Just 350 yards separated Jon Gruden from proving a point to his younger brother, Jay, and as he made the turn down Old Saybrook Avenue, his feet pounding the pavement and sweat ringing the collar of his shirt, he began thinking of the most boastful, cavalier and, perhaps, crude way to turn back and deliver an I-told-you-so.
Jon was a workout warrior, a ham-and-egger, a driven athlete who tied tires to trees in the backyard of his family’s home for target practice and, when that got mundane, would grab a sack of footballs, throw them alone on a field, wrangle them up and throw them back. He was committed to giving himself every advantage possible; a backup quarterback at Dayton, Jon took nearly everything personally, which is why, in his mind, nothing was ever done without purpose.
Jay was different. He had more innate talent than his older brother, which allowed him to take the path of least resistance — and often without repercussions. Tall and gangly as a kid, his teenage years showed mercy upon him in the way they can wreak havoc on others, gracing him with strength and stamina.
One day in the summer of 1983, Jon finally snapped. At his parents’ home in Tampa, Florida, after completing his freshman year in college, he returned from a workout to find Jay, three and a half years younger, sitting on the couch in the living room and mindlessly staring at the television screen. Part of Jon’s routine was running a lap around the neighborhood — 1.2 miles, a distance measured in those days by the odometer, not an app — and he challenged Jay to a race.
“I wanted to bury him,” Jon recalls.
Off they went, counter-clockwise around the Carrollwood streets named for legendary golfers — Trevino Place and Nicklaus Circle and Palmer Drive — past the other low-slung houses and the droopy date palms and the towering slash pines, lock-step with each other. There was no advantage as the brothers hung a left onto Casey Road, then one final left a tenth of a mile down onto Old Saybrook.
Their father, Jim, spotted the two in the distance. All of a sudden, Jay started getting closer. His stride lengthened. His brother looked helpless.
“Right about the halfway point, I had about a 20-yard lead, and then 40, and then I just killed him!” Jay says, the adrenaline still alive in his voice, the excitement lifting him out of his seat.
Jay danced in the driveway, his arms in the air like Rocky Balboa, his laughter between breaths delivering a mix of contentment and comeuppance.
“It crushed me,” Jon says, a tinge of humility in his voice three decades later. “The guy did nothing all summer, and the college quarterback who worked out twice, three times a day — I got beat like a drum.”
Jay has, for much of his life, lived in his older brother’s shadow — first as a football player, now as a football coach. Parallels were hastily drawn in January, when Jay was hired by the Washington Redskins to be their 29th coach, between his acceptance of such a job and the pedigree of his last name.
Yet Jay’s path has been considerably more unorthodox than his brother’s, almost to the extent that by endlessly tilling lower levels of football, he became the anti-Jon.
In the end, Jay’s hope is that he will be remembered for one trait — one that, ironically, would again link the two in the sport’s annals, one that Jon recognized on that humbling summer afternoon.
Jay wants to be a winner.
A football education
The youngest of three boys, Jay was born in Tiffin, Ohio, a city of roughly 20,000 in the north-central part of the state that presents itself as a former glass- and porcelain-manufacturing center.
Jim, his wife, Kathy, and the two older Gruden boys, Jim Jr. and Jon, moved to the area in the late 1960s, when Jim became an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Heidelberg College.
Jay was born two years later, and two years after that, Jim got a job as an assistant at the University of Dayton, overseeing quarterbacks and running backs for coach John McVay. The Grudens moved south, then set off for Bloomington four years later when Jim joined the staff at Indiana. A 200-mile trek up U.S. Route 31 to South Bend followed three years later when Jim became the running backs coach at Notre Dame.
“I thought the moves were good for them because they learned how to get along with new people,” Jim says. “It wasn’t easy for them, because everywhere they went, they had to adjust and meet new people. But if you’re an athlete, it’s far easier.”
No matter where the family settled, sports became a focus. Baseball was the boys’ first love; in Bloomington, Jon and Jay were afforded a rare opportunity to play together on the same team. When they grew older, Jim and Kathy occasionally would take them to Riverfront Stadium for Cincinnati Reds games.
One night, the three boys were thrilled to find out they’d be able to take a photograph with a Reds player. On the trip, they fantasized about getting the chance to meet Pete Rose, unaware that the player was not of their choosing, but of the team’s.
When they finally made it to the upper deck, the site of the photo op, they were greeted by a wiry, fresh-faced, Venezuelan 20-something-year-old rookie — definitely not Rose. Bleached over time by the sun, the picture sits on a bookshelf in the Gruden family’s living room, each of the three clearly disappointed, if not disgusted.
Leaning in behind them, arms outstretched? Dave Concepcion.
“Jay was just like, ‘Where’s Pete? Where’s [Johnny] Bench?’” Jim says, smiling. “Davey Concepcion. They had never heard of him.”
