Almost three decades haven’t removed the moment from Howard Schnellenberger’s mind.
On the final play of Jay Gruden’s sophomore season at the University of Louisville in 1986, a Florida State defensive lineman twisted the quarterback’s left leg into an unnatural position. Gruden’s anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament were torn.
“I thought they tore it all the way off,” said Schnellenberger, Louisville’s head coach at the time. “I didn’t think he’d ever play again. But he came back.”
The injury is part of an unorthodox path taken by Gruden that led to Thursday afternoon’s press conference at Redskins Park where he was introduced as the troubled franchise’s new head coach.
The same traits of tenacity and toughness that Schnellenberger believed helped Gruden, 46, return from the knee injury will be needed as he takes charge of a team coming off a tumultuous 3-13 season. He is the eighth — and youngest — head coach hired by the Redskins since Daniel Snyder purchased the team in 1999.
“He’s one of my favorites because he’s an overachiever,” Schnellenberger said. “He’s a driven person.”
PHOTOS: Jay Gruden's long and winding road to Washington
That attitude helped carry Gruden, the son of a former college coach and NFL scout, on a winding journey through professional football’s hinterlands. In the pass-happy Arena Football League played on 50-yard fields, he won four championships as a player with the Tampa Bay Storm, then two more as a head coach of the Orlando Predators. The league’s hall of fame, where he was inducted in 1999, dubbed him “the AFL’s own version of John Elway.” One Florida newspaper described Gruden as the “Michael Jordan” of the AFL.
The accolades didn’t diminish the sting from an NFL playing career that never happened.
“I never understood why I never got an opportunity, but I’m still a little bitter over that,” Gruden told the Orlando Sentinel in 2006.
When Gruden’s elder brother, Jon, coached the Buccaneers from 2002 to 2008, he came along as an offensive assistant and continued his football education before they were fired in 2008.
Attention has never been in short supply for the elder brother after coaching the Buccaneers to a win in the Super Bowl in 2003 and, these days, as an analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcasts whose name regularly pops up in coaching rumors. But in the relative anonymity of little-known football leagues and the dusty corners of an NFL staff, the younger brother crafted a reputation for quiet intensity, offensive creativity and a relentless work ethic that made him the first one to hit the weight room or to study film each morning.
“Jay, it takes a little longer for him to get pissed off,” his father, Jim, said from the family’s home in Tampa, Fla. “It can happen to Jon real fast.”
Added Schnellenberger: “Jon is gregarious, outgoing. He’s a music man. He’s an entertainer. Jay is not that. He’s down to earth and doesn’t use more words than he needs to use to get his opinions and thoughts across. His father was a very laid-back guy. Jay takes a lot after him.”
The journey to Washington hasn’t been without bumps. Gruden spent the past three seasons as offensive coordinator for the Bengals. Their season ended Jan. 5 with a 27-10 loss to the Chargers in the wild-card round of the playoffs that continued a string of postseason failures.
Questions followed Gruden’s play-calling. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton turned over the ball three times in the second half and Gruden called for 31 passes in the fourth quarter, despite preaching a balanced attack of runs and passes.
“Sometimes, maybe, I give coordinators too much credit like, ‘OK, this play worked a couple times, no way it’s going to work again,’” Gruden told Cincinnati radio station ESPN 1530. “You outthink yourself, and that’s the whole thing you go through as a coordinator is how to attack.”
Gruden also earned national notoriety for a profane rant captured by the HBO reality series “Hard Knocks” during Bengals training camp in August. After what he believed to be a poor practice, the coordinator invoked the name of a popular cartoon mouse before descending into a bleep-filled tirade that included his disinclination to coach a .500 team and a desire for further attention to detail.
Despite the glitches, he has interviewed for at least six other NFL head coaching jobs since he was hired by the Bengals.
Gruden’s approach has led to success outside the video-game world of the AFL. With the Florida Tuskers of the upstart United Football League in 2009, for instance, he helped quarterback Brooks Bollinger earn the league’s most valuable player award.
“Part of why I felt comfortable as a quarterback was not only what he could teach me just at my position, but how he made everything else flow together,” Bollinger said. “I think his ability to do that with the offense — you know, to get guys in the right places and make concepts match up and all the personalities you have to manage at the other position — I think his understanding of that helps the quarterback have success and feel very comfortable.”
Jim Haslett, the Redskins’ defensive coordinator the past four seasons, hired Gruden as his offensive coordinator with the Tuskers. He then succeeded Haslett as head coach when Haslett left to join Mike Shanahan’s staff as defensive coordinator in Washington in 2010.
Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was part of the Tuskers’ ownership group and interacted with Gruden on a regular basis.
“I watched the way he worked, watched the way he communicated with players, watched the way players responded to working for him,” Theismann said. “Everything was really positive.”
The tight-knit connections around the hire don’t end there. Redskins general manager Bruce Allen held the same position with the Buccaneers from 2004 to 2008 before he and the Grudens were fired. Allen led the coaching search after Shanahan was fired and sat next to Gruden during Thursday’s press conference. The new coach had a five-year contract and tried to push beyond the troubles that led the Redskins to losing records in seven of the past 11 seasons.
“He’s very stoic, a lot more outgoing now [than in college], when he was a man of few words,” Schnellenberger said. “The smile is on his face all the time.”
A smile that won’t soon fade.