Contra Costa Times

Bucs are Gruden believers
January 11, 2003
Former Raiders coach created high expectations when he accepted the job in Tampa Bay, and his new team has responded

By Ann Tatko

The two men stood face to face for the first time almost 11 months ago.

One was the youngest head coach in the NFL at 38 years old, named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World" in 2001. The other was considered one of the NFL's fiercest defensive tackles, named the Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1999.

And it was the coach, Jon Gruden, who was trying to stare down the player, Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Our first meeting he gave me that look, the intimidating look," Sapp told Bay Area media Wednesday. "I kind of laughed and told him, on my job it takes two and it still ain't a whole lot, so please don't try to intimidate me. We broke the ice real quick."

That look, perfected during Gruden's four seasons of coaching the Raiders, was about the only thing Sapp and his Tampa Bay teammates didn't buy when Gruden took over the Buccaneers on Feb. 18.

The message Gruden conveyed meant more. A lot more to a team of players who had advanced to the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons under popular coach Tony Dungy.

Gruden expected more. Throughout the spring, he spoke repeatedly about winning, not just regular-season or playoff games but also the Super Bowl.

That objective begins Sunday in Tampa, Fla., with an NFC divisional playoff game against the 49ers.

During the offseason, Sapp ventured into Gruden's office several times to hear the speech. He had become a believer.

"If I'm comfortable with the head man, then I'll be your (most loyal) soldier," Sapp told Tampa media earlier this week. "I'll spread your message throughout the ranks. If you've got the right message for us, here we go, because I know we have the ability to get it done. That's never been a question in my mind."

It was a question for the Bucs ownership.

Dungy had resurrected a Tampa Bay franchise that had posted 13 consecutive losing seasons before his arrival in 1996. He had built a defensive juggernaut, but his offense, one of the worst in the NFL, had kept Tampa Bay from reaching the Super Bowl.

So the Buccaneers fired Dungy after a 31-9 wild-card playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last January.

The ensuing search for a new coach became a soap opera as deals with legendary coach Bill Parcells, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and 49ers coach Steve Mariucci collapsed.

Finally, the Bucs decided to spend what had seemed like too much only a few weeks earlier. They gave the Raiders $8 million, two first-round draft picks and two-second round picks just to talk with Gruden.

To actually get him, they had to offer him a five-year, $17.5 million contract.

In some ways, Gruden already has earned the team's faith by surpassing Dungy.

The Bucs won a franchise-record 12 games, with none of their four losses occurring consecutively. They won the NFC South title. They earned a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs as the No. 2 seed.

Yet, none of that is enough for Gruden.

"We want to win a championship," he said. "The best way to do that is to help yourself in the playoff format. Getting a bye is a great start."

Gruden knows that records, seedings and byes don't guarantee postseason success. He made the playoffs in his final two seasons with the Raiders. He went 1-1 each time.

No season, no team under him, ever is perfect.

He may have the league's top-ranked defense in total yards and points allowed, but he also has an offense ranked 24th in total yards and 18th in points scored.

"We're going to make strides here to improve and get to where we want to be on offense," Gruden said. "We're confident we can make that happen."

Gruden has done it before. In 1998, his first season with the Raiders, his offense ranked 18th in total yards. A year later, it finished fifth.

In many ways, Gruden's foundation played an integral part in the Raiders' offensive prowess this season, said Bill Callahan, his successor. The Raiders ranked first in total offense and earned the AFC's top seed.

"I think that's one of the greatest tributes, one of the greatest compliments you can give to one of your former bosses," Callahan said last week. "He left a legacy and to carry that on was important."

Gruden is only the third coach in NFL history to take different franchises to the playoffs in consecutive years. Mike Holmgren and Dungy were the other two.

But that's as far as Gruden will go in comparing his life now to the one he had in Oakland.

"No two situations are the same," Gruden said. "Obviously, I have great respect for where I came from. At the same time, this is a real exciting time of my life. I love being down here. We have a lot to prove here."

Under normal circumstances, Gruden would find unwavering family support in Tampa, where his parents, Jim and Kathy, have lived for about 20 years.

But Sunday's game is different. This time, he will go up against a 49ers team that employs his father as a regional scout.

Since the 49ers' first-round victory over the New York Giants last Sunday, Jim and Jon haven't spoken. The two usually talk by phone at least four times a week.

"I feel like he left me," Jon said, chuckling. "It's the most important time in my coaching career and my dad left me."

At least he will have his mother on his side.

"My mom will never change," he said. "My mom's with me."

Gruden's coaching career has taken him all over the country, including stops at the 49ers as an offensive assistant and the Philadelphia Eagles as offensive coordinator.

Yet, his 16-year career never has brought him to any place that has felt quite like his current one.

"This is the place I really do call home," Gruden said. "I moved around somewhat like a gypsy, in my earlier years. This is a place I have a passion for and would definitely like to be a part of winning a championship here."

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