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Inside the head of football’s greatest nerd
  • November 01, 2012 : 00:11
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Cindy Gruden is a patient woman. The petite blonde, a former University of Tennessee cheerleader—“I was the girl at the top of the pyramid!”—has wed one Gruden man and raised three Gruden boys. She can get kids to school before the bell and to practice on time and can get dogs walked and cats fed, but the one thing she finally said enough is enough to was fired football coaches showing up at her house at four a.m., ringing the doorbell and then shuffling in and heading to the office of her husband, Jon Gruden, to watch videotape with the Super Bowl–winning ex–Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and Monday Night Football announcer. They just kept coming, hangdog expressions and collared short-sleeve shirts, still smelling of a hundred miles of car air-conditioning, and Cindy Gruden is a kind woman. She wasn’t going to turn away these tired and broken men who sought out her husband for fellowship and companionship in their time of need.

“I love coaches,” says Cindy. “These are good guys, smart guys, intense guys. But come on, I’ve got a family to run.”

And so Cindy told Jon to find an office outside their home in the gated Avila community. He set off down Tampa’s North Florida Avenue until he came to a forlorn little strip mall grandly named the Florida Professional Group, between Rheem Team AC & Cooling and Austin Septic Systems, where the landlord talked him into paying $900 a month for a one-room office facing a swamp. The carpet is gray, the walls are brown tongue-in-groove and the windows are filthy—not that you’d notice, because the light is awful, and not that Jon cares, because he keeps it dark in there all day anyway to watch game films. He emptied his garage of his videotapes and monitors, set it all up here and started operating what he half jokingly calls the FFCA, the Fired Football Coaches Association.

So Cindy sleeps better. And Jon, well, Jon barely ever sleeps at all.

He’s tried everything: sleeping pills, hypnotism, even drinking himself into a stupor, and none of it worked. He can’t stay down for more than three or four hours a night. A doctor he saw in his 20s examined him and told him there was nothing wrong physically and to view his sleeplessness as “a gift. You just need to find something to do with your free time.”

It turns out being a football coach is a good profession for an insomniac. There’s always more preparation a coach can do, always another play to diagram, always another formation to study.

So this fired Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach is joined, many days, by fellow fired football coaches: Rick Venturi, fired Northwestern head coach; Ron Zook, fired University of Florida and University of Illinois head coach; Jim Leavitt, fired University of South Florida head coach; Doug Williams, fired Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant; plus other college and high school coaches too numerous to mention. They turn up at all hours, tired men, fired men.

Every coach gets fired, Jon Gruden’s dad, Jim Gruden—himself a former assistant coach fired from Notre Dame—has told Jon. So there are plenty of prospective FFCA members. And Jon tells them to get coffee from the gas station down the street because his coffeemaker is broken and to pull out a folding chair from the stack in the corner and sit down and watch some tape with him. Men helping other men by watching football together.

“It’s kind of a support group,” says Leavitt, who has since become the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers coach. “It keeps you in touch with football after you’re fired, and it’s important emotionally to be around guys who are going through what I went through.”

Gruden would be here anyway, every morning. He’ll watch film with nothing but the palmetto bugs for company. And somehow, the few times a year he comes out of that dark room—to commentate on the NFL draft, to film the show Gruden’s QB Camp for ESPN, to be the lead analyst for Monday Night Football—he brings insight and knowledge that can be gleaned only from spending those long nights by himself in that hot little office, obsessively studying football.

He is our national football nerd, our biggest football geek in a nation gone hypergeeky for pro football. And he does it with what his MNF producer Jay Rothman calls “the Chucky factor,” after the nickname Gruden picked up while coaching the Oakland Raiders. (Chucky is the name of the murderous doll in the Child’s Play slasher films. In 1998, after Gruden chewed out Raiders running back Harvey Williams for blowing a play against Seattle, Williams told reporters that when Gruden yelled he looked like Chucky. The nickname stuck because he does look a little like Chucky—People magazine once naming him among the 50 most beautiful people notwithstanding.) Rothman says that when Gruden gets in the Chucky zone—when all that intense football study combines with his playful, ballbuster persona and he becomes more than just another football broadcaster—he becomes a character, the larger-than-life Chucky who adds excitement and edge to a football broadcast without distracting or alienating fans. (Yes, we’re talking about you, Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser.) “He has the qualities of a preacher, coach, motivational speaker and guy sitting at the bar next to you all rolled into one, and he plays those characters while dispensing deep football knowledge. It’s unique packaging,” says his broadcasting partner Mike Tirico. Gruden may already be the most recognizable football broadcaster, and though he is quick to downplay any comparisons to fellow former Raiders head coach and color commentator John Madden, his ESPN bosses are not shy about declaring him “Madden Y2K.”

In recognition of Gruden’s huge potential—“Q-rating off the charts,” says Rothman—the Monday Night Football telecast has been reconfigured this season. Gone is Ron Jaworski, Gruden’s foil and fellow color analyst for the past three seasons. The decision was made, in part, to unleash the Chucky. “You have 25 seconds between plays, and you don’t want guys talking over plays. This gives Jon room to grow,” says Rothman. Jaworski, for his part, says he was disappointed with the decision but understands it. “I think that’s the rationale, that Jon can become a bigger and bigger personality.”

It’s been three years since John Madden retired from Sunday Night Football, leaving a void in the national psyche for everyone’s big, cool, zany football pal. Madden, with his smashing through walls on beer commercials, best-selling books and humorous doodlings on the telestrator, filled that role perfectly and lucratively, earning hundreds of millions from endorsements and his eponymous computer game. Gruden is the only broadcaster with the personality, swagger and natural sense of humor—and Super Bowl–winning credibility—who can fill that gap. “I don’t know about any of that stuff,” Gruden says when asked about it. “I’m trying to get better at this right here, at watching Andy Dalton and the Bengals’ red-zone offense. I’m just a guy in a dark room studying tape, a fired football coach trying to keep up with the game.”

It’s a curious sight, this stocky man with freckled legs, tan shorts, tennis socks and black New Balance sneakers, a video clicker in hand and three Dell notebook computers spread on a glass table before him and a Samsung 42-inch monitor set up next to him. At this hour, four a.m., he is the only person awake within a square mile, the only soul within a half-mile, the only tenant of this strip mall who turns up before dawn, parks his white Mercedes next to the swamp, tears open a pack of spearmint Dentyne and begins grinding through eight straight hours of parsing football plays with Talmudic intensity.

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read more: sports, football, issue december 2012

4 comments

  • Brandon Baehman
    Brandon Baehman
    Worst commentator ever.
  • TEXIZZ
    TEXIZZ
    Mr. Gruden is second only to John Madden as the greatest NFL commentator ever! He just makes you "Feel it"!
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Awesome article about a great coach, thank-you very much!
  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    I would not describe Coach Gruden as "stocky" he's sexy!
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