Gruden: expensive, but worth it

Posted: Monday, January 27, 2003

He was racing up the sideline Sunday, features frozen by the most intense kind of concentration, matching the ball carrier stride for stride. All the while, his right fist was punching the air.

The last time Jon Gruden played in a game that counted was 18 years ago, at the University of Dayton, and ''played'' might be stretching the truth. Gruden, a quarterback, was the holder on place-kicks. He attempted three passes in three years.

He was never much of a player.

But man, he could always coach.

Any remaining questions why the Tampa Bay Bucs handed over four draft choices -- two firsts, two seconds -- and a cool $8 million to ransom Gruden from the Oakland Raiders 11 months ago were answered the moment owner Malcolm Glazer wrapped his hands around the Super Bowl trophy.

''We were waiting for the right man,'' Glazer said, ''and the right man came.''

At that moment, Gruden would have seemed like a bargain at twice the price.

He didn't make a play in the Bucs' 48-21 destruction of the Raiders. But the 39-year-old certainly looked like the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl as he accompanied safety Dexter Jackson some 25 yards after his second-quarter interception, then again for nearly 40 yards as corner Dwight Smith returned another interception for a touchdown and a 34-3 Tampa Bay lead.

It came as little surprise those defensive gems got him so excited. In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, the whole subplot was whether Gruden, like Dr. Frankenstein, could take the knowledge he gained building an offensive juggernaut in Oakland and use it to stop the Raiders in their tracks.

''That was overrated. I stayed away from the defense. That,'' Gruden said, with a nod to what had happened on the field just beyond the stage where he stood, ''was a credit to our players.''

The mindset in pro football used to be get those great players at any cost, then get almost anybody to coach them.

But as the reality of life under the salary cap began to sink in, teams realized that stockpiling players was almost impossible and they decided to get the great coach -- at any price -- to extract more from the players they already had.

That swap produced a championship for the New England Patriots last January. Exactly two years after giving the New York Jets a first-round pick for coach Bill Belichick, a certified defensive genius, owner Robert Kraft called it ''the best deal I ever made.''

It's hard to imagine Glazer saying he got any less bang for his bucks.

Like Belichick, Gruden's players sometimes feel like chess pieces maneuvered by a man who never stops scheming. He rarely sleeps more than three hours a night, a routine that began at Dayton, and he wakes every morning at 3:17 a.m.

''I missed a lot of quality time with my three boys,'' Gruden said, ''but at least winning here gives me an explanation.''

Those manic work habits are the perfect behind-the-scenes complement to Gruden's manic expressions on the sideline. It's how he got the nickname ''Chucky.'' Seeing his face twisted by the emotions of the moment, one of his players in Oakland decided Gruden looked exactly like the killer doll from the horror movie ''Child's Play.''

But until Gruden inherited a strong Tampa Bay defense from his predecessor, Tony Dungy, that nickname was about the only thing anybody had given him the last few years.

''Tony Dungy did a great job and I reaped the benefits of a lot of his hard work,'' Gruden said.

It wasn't the first time he praised Dungy, but even more revealing, Gruden left his predecessor's defensive staff intact. Then he set about putting Tampa Bay over the top by offering himself as an example. What he did was work even harder.

''He came in the first day and said the goal was a world championship,'' All-Pro safety John Lynch said. ''Then he showed us the road map, and we never wavered from that.''

The same Bucs team that finished 9-7 last season and made the first-round playoff exit that got Dungy fired won a franchise-record 12 games in the regular season.

Then, constantly refining the version of the West Coast offense he first learned under Mike Holmgren with the 49ers, Gruden took the Bucs into Philadelphia and posted the franchise's first road playoff victory.

That success should have surprised no one, not the team he landed with or the one he left behind. Gruden's appetite for work is the reason both Ohio State and Notre Dame made runs at him during the 2001 season, why the Glazer family endured ridicule waiting for him and then met Raider owner Al Davis' hefty ransom price.

It's why Gruden sometimes breaks into a sweat drawing plays on a blackboard.

''He's drinking Gatorade drawing up plays,'' quarterback Brad Johnson said earlier in the week. ''That's how intense he is about football. He loves it.''

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



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