A strange thing happens when you spend time with Gruden. You start to talk like him, even to think like him. He wears you down with his steady football banter, and after a few hours he has you memorizing formations and plays. What are the strong-side flanker formations? (East, west, far west, trips and far trips.) What are the weak-side formations? (South, north, wing, far double-wing and lurk. I actually remember the answers from my hours in his office.) And you start trying to memorize these terms and to recognize formations in part to try to please him, because he takes such evident pleasure in explaining the technical aspects of football—he feels he is sharing with you some profound wisdom that he does not understand how you got this far in life without possessing.
When you’re on the receiving end of his football lectures, when he gets into the Chucky zone, it’s almost hard to keep a straight face as he leans toward you while he talks, an evil grin on his face, waving his hands around, taking off his reading glasses and pointing them at you; he’s mugging and pulling a rat face and his jaw is clenching and he is squinting and crinkling his eyebrows and then scrunching his nose and then smirking and widening his eyes and—I swear—wiggling his ears. His straw-colored hair is flapping up and down on his pink forehead and he is frowning, angry, frustrated, depressed, defeated, deflated, pissed off and then, suddenly, delighted because you have finally memorized the correct flanker formations.
Gruden prepares for his Monday Night Football telecasts with the same intensity. “I’ll wake up and look at my phone, and there will be texts from him time-stamped 4:13 a.m. telling me to go back and watch the New Orleans tape for something he’s found,” says Tirico. “On game day, in production meetings it’s like he’s getting ready to coach the Super Bowl.”
MNF producer Rothman adds, “He’s wound so tight, he’s a difficult dude to talk to before we go on the air. He gets in the Chucky zone—he’s pacing around; he doesn’t want anyone near him. He’s as intense and fired up as if he were on the sideline again.”
Jim Gruden, 75, recalls the five-year-old Jon waking up at 3:30 a.m., coming down and standing by his and his wife Kathy’s bed and staring at his sleeping parents. “It was strange,” says Jim Gruden. “I’d open my eyes and he’d be right there, sort of watching us. I’d grab him and bring him back up to his room.”
The middle of three brothers, Jon wasn’t as smart as his older brother, Jim, or as athletic as his younger brother, Jay. Jim was a straight-A student at Clay High School in South Bend, Indiana who would go on to become a radiologist. Jay, a few inches taller and a few steps faster, would be a Division I record-setting quarterback at the University of Louisville. “It got under my skin a little bit,” Jon says of competing with his younger brother. “One time, after I lost a mile race to him, he said to me, ‘You’re nothing but a Division III backup scrub.’ That’s what he said! Oh, he was always a better athlete than I was. That burned me a little. Still burns me up.”
Jay Gruden, who is the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, laughs when he hears Jon’s confession. “I think what bothers him the most was that as hard as he worked—and nobody worked out harder or threw more footballs—I was the better athlete and didn’t work nearly as hard as Jon.”
Jon recalls being a distracted student. “I was always thinking about football. And I didn’t see how history or algebra was going to further my understanding of football.” Yet when he took the SAT, he surprised his classmates by outscoring his A-student peers. “He’s always had this photographic memory,” his father says.
Combine all those attributes and environmental factors—good but not great athlete, son of a coach, fantastic memory, insomnia—and you just may have created the single human being most perfectly suited to becoming a football coach. So when Gruden was a senior in high school and told his father that’s what he wanted to do, his dad was not in any way surprised. He gave him the best advice a coaching father could give a coaching son: Don’t be a running-backs coach; be a quarterbacks coach. Those are the guys who develop an understanding of the whole offense and can become offensive coordinators—the usual path to a head-coaching position.
When Jon was wrapping up his career as a “Division III backup scrub” quarterback at the University of Dayton, his father called Walt Harris, offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, and urged him to interview his son for a graduate assistant position. Jon was hired. He asked his professors in Dayton to accelerate his courses so he could graduate early, and he moved to Tennessee for the first of nine coaching positions as he commenced the migratory life of an American football coach. After two seasons in Knoxville he moved on to Southeast Missouri State and then to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He had met Cindy in Tennessee while she was on the cheerleading squad, and they managed to keep their long-distance relationship going through each of Jon’s far-flung coaching jobs, with Jon driving back to Knoxville from Cape Girardeau, Missouri or Cindy flying out to see him in Stockton, California.
