Jon Gruden does not go deep. "I'm a real shallow guy," he says
without a hint of embarrassment. "It's not like I've got a three
handicap, or I can play the guitar, or I can tell you anything
about the stock market. It's not like you and I could have a
conversation about anything else. I've got this job, I've got my
three boys and my wife, my family. That's it. I like to fish a
little. But there's not a lot of me."
He pauses, cocks an eyebrow, turns back to the computer monitor.
He tries to be polite, but really, he has no time. It's 5:20 a.m.
on a Monday in August, and Gruden has been sitting in his Orlando
hotel room for the last half hour rushing to type up the day's
script for the offense. He keeps his back to his guest, speaking
over his shoulder with one eye on the screen. With just a week to
go before his debut as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a
preseason game against Miami, he's still a long way from getting
his new coaching staff, 11 newly arrived free agents and the
Bucs' offensive unit--which is scrambling to master its fourth
system in four years--on the same page. Not that Gruden expects
anyone to feel sorry for him.
Why should he? At 39, Gruden, the youngest coach in the NFL, has
enjoyed one of the most spectacular rises in football history. In
his four years as coach of the Oakland Raiders he revived one of
the league's storied franchises, attracted the interest of two of
the nation's fabled college programs ("I don't know many guys who
had a chance to coach Ohio State and Notre Dame back-to-back, and
turned them down," says Jim Gruden, Jon's father), was named one
of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People and so dazzled the
Tampa Bay owner, Malcolm Glazer, and his sons that they
surrendered $8 million and two first-round and two second-round
draft picks to get him--without once speaking to Gruden directly.
"He's special," says Bucs executive vice president Joel Glazer.
"When you're dealing with special, sometimes you do special
Indeed, Gruden has such star power that Tampa Bay fans have
shrugged off what Bucs safety John Lynch calls the Glazer
family's "embarrassing" mistakes as it struggled to hire a new
coach after firing Tony Dungy at the end of last season. So many
Raiders and Bucs have described Gruden as an "offensive genius"--a
term used so often these days that you'd think the NFL housed the
greatest collection of brains since Los Alamos--that no one cares
anymore that the Glazers bungled shots at master builder Bill
Parcells and former Florida coach Steve Spurrier.
September 8, 2002
"Those guys deserve to be called geniuses," Gruden says. "I'm
just a grunt. You know what I mean? I'm just trying to get
another four or five plays into this script, as you can see. I
wouldn't be getting up this early if I was a genius, man."
This is not false modesty. No one has ever accused Gruden of
lacking confidence. But ever since he got into coaching, in 1986,
he has been living a grunt's schedule--beginning each day at 3:17
a.m., often ending it near midnight--because when he was a
teenager a lot of people thought he was stupid, and he has never
gotten over it. Jon once told his father that he works so hard
because he's not as smart as other NFL coaches. "And I think he's
right," says Jim, a San Francisco 49ers scout.
Jon's one blessing is that, in a profession marked by baggy eyes
and coffee breath, he came equipped with a body custom-designed
to take the punishment. He rarely napped as a child and was
always up before his two brothers. The slightest noise wakes him,
so he cranks up a loud fan by the bed to drown out the night. "I
feel like I'm on a plane," says his wife, Cindy. "He's awake
while he sleeps." Yet, Gruden says, he never feels tired, and he
attacks each day as if his hair were aflame. "His energy is
unreal," Lynch says.
"Everything is just bam-bam-bam high intensity," Cindy says.
"He's so programmed to work like a maniac, he knows no other way.
We went to Busch Gardens and he said, 'I'm going to the bathroom;
I'll be back in 30 seconds.' One time we brought a movie home,
and I went up to put the kids to bed. When I came down, he was
previewing the movie in fast-forward. I was like, 'Can't we just
watch it at regular speed?'"
In Tampa, much has been made of Gruden's local ties. Two decades
ago his father served as an assistant to the Bucs' first coach,
USC legend John McKay. Jon and his younger brother, Jay, spent a
lot of time with the team, and both would copy Doug Williams's
raspy snap count--"RED-day!"--in the backyard. After the Bucs fired
Jim, who was by then director of player personnel, in 1987, the
Grudens hated the franchise in unison. But Jim and his wife,
Kathy, stayed on in Tampa, where Kathy would have a long career
as a beloved elementary-school teacher and then, with the boys
scattered around the country, beat kidney cancer. Jay became an
all-state quarterback at Tampa's Chamberlain High, later married
a former Bucs staffer and now lives in nearby Orlando. Now Jon,
in answer to his mom's prayers, is back in Tampa. He has the Bucs
franchise in his hands and the city by the scruff, and he and his
brood live just five minutes away from his parents. A nice tale
of a family reunited, if only Jon cared about such things.
