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With Gruden, it's Super Bowl or bust

Posted: Friday, January 24, 2003

Anyone who thinks Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden is intense now should have seen him then.Not only are most of the stories true, they begin even earlier than people know.

''Because of the age difference, I played on only one baseball team with him,'' brother Jay Gruden recalled Thursday. ''Jon was pitching, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth. I let a ground ball go between my legs, and man, did he ever make me cry.

''He didn't like to lose,'' added the youngest of Jim and Kathy Gruden's three boys. ''None of us liked to lose.''

Jay, now 35, bounced back quickly, but he didn't have a choice. There was never much time set aside in the Gruden household for self-pity.

Today, Jim Sr., is a regional scout for the San Francisco 49ers. But when the boys were growing up, he was a coach and when he got fired, Jim went to work as a salesman without a second thought. There was plenty of tough love, but not always a lot of money.

''Vacations?'' Jay considered a question. ''Only one that I can remember. I think my parents took us to Virginia or somewhere like that in the car. We fought in the backseat the whole time. That was the last one.''

Kathy's job was to raise the kids and break up those fights -- wherever they erupted. She also served as referee for everything from the football games in the backyard to Nerf basketball in the hallways. When the boys were big enough to take their games elsewhere, she became a schoolteacher and later a cancer survivor.

The oldest, Jim Jr., delighted in taunting Jon ''that someday, you'll be my butler.'' Now he's a 41-year-old radiologist in Atlanta. Jay, always caught between his brothers, tried to slip off every so often and watch TV in peace -- only to get dragged back into the middle.

He's with Jon again at the moment, working as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay. But the Sunday after the Super Bowl, Jay will return to his regular job as quarterback of the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League.

He has seen Jon work the sidelines with his features twisted into a ''Chucky'' mask and heard all the stories about his brother's white-hot demeanor. One time, Jon supposedly chased a customer into the parking lot while waiting tables as a teen-ager. His players swear that Jon gets so caught up teaching that he will break into a sweat drawing up plays -- between long pulls on a bottle of Gatorade.

Jay waves off the specifics. There are too many to easily sort fact from fiction. The only thing he's sure of is that nothing will chase Jon out of the business.

''I don't see him burning out and I can't see him doing anything else,'' Jay said.

''He takes a month off during the offseason, in the summer, and rents a condo for his family on the beach near my parents' place in Tampa. One time, we're playing a game and I look in the seats and there's Jon at my game and guess what -- he's drawing plays on a napkin.''

Maybe it's not surprising, given their father's work, that two of the boys wound up in the football business. The strange thing is that while Jim Sr., coached Jay briefly, he credits Jon with teaching him the lessons he needed to go on and play in college and the AFL.

''He beat me up enough to where I wanted to get better and he let me win just enough to where I wanted to compete,'' Jay said.

And while he may have eclipsed Jon as an athlete, Jay holds no illusions the same thing will happen in his coaching career.

Jay won four AFL championships in six seasons as a coach before stepping back on the field. But the thing this latest apprenticeship has taught him is how much he still has to learn from Jon -- that, and how obsessed his older brother remains about the game.

He recalled a visit Philadelphia years ago, when Jon was as an Eagles assistant. After a week of nothing but work and sleep, Jon finally finished on Friday night at 6 p.m.

''The plan was to pick up a couple of beers,'' Jay said, ''and the first thing he had to do was ask somebody where a store was. He'd been there for months, but all he knew about the town was how to get from his house to his office and back.''

The names of the towns where his brother worked have changed and his responsibilities have only widened. Jay is certain that after all this time, there is still only one thing that matters to Jon.

It's the thing that mattered when the lights in the Gruden household were supposed to be turned off, yet he heard the noise of board games being played behind the locked door to Jon's room.

''With him'' Jay said, looking to the game still two days away, ''it's Super Bowl or bust.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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