In 1990 Mike Holmgren, who at the time was offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers and would go on to coach a Super Bowl–winning Green Bay Packers team, was looking for a quality-control assistant just a couple of hours away from Stockton. Gruden’s father, Jim, was then a scout for the 49ers and asked Holmgren to meet with his son. “You could say I’m trying to give nepotism a good name,” Jon Gruden jokes about his career.
Holmgren met with the 26-year-old assistant and hired him for $800 a month. “I asked him if he knew how to use computers,” says Holmgren. “It was 1990 and we were going to start drawing plays on the computer, but nobody knew how to do that. I told Jon he had to learn. I was going on vacation and told him he had one month.”
By the time Holmgren came back, Gruden was, Holmgren says, “a whiz kid.”
But Gruden was sleeping in his car out in the parking lot. Or on a sofa outside owner Eddie DeBartolo’s office. Holmgren was worried about his young charge. “I didn’t think any human being could survive that long like that, without sleeping.”
Gruden was too excited to sleep. These were the 49ers built by Bill Walsh and quarterbacked by Joe Montana and Steve Young. Gruden spent every waking hour, and there were a lot of them, soaking up the West Coast offense pioneered by Walsh. He was the young, eager apprentice in the engine room of the greatest offensive juggernaut ever. And his job, inputting the plays Holmgren devised after meetings with Joe Montana, put him in a unique position to understand the most sophisticated passing offense ever. “For a kid who wanted to be a football coach, it was like going to Harvard,” says Gruden.
Gruden left the 49ers to become an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh, heeding his father’s advice to work with quarterbacks. After a year in Pittsburgh, Gruden joined Holmgren as he took on his first head-coaching job in Green Bay, where as a wide-receivers coach Gruden worked with Sterling Sharpe and a young quarterback named Brett Favre. It was a star-studded coaching staff, including future head coaches Ray Rhodes, Andy Reid and Steve Mariucci. When Rhodes was hired to take over the Philadelphia Eagles, he tapped Gruden to become his offensive coordinator.
After a few years in Philadelphia, Gruden got a call from the legendary Al Davis to meet with him about a head-coaching job with the Oakland Raiders. Gruden, who does very good impersonations, can do a pitch-perfect Al Davis Brooklyn accent. Davis nicknamed Gruden “Butch.”
“Butch,” Gruden says, doing his Davis impression, “who is the third cornah-back fuh the San Diego Chahge-ahs?”
And Gruden, who had memorized every player in the league, could answer, “Terrence Jones.”
“Where’s he frum?”
In Davis, Gruden had met someone as obsessive about football as he was. The two spent entire days—and nights—at the whiteboard, diagramming plays. Gruden had the habit of using a blue marker for the offense, red for the defense and green for the blocking schemes. (Gruden also prides himself on being able to draw perfect circles, these being the basic symbol used when drawing up plays on the board.) At one point Davis stopped Gruden while he was explaining how his offense would pick up a corner blitz.
“Lemme ask you somethin’, Butch. Why are you changin’ crayons? Is there somethin’ wrong with them?”
Gruden explained he was using different colors for different sides of the ball.
“Doncha know I’m color-blind, Butch?”
Davis eventually gave Gruden his first head-coaching job. The two men were a perfect match of like-minded football freaks. In fact, Davis was the only person who seemed to sleep less than Gruden, calling up the coach at nine p.m. or later to talk about what he had seen in practice that day. “I finally had to tell him enough, okay, enough,” says Gruden. “I’m in my underwear, my wife is pregnant, we’ve got kids in the bed with us, and he wants me to go downstairs and turn on the practice film.” By then Jon and Cindy had had the first two of their three sons—Jon the second, or Deuce, as he’s nicknamed, and Michael.