"A lot of that [homecoming story] is exaggerated," he says. No
one who knows Gruden has any illusions about him. No one expects
him to be sentimental or more thoughtful. "You think he'll spend
more time with his family just because he's in Tampa?" Raiders
quarterback Rich Gannon asks rhetorically. "Family's important to
him, but he's not going to change."
No, the moment for that came and went more than three years ago,
in the winter of 1999, when Gruden was coming off his first
season as Raiders coach and could see that all his work was
beginning to pay off. The phone rang. It was Bobb McKittrick, the
notorious offensive-line coach of the 49ers. Nearly a decade
earlier, as an offensive assistant in San Francisco, Gruden had
sat at McKittrick's knee, writing down and soaking up everything
the man said, watching hungrily as McKittrick spent all his
waking hours making decent players great. Gruden worshiped
McKittrick for his toughness and intellect. Gruden had been a
volunteer ball boy for Bob Knight at Indiana and had seen
workaholic NFL coaches Dan Devine, George Seifert and Mike
Holmgren up close. None of them could touch McKittrick. He was
the best coach Gruden ever saw.
"Jon?" McKittrick said over the phone. "I've got cancer and I'm
going to die."
Gruden stammered a few words, but McKittrick wasn't listening. "I
wanted to call and tell you: It's not just about football,"
McKittrick said. "Go be with your kids and your wife. Football is
irrelevant. I don't want you to be like me."
But Gruden didn't want to hear it. By then he had arrived at a
point, as Raiders coach, that suited his driving ambition. He had
found his place, and nothing, not even the sting of words like
these, could make him move. Gruden likes to say, "I'm a real
shallow guy," but that's less an innate quality than a conscious
choice. Offered a glimpse of the deepest water there is, Gruden
forced himself to look away.
"But Bobb," he said. "I want to be just like you."
The boy with pink hair hesitates, unsure, a bit scared. "What's
wrong with you?" Jon Gruden says. "I want to see a mean face!"
The boy stands frozen. Cameras snap. The crowd of strangers is
laughing. Somebody had had the bright idea of drawing fake
stitches on his face, scrawling CHUCKY on his forehead and
shoving him into Gruden's path as the coach walked off the
practice field one morning at training camp. Who knew the boy
would be expected to act the part too?
As beautiful as Gruden is supposed to be, his sideline
expressions are not pretty. In 1998, as Raiders running back
Harvey Williams stood wilting under a torrent of Gruden
invective, he took in the coach's arched eyebrow, the shining
eyes and the lopsided grin that was anything but happy, and came
up with a nickname that perfectly captured the fearsome sight:
Chucky. As in the gleefully homicidal doll in the horror movie
"Har-vey Will-iams," Gruden says, using that aw-shucks cadence
common to coaches and airline pilots, when the '98 incident comes
up in conversation. Then he remembers why he'd been so mad. "He
went the wrong way on an audible," Gruden says. "Ninety-six is to
the right, 97 is to the left: We called a 96, he went 97. The guy
went the other way. Of course there were only five major
television networks at the game, 70,000 fans there booing. Sorry
for getting upset. Gee. Next thing I know, a newspaper has a
picture of Chucky next to a picture of me. Next thing I know, no
one knows my name anymore."
Don't be fooled: Gruden loves this. He crouches next to the boy
with pink hair. The boy just stands rigid, posing for a picture
with a blank expression, but Gruden knows what's expected. He
grits his teeth and growls. "Rrraaar!" says the new coach of the
The kid clears out as quickly as he can. Gruden begins his daily
walk through the heat-baked gantlet of fans, who include, besides
the usual eager boys and memorabilia hounds, a deep and patient
line of women. One 60ish matron grabs Gruden's arm, says, "I love
you!" and kisses it.
"Finally," says one man, "a Super Bowl coach."
"Aw, we got to get there, man," Gruden says. .
Noon in Orlando in August: To stand here is to stand on an anvil
in the desert. Gruden stays until everyone has gotten a piece of
him, signs Chucky dolls and T-shirts, says thank you, poses for
each camera. The women giggle and whisper the word cute. A tubby
man walks up to them. "Any players?" he asks.