Jim Jr. was finishing up his senior year of high school — he would be named the valedictorian of his graduating class and became a radiologist — when the Grudens moved to South Bend in 1976. Their father slowly grew comfortable allowing his two younger boys to spend time around the Fighting Irish players, including, that first year, a quarterback named Joe Montana.
The benefit was two-fold: Jon and Jay would get a chance to spend time with their father while also learning that it was possible to adequately balance athletics and academics. Jay would spend many of his formative years in and around his father’s teams, first with Notre Dame and, beginning in 1982, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ingratiating himself by taking a keen interest in his surroundings.
“He was probably one that took the most stuff in while watching and observing,” recalls Doug Williams, the Bucs’ starting quarterback in 1982 who went on to win Super Bowl XXII with the Redskins and is currently a Washington personnel executive.
“It wasn’t like he was running up and down the sidelines and not paying attention to what was going on.”
Tampa would mark the Gruden family’s last stop, and Jay became a well-rounded athlete. He played baseball and football at Chamberlain High School — if not for the calendar, he would have pursued basketball, too — and threw for more than 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
In 1999, the St. Petersburg Times named Jay Gruden one of the 99 best high school football players in Hillsborough County history.
“He wasn’t the best player on the field, but he was the kind of guy who did all the things right,” said Tino Martinez, the longtime first baseman for the New York Yankees who played baseball against Jay at rival Jefferson High School in Tampa. “He wasn’t a real rah-rah guy. He was just a quiet guy who did his thing the right way and played to win and played hard.”
Gruden’s football accolades drew the advances of Bobby Bowden and Florida State, but intrigued by the possibility of immediate playing time, Gruden instead accepted a scholarship offer to Louisville. The school had just hired Howard Schnellenberger, who righted a sinking ship at Miami and ran an appealing pro-style offense.
The Cardinals were awful his first three seasons, going a combined 8-24-1, with the lowlight a crushing hit Gruden took in a game against Florida State in 1986, his sophomore season. Two rushing defenders sandwiched his left leg as he dropped back to pass; the blow destroyed the ACL, the MCL and the cartilage in Gruden’s knee, but he did not redshirt, returned for the opener the following season and threw four touchdown passes in a 42-40 victory over Tulane.
“I thought they tore [the leg] all the way off,” Schnellenberger said earlier this year. “I didn’t think he’d ever play again, but he came back.”
Louisville went 8-3 during Gruden’s senior season, finishing the year with a six-game win streak. He completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 2,605 yards, 17 touchdowns and 18 interceptions and figured, surely, a professional career was next.
It wasn’t. Instead, Gruden’s NFL career was limited to a few days in the Miami Dolphins’ training camp, where he was just another quarterback behind Dan Marino. He was quickly released, ending his shot at playing at the highest level.
Jim Gruden, fired with the rest of the Buccaneers’ coaching staff in 1984, was a scout for the San Francisco 49ers during his son’s senior season. He didn’t even recommend signing Jay because his team had Montana and Steve Young at quarterback, but he still finds it curious that nobody else would give him a shot.
A degree in communications in hand, Jay Gruden thought he’d use it toward some kind of broadcast career, perhaps journalism. But having his one passion ripped away motivated him another way: If he couldn’t play, he’d coach.
“It was the only thing I knew, football,” Gruden says. “I wasn’t a great student. I couldn’t see myself selling insurance or running a business. I know football. I like football. I love the game. It interests me. I felt like I was good at it, both from the Xs and Os and from playing it. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Dream takes a detour
The cover of this year’s edition of the Orlando Predators’ playbook has a photo of Jay Gruden, in his No. 7 jersey, leaning into the huddle, barking out a play.
“I wanted people to know, and I still do, that the head coach of the Washington Redskins was once the head coach of the Orlando Predators — and a player — so it makes these guys believe, too,” says current Predators coach Rob Keefe.
Rarely does a summer job turn into a 17-year career, but when Gruden returned home to Tampa following the 1991 season, his second as a student assistant at Louisville, he needed to find a way to make money.
The Pittsburgh Gladiators, a team in something called the Arena Football League, announced they were moving to the new Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg. That piqued Gruden’s interest, and he was sold when he noted the schedule lasted from the first week of June to the first week of August.
It wasn’t quite the game he loved, but the game he loved hadn’t particularly loved him back.
“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.
That windfall never arrived, and Gruden, hoping to hedge his bets, began to canvass his options. In a stroke of fortune, his brother Jon was hired to coach the Buccaneers prior to the 2002 season, and Jay linked on as an offensive assistant, working mostly with the passing game.
“[It was] a tremendous advantage,” says former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski, who worked as a commentator for the Buccaneers’ preseason games from 2003-2006 and, later, with Jon Gruden on the “Monday Night Football” broadcast. “It was a tremendous opportunity to work with the quarterbacks and work with the wide receivers and see how Jon was doing it and how NFL coaches were doing.”
