SAN DIEGO The intensely single-minded Jon Gruden is of two minds this week. After all, the coach’s new team will battle his old one for Super Bowl XXXVII in what he called a “pretty weird” situation.
Gruden left Oakland for Tampa Bay last February after a falling out with Raiders owner Al Davis, and the switch cost the Buccaneers two first-round draft choices, two second-rounders and $8million. Which, of course, makes Gruden leading the Bucs to their first Super Bowl and having their opponent be the Raiders the big story of the week.
The humble side of Gruden said he wished all the “Gruden vs. the Raiders” stories would “hopefully be a sidebar, page 19, lower right-hand column,” but the ever-intense coach couldn’t keep his brash nature hidden too long during an hourlong media day session.
After citing coaches like Mike Holmgren, Walt Harris and the late Bobb McKittrick and Davis as the major influences on his coaching philosophy, Gruden was asked what that philosophy was.
“Just win, baby,” he said to laughter from the crowd of reporters, all of whom know the phrase as Davis’ longtime motto.
And told that Raiders offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy said the coach had a Napoleonic complex and wanted to rule the world, Gruden grinned and said, “He’s exactly right about that.”
But Gruden was serious when it came to discussing his well-publicized departure from the Raiders last winter, when they wouldn’t extend his contract, which had a year remaining.
“I obviously have some emotions that will run deeply during the week at times,” Gruden said. “I am really proud that a lot of those players and coaches and people are going to enjoy this week and have an opportunity to compete for the championship. I had four great years that I’ll never forget, [but] I don’t live in a rearview mirror. I don’t try to relive that whole thing. In some ways, it was a very trying time for me personally. I’m sensitive about some of that stuff. That’s why I try not to be real deep and philosophical about it. The more you leave it in the rearview mirror, the better it is for everybody. I’m excited that everything has worked out so far. Hopefully we can all continue to have a nice, happy life.
“There is no way that I will ever be able to live up to the draft picks or whatever the compensation package was the ransom demands. I think there’s some swampland in Florida that was included. I’m very proud and very respectful of where I come from. I learned a great deal and met some profound people an owner who taught me a great deal. I learned a lot about passion, how important that is to be a winner in the NFL. I respect Al tremendously. He handled that whole situation with great class. I have no bitterness. Maybe they do.”
Davis wasn’t available yesterday, but neither the Raiders’ players 35 of whom played for Gruden and 29 of whom he brought to Oakland nor successor Bill Callahan who called him the finest mentor or tutor he could have had have any resentment.
“[Gruden] got offered $17million [over five years] to leave; who in his right mind would stay?” halfback Charlie Garner said.
“[Gruden] created this team,” Kennedy said bluntly.
Gruden denied that, crediting protege Callahan for a job well done but also noting that the Raiders who lost the AFC Championship game in the 2000 playoffs and an overtime divisional round game last season had been “on the cusp” of the Super Bowl when he left.
That’s the same point to which Tony Dungy had taken the Bucs, NFC finalists in the 1999 season and first-round losers the past two years. Tampa Bay had a terrific defense, but its lackluster offense needed a jolt. So after flirting with Bill Parcells and Steve Mariucci, Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer laid out the unprecedented compensation for Gruden.
Bucs general manager Rich McKay whose father, John, hired Gruden’s father, Jim, as his running backs coach in Tampa Bay 20 years ago said Jon Gruden brought hope to the offense, but after four playoff berths in five years, the Bucs needed more than hope.
“The pressure that I felt was succeeding a coach who did a great job and was loved by his players,” Gruden said. “And I was the only coach that came. It wasn’t like a whole staff came selling what I was selling. I credit the veteran players for giving me an opportunity of doing what I was brought there to do. I was a young [31-year-old offensive] coordinator in Philadelphia [in 1995], and that was a hard sell, earning the respect of [quarterback] Randall Cunningham and [halfback] Ricky Watters. It was hard in Oakland as a 34-year-old coach [in 1998] to earn the respect of people. To earn the respect of this team a playoff team was going to be a great challenge.”
It was a challenge that Gruden had no trouble meeting.
“I thought at the time [the compensation] was well worth it, and I think that even more so now,” Pro Bowl safety John Lynch said. “We had a coach who had taken us from a franchise that was struggling to a perennial playoff team, and when ownership got rid of Tony, there were a lot of mixed emotions. We had a lot of affection for him, and it was going to take someone special to come in and really capture this team. Jon certainly did that. From the first day he walked in, he challenged us to be champions. And here we are with the opportunity to call ourselves world champions.”
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