"No," say two women almost simultaneously, "they saved the best
for last." Gruden gets into a cart and rides off to applause. He
couldn't have been more charming. Then again, he never stopped
"He's a warm and fuzzy guy the first time he meets you, and if
that's a five-minute deal, he's the greatest guy in the world,"
says Jay Gruden, 35, who, after four years and two Arena Football
League titles as coach of the Orlando Predators, returned to the
field last spring as the team's quarterback. "But sit with him
for a half hour? You got problems."
Jon's support of his little brother's comeback as a player was
constant and public, and he made it clear that Jay--without any
major-college or NFL coaching experience--would have a place on
his staff the moment the arena season ended. Jay is now a Bucs
offensive assistant, but before taking the job he was wary. He'd
seen that Chucky face his whole life. "Jon is very easily
agitated," Jay says. "We get along great, but the thing that
worried me was, if you're in the same room with him for a long
period of time, he's going to find something you're doing that
bothers him. If I had an itch, he'd call me Dog Boy. Move my foot
wrong? Sit still."
Jay laughs at the memory. So do the other Grudens, who love Jon
and long ago learned to live with his quirks. When the family
lived in Ohio during Jim's coaching stint at Dayton from 1969 to
'72, the racket of one aunt's eating habits scarred Jon for life.
The clank of a spoon on a bowl or on teeth is intolerable to him,
and he has gotten on Cindy for swallowing too loudly. When his
wife and three boys sit down for breakfast, Jon takes his plate
and sits on a couch far from the nightmare.
"He's in the perfect place," Cindy says of Jon's job. "He works
long hours, so he doesn't drive me crazy--he gets very irritated
quickly. If he's in a movie theater and someone's chewing too
loudly or talking, we get up and move. One time we moved five
times. I was so embarrassed. It's just the chewing thing. Is that
God bless Kathy Gruden. Anyone with a big family knows the casual
riot caused by three tart-tongued and headstrong brothers. With
her husband gone for long stretches, Kathy raised her boys with
little more than her will and a deadly wooden spoon. Besides
playing the usual mom roles of cook and cheerleader, she endured
bruises on her shins from trying to catch baseballs and bruises
on her heart from trying to keep the peace. Jon battled daily
with his other brother, James, who is three years older and had
no deep interest in sports; he loved to study. Jon thought James
was a nerd. James thought Jon was nothing but a jock--just smart
enough, he told Jon, to be his chauffeur someday. One time the
fighting got so savage that Kathy took the three boys into the
living room and made them kneel and pray to God for some mutual
"It was tough for me," Jon says of being James's brother. "He was
a 4.0 student, and I was about a 2.0. People thought something
was wrong with me. Teachers would ask, and my brother thought
something was wrong with me too. But I just wanted to be an
athlete. Then my younger brother comes up, and he's twice the
athlete I am. So I had some issues to deal with."
After his father was hired by Devine at Notre Dame in 1978, Jon
worked out with the Irish players and made himself into a solid
quarterback at South Bend Clay High. Unlike his valedictorian
older brother, Jon is remembered in town as feisty--he bloodied
his fists on one fan who badmouthed the Notre Dame coaching
staff--ultracompetitive and lacking nearly every physical tool
needed to land a major-college scholarship. In his junior year he
took his SATs with no preparation, "and I think he got a better
score than I did," says James, who is today the director of
cardiothoracic imaging at Emory's medical school and an adjunct
professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech. "Suddenly
I'm thinking, Oh, my God, this guy is not stupid."
But Kathy and Jim knew that while James would thrive at any
college, Jon had to have football. So they insisted that James
take the free tuition (as a coach's child) at Notre Dame, and
they paid for Jon to go to tiny Muskingum College in Ohio because
he'd have a chance to play there. With that motivation, they
knew, Jon would stay in school. "Thank God football exists,"
James says, "because otherwise he'd be in real trouble."
After a year, Jon transferred to Dayton, where he didn't see much
action beyond mop-up and holding for kicks. "The most
disappointing thing in my whole life," he says, "is not being
able to be anything but a ham-and-egger."
Lord knows, he tried. His mom always told him to find his passion
and embrace it, and at Dayton no one squeezed harder than Jon. He
threw spirals endlessly with those too-small hands, he lifted
weights in the off-season, he ran--sure that he could make himself
into a player. The summer of 1983, after his first year at
Dayton, he was in the best shape of his life, and he would come
home from a workout in Tampa sweating and glancing at himself in
the mirror. Jay, about to enter his junior year of high school,
hadn't yet blossomed as a player, and he spent the hot days
watching TV and munching microwave popcorn. Jon couldn't help
himself. "Get off the couch, Zit Butt," he'd say to Jay. "Hey,
Dog Boy. Hey, Pig. I just threw 400 TD passes. I just ran five
miles. Why don't you get up and do something?"