While his brother was famous for his 3:17 a.m. wake-up call, Jay Gruden would often wake up at similar hours, driving down the I-4 corridor from his Orlando home to make it to Tampa in time for practice. He’d make that trip routinely during the NFL season for seven years, back and forth, occasionally sleeping at his parents’ home to afford him some semblance of a break.
Jim and Kathy would worry about Jay’s well-being — about surviving that 90-mile trip in the dark of the night, holding their breath that he’d make it to and from his home. That first year, when the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII, he was given a championship ring — one he’s kept locked in a safe and never worn, fearing he hasn’t earned the right to do so.
In December 2008, the Arena League crumbled under the weight of its business model and declared bankruptcy, pushing Gruden out of a job. Less than a month later, the Buccaneers’ coaching staff was fired, leaving Gruden without a second job.
That year, Jon Gruden started the Fired Football Coaches Association, a think tank where those interested in learning from other coaches could network and poach ideas. One of those coaches was Jim Haslett, who, months later, accepted a job as the coach of the Florida Tuskers, one of four franchises in the start-up United Football League.
Haslett offered Jay Gruden the opportunity to be his offensive coordinator, which, despite the team being based in Orlando, still caused the out-of-work coach some consternation.
“Hey, my first two checks cashed,” Haslett told him, only half-jokingly, and Gruden was sold.
After one season, Haslett left to join Mike Shanahan in Washington as the Redskins’ defensive coordinator. Gruden was promoted to head coach, but, bitten by the experience with Tampa Bay and with the Arena League, he knew he needed an escape plan.
In 2011, after one season coaching the Tuskers, Gruden interviewed to become the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator. He pitched coach Marvin Lewis on how he installed an offense in the UFL that led the team to two consecutive championship games, knowing that, with the NFL lockout in full swing, he may not have much time to teach his scheme to the players.
“He understands his personnel and he’s going to maximize the strength of his personnel to the fullest,” says Cortez Hankton, a wide receiver who played for Gruden and the Tuskers in 2010 and is now the wide receivers coach at Dartmouth. “He was just a great guy to play for, and I could only imagine being able to play for him at the highest level.”
Thriving on competition
The tan walls of the living room in Jim and Kathy’s house are spotted with photos of their sons, and Jim takes delight in pointing out how each one represents a different phase of their careers.
On one wall, opposite a patio, is a large, finished wooden bookcase, housing all measures of trinkets — the Concepcion photo, game balls from Jim’s and Jon’s milestone victories, pins and mugs and glass bottles all adorned with logos from the family’s coaching stops.
The side walls hold Jim Jr.’s diplomas and Jon’s magazine stories and a panorama of Qualcomm Stadium when the Buccaneers defeated the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl. In the corner, behind the flat-screen television, next to the one of Jay in his Tampa Bay Storm uniform with the Zubaz-patterned pants, is one of Jay sitting at the table, leaning over a microphone, at his introductory news conference with the Redskins in January.
“Not many families could say they have two children who were head coaches in the National Football League,” Jim says. “We’ve been blessed.”
Jay Gruden spent three years as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, overseeing an offense that was ranked in the bottom third of the league when he was hired to 10th in total yards in 2013.
His reputation precedes him — not necessarily as an offensive mind, but as a communicator and a motivator.
“He’s got another gear that people don’t know about,” Jon Gruden says. “When it starts, when it’s time to compete, he’s got tremendous competition skills.”
He’s reserved, casual, cool. He’s sarcastic, fiery, intense.
“A great guy with great energy,” says Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. “He expects a lot out of us, and that’s what you want — you want your coach to expect a lot out of you. He’s hard on us. He yells at us. People say, ‘Oh, you’re the quarterback, he shouldn’t do that.’ No, he was a quarterback. He understands that sometimes you need to be yelled at.”
In the preseason, as Jay prepared for the Redskins’ opener against New England, he spoke of wanting to make sure he was able to keep order on the sideline, that everyone was prepared for every situation. Afterward, he noticed it was he who was out of order, spending a bit too much time on adjusting offensive mistakes and forgetting he had a defense and special teams to oversee as well.
“I think one of the tougher things to do moving from coordinator to head coach is you’ve got everybody that you’ve got to have a plan for,” says Lewis, the Bengals’ coach. “You had a plan as a coordinator — but now you’ve got to have a plan for the entire football team.”
The night Gruden was hired by the Redskins, as he mingled with his wife and sons, the magnitude of his opportunity finally hit him. He had waited for years for this — decades, even — from the days he was throwing passes at Buccaneers practice to the records he set in high school to the Arena League championship trophies he held high above his head.
“I was excited,” Gruden says. “But I was more [thinking], ‘What’s my plan of attack? Where do I get started? How do I get this thing right?’”