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“It paid less than college coaches but more than high school coaches,” Schnellenberger says. “He endured.”

Behind Gruden, the renamed Tampa Bay Storm went 8-2 and won ArenaBowl V, with Gruden throwing for five touchdowns and rushing for another. He returned the following season, and again, and again, playing six seasons in all for the Storm — and winning four championships.

“He wasn’t the flashiest quarterback, but he was deceptive and solid and won,” says Pat O’Hara, the quarterback of the rival Orlando Predators at the time. “He was just the best quarterback in the league, and he got it done each week. He played hurt. He led his team. People just believed when they were around him.”

Gruden had settled into a routine with the Storm, which, understandably, kept him on the payroll year-round after his first championship season. His wife, Sherry, got a full-time job in marketing for the Buccaneers — “and we had insurance, so we were good,” Gruden jokes.

Good can always be better, and after the birth of his oldest son, J.J., Gruden had a decision to make. He was offered the opportunity to be the offensive coordinator of the AFL’s Nashville Kats — and with it, a guaranteed salary that would have been commensurate with that of a full-time, championship-winning quarterback.

Gruden was concerned about his knee — specifically, the extra stresses it took playing each week on a thin roll of carpet splayed out over a concrete floor. One more hard hit and Gruden could end up on injured reserve, which, in the Arena League, meant filing for workers’ compensation.

He took the offer.

“I would have played,” Gruden says. “If I was single, I’d still be playing in the damn thing.”

One year in Nashville took him to Orlando, where he became the Predators’ coach in 1998. He guided his team to the ArenaBowl that year, and then again in 2000, when they finished the season 13-3.

Gruden was comfortable in Orlando. He told the Tampa Tribune in 2002 that the Arena League was “the best-kept secret in coaching.” He enjoyed the full control he had over the organization — signing players, structuring their contracts, calling the offense and defense, being involved.

Still, the itch needed to be scratched. In 2002, after quarterback Chris Wallace sustained a knee injury, Gruden took advantage of the opportunity, ending his retirement and — at least technically — handing the reins to his line coach, Fran Papasedero, for two seasons. Again, the Predators won, with Gruden leading his team to the conference semifinals each season.

“It was definitely still the Jay Gruden show,” says Siaha Burley, currently the Predators’ offensive coordinator and a wide receiver in Gruden’s first season back under center. “Jay demanded just as much out of the people around him quarterback/coaching as he did just coaching. It meant more because he was in the heat of the battle and the heat of the game.”

Gruden was bullish on the future of the league, which was continually expanding to new markets. In 2000, it even started a minor league, Arena Football 2, that rapidly expanded through the smallest of small markets and had 34 teams two years after it was created.

Attendance in Orlando routinely surpassed 10,000 fans a game, and Gruden had often heard rumblings that the league was on the verge of a television deal that would leave it flush with cash. By getting in on the ground floor, he figured, that money would begin to trickle his way.

When that deal was struck in 2000, it was with TNN, a cable network struggling to find its audience. Another deal was reached in 2003, this time with NBC, which asked the league move its games from the summer to the spring and hold them on Sundays to fill the post-Super Bowl football void.

Story Continues →