After weeks of this, Jay finally cocked an eyebrow and said, "You
want to race me?"
They agreed on two miles, and they were neck and neck until the
last two-tenths of a mile. Then Jay opened it up and left Jon
behind and realizing at last that he'd never be a real player.
"Talk about getting humiliated: Hey, loser," he says. "That's
when I knew."
The following summer, things only got worse between them. Jon
kept sniping--about a pillow, the TV clicker, anything--and
suddenly he and Jay were out in the yard, punching the hell out
of each other while trying to stick to the family rule against
hitting in the face. For 15 minutes the battle went on, both boys
getting shots in but the quicker, taller Jay pounding his older
brother on the shoulders, arms and, eventually, the face. At last
Jon walked away. "I couldn't throw the ball for a week," he says.
"He beat me in a race, and he beat me up. Now you see why I got
Say this for Jon: He let it all go. Jay went on to break passing
records at Louisville, playing Division I-A football for a
renowned coach, Howard Schnellenberger. Jon began his career as a
coaching grunt but kept tabs on Jay from afar. Each Saturday, no
matter where Jon was, he would climb to a high spot and search
the dial on a tiny transistor radio for the Louisville game.
Sometimes he'd stand alone on a hill or a roof for hours, radio
pressed to his ear, playing each play with Jay, listening to the
scratchy crowd noise, the announcers, the sound of Dog Boy doing
For a long time he was certain it was killing him. Why can't I
sleep? What's wrong with me? Gruden went from doctor to doctor,
and they had no answers. He tried sleeping pills. Still, there
he'd be, three or four hours into a deep snooze, and
then--bang!--eyes open, staring at the ceiling. He convinced
himself that he was tired, because that's what everyone said. You
can't keep going like this, Jon, you'll burn out. He heard it so
many times that he almost believed it. He must be exhausted.
Except that he wasn't. His father had been the same way, running
on empty and no worse for it, but it took a doctor in Dayton to
turn Jon around. "Stop worrying about it," he told Jon. "Consider
it a strength. Find something you like to do."
Now there was a new problem. Gruden wanted to play football at
Dayton, but how many teammates were up for passing drills at 4
a.m.? He tried to fill all that time in the dark by reading
Rolling Stone cover to cover, writing letters to anyone he could
think of. Gruden had always loved the idea of coaching, had loved
going to work with his dad. Once, before Jim joined Lee Corso's
staff at Indiana in 1973, he told Jon he was thinking about
quitting and getting a normal job. "I'll spend more time with you
boys, be around more," Jim said. Jon told him to stop talking
nonsense. At Dayton, Jon declared in a questionnaire that he
wanted to be the head coach at Michigan by age 39. But what did
that have to do with sleep?
After graduating in 1985, Gruden went to Tennessee as a graduate
assistant. His job entailed cutting up game film. It was supposed
to be simple stuff, but each Saturday night Gruden buried himself
under all that footage and spliced together everything--sideline
shots, end-zone shots, all the angles, each reel tailored to the
needs of a specific coach. The staff would come in on Sunday
morning and find all that chaos organized and laid out like a
Scorsese flick. Gruden had been up nearly all night. What the
hell. It beat reading up on Van Halen.
He had guts, too. When the son of Vols coach Johnny Majors broke
up with his girlfriend, a Tennessee cheerleader, Gruden moved in
for the kill. Cindy Brooks never dated again. Three years later
Walt Harris, the Vols' offensive coordinator, took over as coach
at University of the Pacific and brought Gruden in as wide
receivers coach. After one season, Gruden landed in the coaching
gold mine at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.--"the
greatest show on earth," as he puts it--working as an aide to
Holmgren, the team's offensive coordinator, and taking in the
work of McKittrick, Seifert and Ray Rhodes. After that, Gruden, a
confirmed West Coast offense man, went off to work with one of
the scheme's gurus, Paul Hackett at Pitt. Holmgren had promised
that if he ever made head coach in the NFL, he would have a job
for Gruden. When, in 1992, Holmgren took over the Green Bay
Packers, he punched Gruden's ticket, naming him an offensive
assistant at 28.
