In Oakland Gruden really entered the Chucky zone, casting his famous sour-faced looks when a player blew an assignment or a referee blew a call, and mouthing a stream of steady, salty banter. CBS analyst Rich Gannon, then a Raiders quarterback, recalls a film session with Gruden and backup quarterbacks Bobby Hoying and Rodney Peete. The three of them were watching tape of Seahawks running back Ricky Watters shredding a defense with a series of cutbacks. Gruden started praising Watters, saying how the Raiders could use a runner like him. “How do you like that Watters? What do you think, Bobby? Would you like to see Watters in a Raiders uniform?”
“Sure would, Coach,” said Hoying.
Gruden continued, “What would you do to get Ricky Watters to come to the Raiders? How bad do you want him, Bobby?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you suck Ricky Watters’s dick to get him in a Raiders uniform?”
“Would you suck his dick to get him in a Raiders uniform? I would. That’s how bad I want Ricky Watters on my team. That’s your problem, Bobby. You don’t want it bad enough to suck his dick.” By then, the three quarterbacks were hunched over laughing.
“He sort of used humor to loosen us up,” says Gannon.
It worked. Gruden thrived in Oakland, taking the Raiders to back-to-back AFC West titles, losing to Tom Brady and the Patriots on the famous tuck-rule call in the Snow Bowl of 2002.
Gruden’s departure from Oakland, however, was controversial, and he became the last coach in NFL history to be traded. After Oakland’s loss to New England, Davis and Gruden’s agent, Bob LaMonte, had agreed to a contract extension, but when LaMonte received the faxed copy of the contract to look over, he had to tell Gruden it wasn’t what they had agreed to. The Raiders had changed the terms, giving Gruden less money and less job security. “My agent recommended I didn’t sign it,” Gruden says. “I figured I would coach my option year and then see what happens.”
At midnight Davis called Gruden and said he had traded him to Tampa Bay for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million.
Gruden, who remained fond of Davis (who passed away last year), believes he angered Davis by talking to Notre Dame about the possibility of becoming head coach of the Fighting Irish. For Gruden, whose parents were living in Tampa Bay, the disappointment of leaving the Raiders, a team he helped build into a contender, was offset by taking over a winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that already had perhaps the best defense in the NFL—loaded with veterans Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice—but had not yet made it to the Super Bowl.
“He won our respect pretty damn quickly,” says Brooks, a captain on the 2003 Super Bowl–winning squad. “He came in and said, ‘You guys are good, you guys are dominant, but you know what? You haven’t won squat.’ And he said from now on it was going to be a war between his offense and the defense. He just attacked us. We loved that.”
He also brought a much-needed dose of humor to Tampa Bay. At one point, before a flight to Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers during that Super Bowl campaign in 2002, he told his players, “If you want to be dominant, you have to go into an enemy city, into their backyard, and take what you want. If you want to be the man, you don’t ask, you just do. We’re going to eat in their restaurants and leave without paying the check. We’re going to take their best-looking women and load ’em onto our plane and take ’em back to Tampa. We’re…we’re going to park in their best parking spaces!”
“Coach was always cracking us up like that,” says Brooks.
Gruden is a not a vindictive man, but Chucky is certainly competitive, and he gained some satisfaction from demolishing Al Davis’s Raiders in the 2003 Super Bowl.
Gruden steers his five-year-old Mercedes out of the parking lot and heads down North Florida Avenue, pulling into a gas station and noting the police car idling in the lot. The police stopped by his office once, suspecting a drug deal when they saw his car there in the middle of the night.
He parks and walks into the minimart, and the guy behind the counter shoots him a way-too-cheery-for-five a.m. “Hey, Coach!”
Gruden, who was fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers nearly four years ago, smiles back. The firing came as a shock to him. He had won the Super Bowl in 2003, was coming off a winning season in 2008, had a career coaching record of 95 wins and 81 losses and had just signed a three-year extension. Nonetheless, the Buccaneers let him go.
He describes that period of being fired as “going into the ditch. I got a little bit lost there. I sulked. I felt a little bit worthless. Here was this thing that I was more passionate about than anything else in the world, and it was taken away from me. I was sort of embarrassed, ashamed.”
He did what he always does when he gets down on himself: He called his dad. “I told him two things,” says Jim Gruden. “Save your money, and you’re not a real coach until you’ve been fired.”
“My mental toughness was tested,” says Jon Gruden. “I loved football, and it was taken away from me. You turn in your dealer car, your office keys. And you can’t watch your tapes anymore.”
Gruden came home and became a regular presence at his kids’ Little League games and peewee football practices. But how does a man who doesn’t need much sleep fill 20 or so hours a day? “It was strange to finally get to know my husband,” jokes Cindy Gruden.
There was no football-related issue too small for Gruden’s consideration. When his friend and former Buccaneer quarterback Brad Johnson found himself coaching fifth-grade football, he began sending Gruden his game plans. “He would send back plays we should run. ‘Weak left west U shift F short 2 U banana Z over, and then audible 358 slow or H 2 Miami, and if you don’t like what you see, you got a time-out in your pocket.’ That’s what he’s telling me to run,” says Johnson. “And these are fifth-graders.”
When the NFL Network called Gruden in 2009 and asked him to cover the scouting combine, he initially refused, still too embarrassed to be around fellow coaches who would all know he had been fired. But he went, and his honest evaluations of talent were immediately noticed—by NFL Network’s competitors over at ESPN. “Oh, I wanted him badly,” says Jay Rothman. Over several hours of drinks at Gramercy Tavern in New York, Rothman wooed Gruden, telling him he believed Gruden could be the next superstar in the booth. For a trial run, they put Gruden in a booth alongside Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski for mock telecasts of taped games. Rothman reviewed the tapes and sent Gruden his critique.
“He was honest with me,” Gruden says. “He told me, ‘Look, you called plays for 15 years in this league. Don’t hold back. Don’t talk when the quarterback is over the ball. Lay off after a scoring play. Don’t be over-the-top technical.’ But the main thing was they told me I would get to study film, all the film I wanted. I can study the Bengals and the Ravens all day if I want. I can look at tapes all day.”
He signed the contract.
The only requirement for membership in the FFCA is to be an active or fired football coach—because active coaches will eventually be fired coaches. Gruden jokingly plays up the support-group aspect of the FFCA, but what is remarkable is how grateful the various members are for Gruden’s tutelage. His remarkable success as a coach gives him credibility as a mentor to fired coaches, but his post-coaching success makes him a hero to fired sideline generals. “The fact that Jon is succeeding at broadcasting, at being a former coach, is interesting to a former coach,” says Ron Zook, fired coach from Illinois and Florida.
It was Gruden’s way of dealing with a genuine emotional and intellectual need for fired coaches to stay in touch with football, to have a place to watch film and talk about the game, that inspired him to set up the FFCA. It has become an essential tool for some coaches to deal with the career mortality that is a part of the game.