak to talk about their time with Gruden. They paid tribute to the color commentator’s work ethic, devotion to family, and leadership of the broadcast. Then it was Gruden’s turn.
“I have a calling,” Gruden said as he fought back tears, according to those in the room, “and the football Gods are calling me one last time. I don’t want to have any regrets.”
The Raiders would announce a day later they’d hired Gruden to return to Oakland, where he got his first head-coaching gig under late team owner Al Davis in 1998. The new deal would be for 10 years and a reported $100 million. Gruden’s decision to return to the NFL comes after almost a decade of courting from NFL and college teams. Rothman, who grew close with Gruden as the MNF showrunner, said the number of serious offers that came in over the years numbered in the dozens. But Oakland long held a special place in Gruden’s heart.
There was always an edge to Gruden’s booming voice when the Raiders came up during broadcasts, coworkers observed. So it was no surprise that Gruden would seriously consider giving up the relative comfort of a television gig to rejoin the high-stress environment of coaching in the NFL, if it meant putting on the silver and black once more.
“With Jon, it’s the whole black hole thing,” says Sean McDonough, Gruden’s MNF play-by-play announcer for the last two seasons. “He’s a big heavy-metal music fan, which people may not know. It kind of fits that whole image for him. I think the Raiders were in his heart, and he took Oakland and the Raiders around with him as he went to Tampa and ESPN.”
The former University of Dayton quarterback who graduated with a degree in communications was treated to a handful of what McDonough calls “single-digit greetings” on the bus ride to Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday for his last broadcast for ESPN, a wild-card meeting between the visiting Titans and Chiefs. The rivalry between the Chiefs and Raiders was the impetus for some media speculation last week that Gruden’s reported agreement with the Raiders would make for awkward production meetings between Chiefs coaches and players and Gruden and the rest of the crew.
The meetings, which are largely conversational but do delve into football scheme specifics, took on a new flavor when Gruden joined the cast in 2009, co-workers say. “When we walked into a facility, the access we got because of him was unbelievable,” Rothman says. “Because of his relationships, because they knew he did the film study and knew he was an innovator, they wanted to hear what he had to say.
When the crew visited Indianapolis over the years, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning made a habit of inviting Gruden to his condo in the city to study film, sometimes for six hours at a time. “That wasn’t Jon asking Peyton to sit down and study,” Rothman says, “That was Peyton wanting to pick Jon’s brain.”
When Chiefs head coach Andy Reid walked into the production meeting with the MNF crew this week, he brought with him the game ball from the day the Chiefs clinched the first back-to-back AFC West titles in franchise history, placing the inscribed memento on the table in front of Gruden. For the rest of the day, they mocked the consternation over the supposed conflict of interest.
“It was kind of a running gag,” McDonough says. “When Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton came to the meeting, he brought these huge notebooks that have every defense they run, and all these game plans, and he says ‘Here you go, Jon. Here’s everything you need to know.”
On Saturday, McDonough referenced Gruden’s coming departure a handful of times during the broadcast only to be politely rebuffed by the 54-year-old coach—“nothing’s official yet,” Gruden reminded his co-host at the beginning of the broadcast. At the end of the show, when the Titans were in victory formation, McDonough referenced the emotional Friday night production meeting and wished Gruden farewell: “It’s going to be tough for a lot of us on this crew to be impartial when we go into these production meetings and see you next year.”
Two seasons ago, Rothman offered the job to McDonough when longtime host Mike Tirico left the network for NBC Sports. Rothman delivered a message from Gruden when he met with McDonough at his Scottsdale, Ariz. home to discuss the job. “He said he had three questions from Jon,” McDonough recalls, “Are you willing to work? Do you love football? Do you want to be great?
“And I think that kind of characterizes him. I think the things that he became legendary for, and I learned it to be true, is the work ethic. I’d get texts from him about some game on our schedule and I’m like, Oh my goodness… We’re not on the air for three months, coach.”
Gruden’s famous film study habits didn’t change much when he moved to television. During the season he’d send the staff about 30 different 5-to-12 minute film cut-ups, narrated by the coach, highlighting various aspects of the upcoming teams, which the crew would use to prepare graphics and statistical packages that would aid in on-air chalk-talk. “He took a coach’s approach to the broadcast,” McDonough says. “It was very x’s and o’s based, and if he’s not the best ever at that part of it, I don’t know who is.”
In the offseason Gruden studied the Top 200 college prospects for ESPN’s NFL draft coverage and produced his own film cutups for the enormously popular Gruden’s QB Camp, in which the coach heaped praise on quarterback draft prospects before picking apart their flaws on film and watching them squirm. When the show began, producers begged agents to bring Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and others to the set. Over the years, it became a right of passage, with producers being forced to turn down quarterbacks who wanted to appear on the show for lack of time.
Gruden could have featured more quarterbacks each year and produced more shows, but he insisted on spending about 7-10 days studying college tape and crafting a unique lesson plan for each passer. “He never shortchanged one of those 60 quarterbacks,” Rothman says. “He put together the video tape lesson plan for each of those kids, making cut-ups that would help a kid out. Every single kid got all of Jon.”
Gruden’s QB Camp, which began in 2010, featured 57 quarterbacks in total and 17 current NFL starters, including Gruden’s newest pupil, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. In one prophetic exchange during Carr’s episode in 2014, Gruden does his best to make the Fresno State passer squirm, asking him who he’d take in a draft if both he and his older brother—former No. 1 overall pick David Carr—were on the board at the same time. After Derek offers a diplomatic answer, Gruden says, “I want you. What do you say about that?” Says Carr: “I appreciate that. Let’s go win some championships now.”
The relationships Gruden built with the quarterbacks on the show extended later into the careers of some, with a handful of starting quarterbacks from across the league making clandestine visits to the strip mall office Gruden rented and dubbed the headquarters of the FFCA—the Fired Football Coaches Association.
Gruden was well-suited for the television lifestyle, using the time he would’ve spent hunkered down at a team facility as a head coach with his young sons instead. He coached his son’s high school football team, attended youth football games and made up for lost time with his family.
“We were lucky at a point in his life where the stars aligned for us given the age of his kids,” Rothman says.
Says McDonough: “Each of us is here to do something, and I really believe he was born to coach. And as I said in that meeting Friday. ‘You won the Super Bowl twice, on the field and in our profession. It doesn’t get much higher in broadcasting than the chance to do Monday Night Football. He’s gone to the mountaintop twice, but his passion is coaching.”
McDonough says his hope for Gruden in his next career is that he keeps his word and tries to build stronger relationships with players rather than locking himself in a film room in a constant effort to draw up the next great play. “He told me he was determined to have fun,” McDonough says, “and I hope he does that.”
After Gruden and McDonough signed off on Gruden’s last broadcast—Gruden’s 144th—the crew trickled out of the broadcast booth on their way to a private room at a Kansas City bar, where Gruden had a chance to say individual goodbyes to each member of the staff over drinks. But first Gruden navigated a handful of well-wishing coaches from both locker rooms and fans of the team he’d soon enough face twice a year in heated divisional games (he declined an interview request, repeating that nothing was yet official).
While the coach was waiting for an elevator, a Chiefs fan in a red Tamba Hali jersey walked up to the coach to tell him good luck. The coach they once called and may again call Chucky flashed that famous crooked grin and shook the young man’s hand: “I’m gonna need it.”
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