Quickly, it became clear that Gruden's two most disquieting
qualities were, in the high-pressure world of the NFL, enviable
assets. He directed his insomniac's energy into studying film and
game plans and stealing ideas, and when it came to players'
tendencies and mistakes--those details that can mean the
difference between a penalty flag and a touchdown--well, anyone in
the Gruden family knew that Jon would spot them first.
After one season Holmgren made Gruden his receivers coach, and as
Gruden negotiated the flinty egos of Mark Clayton and Sterling
Sharpe--and later, as the league's youngest offensive coordinator,
for the Philadelphia Eagles, the egos of quarterback Randall
Cunningham and running back Ricky Watters--another thing became
obvious: Players listened to him. He had not played big-time
ball, yet his knowledge and passion won the players' respect, and
his trash talking made them laugh.
"Of all the coaches I've been around, he's most like a player,"
says Gannon, the Oakland quarterback. "He'd give me plays during
practice, and often he'd get in the huddle and almost call the
play. He'd love to take the snap. Then, in meetings, his comments
were comical. I would say ruthless, but with his tone they were
After People named Gruden one of its 50 most beautiful in 2001,
he knew his preening players would razz him and would respect
only one response. Gruden grinned and yelled, "You don't like it?
Well, I don't give a s---, because I'm one of the motherf------
most beautiful people on this planet!" Of course, players never
saw the flip side of that cockiness: Whenever Oakland lost,
Gruden would moan about how he'd been outcoached. "I don't think
we're going to win another game," he'd say to his brother James.
"Even after they won the division the first time [in 2000], he
had this neurosis about preparing more, working harder, staying
on top," James says. "I said, 'Jon, you've proven yourself, give
it a rest,' and he'd say, 'No, I haven't.'"
Nothing has changed. Already, Bucs players and staffers mimic
Gruden's rapid-fire delivery. "You like football?" he'll ask,
getting into a player's face. "You love football?" Last spring
Gruden called Lynch and, after a few pleasantries, snapped,
"Enough with the bulls---. I'm watching film on how to isolate
number 47 in this first minicamp, and let me tell you: The first
time you bring that weakside free-safety blitz, I'm going to buzz
a slant right by your f---ing head. You won't know what hit you!"
Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson says that when he was with the New
York Jets, he tried desperately to get traded to Gruden's
Raiders. "A young Bill Parcells," Johnson calls his new coach. In
his rush to replace Dungy's one-dimensional attack with his own
aggressive and disciplined scheme, Gruden had the offense run
more than 1,000 plays during its minicamp, and in training camp
he would jam two dozen plays into 10 minutes. "We've always had a
tremendous tempo on defense," Lynch says. "Now the offense is
starting to match it."
This is no small feat. The Bucs won their first two preseason
games over their intrastate rivals, the Miami Dolphins and the
Jacksonville Jaguars, but Gruden's biggest challenge has come in
the offense's battles against Tampa Bay's fearsome defense. Led
by tackle Warren Sapp, who vowed to Gruden that he'd be his daily
nightmare, the Bucs' D is a "high-testosterone unit, with a lot
of libidos," says defensive end Simeon Rice. But early in the
first week of training camp Gruden got his offense moving, and
Sapp & Co. backpedaled all the way downfield. After each play
Gruden would go into the huddle, his face Chuckified, and say,
"Let's keep ripping their asses."
"And we'd rip them again," says receiver Keenan McCardell. "It's
Compared with all this, then, what are the words of a dying man?
Of course, McKittrick was right. But Gruden knows that few people
understand what they want out of life, fewer still have the gifts
to match their ambition, and fewest of all get rich and famous in
the bargain. McKittrick had "made me reflect on being a good
husband, a good family man and all that," Gruden says, "but at
the same time, I love this."
He is sitting in the Orlando hotel, shades drawn. It's 5:50 a.m.
His face is lit by the glow of the computer.
"I love this," Gruden says again. "I love the strategy. I love
being around the guys. I like the competition. I love flying home
after a big win, the locker room celebrations. I like to see how
we all act in the face of adversity. Are we going to throw our
helmets, or are we going to find a way out of this? Is it going
to be second-and-nine or first-and-10? Are we going to make this
field goal? What's the weather going to be like tomorrow for the
game? I wonder if it's going to be a loud crowd. I wonder if
they're going to raise hell in that end zone like they always do.
I just like the thrill of it all."
Envy the man, and pity him, too. He has everything he ever
"He's so programmed to work like a maniac," Cindy Gruden says, "he knows no other way."
His knowledge and passion won players' respect, and his trash
talking made them laugh.
"The most disappointing thing in my life is not being able to
be anything but a ham-and-egger."