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Inside the head of football’s greatest nerd
  • November 01, 2012 : 00:11
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“It gave me this opportunity to stay busy,” says Zook. “You’re getting up early in the morning, you’re watching film, you’re doing the things you’re familiar with—but you are also learning a ton. He’s like a philosopher, and that place is like a black hole. You are having this constant, very high-level dialogue about football and offensive systems that keeps you totally up on the game.”

Plenty of coaches have emerged from their time in the FFCA to regain employment as coaches, including Leavitt, who is now a linebackers coach with the 49ers, and former Buccaneers assistant (and Super Bowl MVP) Doug Williams, who is now head coach at Grambling State University. Gruden, who keeps a stack of boxes of FFCA hats and visors next to the toilet, explains, “Hey, when I was fired, I wanted to disappear for a while. I needed a place like this, so I had to make it up.”

“It’s a place to come to refresh, to release all the things that have happened to you,” says Rick Venturi, former Northwestern head coach and interim head coach for the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. “He created this safe place for fired coaches.”

But after spending a few days at the FFCA it becomes clear that Jon Gruden has also devised a perfect system for keeping up-to-date on the game. He has a parade of college and professional coaches—and college quarterbacks—passing through, talking about how their offenses work, discussing the nuances of their play calling. The list of active coaches who have come through is staggering: Chip Kelly of the University of Oregon, Urban Meyer when he was at the University of Florida, Derek Dooley of the University of Tennessee, Jim Haslett of the Washington Redskins. The FFCA has become, in the words of Venturi, “the best think tank in football.” Gruden now knows more about college football, after nearly four years of working with fired and active college coaches, than he ever has, and he keeps a close watch on the NFL draft for ESPN’s coverage every year. In other words, as a noncoach, he knows more about football than most active coaches—and he doesn’t have to travel the country to stay informed, because the greatest football minds come to him. “If Gruden gets a job in the NFL tomorrow, he is prepared right now,” says Doug Williams. “He is there every day at four a.m. Ready? How can you be more ready?”

Jon and Cindy are sitting at a square table on the clubhouse patio of the golf course behind their home. They live on the 11th hole, and Jon usually drives a golf cart from the house up to the first tee. “After I play nine, I like to have a few beers, take the cart out for a spin.”

Their youngest son, Jayson, has made his way over to the driving range for a lesson. The two older boys, Deuce and Michael, have just finished a workout in the weight room. Deuce is built like his father, short and stocky, and he can bench-press double his own weight. A powerful athlete, he’s attending Lafayette College, where he plays football.

“Hey, you guys want to go to the Poison concert tonight?” Gruden asks his sons.

They return blank expressions. “Um.…”

“Come on! Poison!” Gruden likes his hair metal, and tonight Def Leppard, Poison and Lita Ford have brought their Rock of Ages tour to Tampa. “And Lita Ford! Oh man, we gotta get there early. I don’t want to miss Lita Ford.”

Deuce nods. He’s mastered letting his father’s rare enthusiasms for anything besides football bounce off him. He mumbles something about being invited to Adventure Island, a local water park.

The boys retreat, and Jon and Cindy order lunch. Cindy runs the Gruden household; Jon, according to Cindy, can’t even change a water filter. She likes to joke that her husband does football, “and I do everything else.”

That’s why she had to banish him to his strip-mall office, which she admits is not the most luxurious environment. “But at least there’s toilet paper over there now,” she says, smiling. Then she looks at Jon. “Right? There is, right?”

Gruden nods in a manner evocative of his sons’ response to the Poison invitation.

Almost every head-coaching vacancy in the NFL or with a major college football team is accompanied by speculation that Gruden is under consideration for the job. He is coy when asked about a return to coaching, predictably saying he wants to become as good at broadcasting as he can so that’s what he’s focusing on. Gruden seems aware there may be more of an upside, and a far more comfortable lifestyle, to reaching the top of the broadcasting profession, at least while his boys are still around. Still, if the right team with the right quarterback came calling at the right time, America might lose Chucky as an announcer for a few seasons.

When asked if her husband is happier broadcasting than he was coaching, Cindy pauses and then says, “Sometimes I think Jon has two monsters on his shoulder. One is go back to coaching, and the other is stay with this, have a nice life with his family. He’ll always have those two monsters.”

Gruden nods, seems to think it over and shrugs. “At least, no matter what happens, I’ll have tape to watch—and a seat at the FFCA.”

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read more: sports, football, issue december 2012


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