San Jose Mercury

No change for Buc
January 11, 2003
Ann Killion
Mercury News

TAMPA, Fla. - The big house opens onto a pool and, beyond that, a lake. There's a small dock, and a boat anchored alongside. Idyllic.

And unused.

``I've never turned that boat on,'' Jon Gruden said Friday. ``The kids are always saying `Let's go ride the boat,' but I don't know how to back it out of there.''

On the surface, nothing much has changed for Gruden. With his midnight switch last February from Raiders coach to Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, he became a bigger fish in a smaller pond. But . . .

``I've never been in the pond,'' he said. ``Except for the gas station, where I get my coffee.''

He still rises at 3:17 a.m. He isn't quite sure of his home phone number. He sees his wife and sons Friday afternoons and postgame Sundays. Sure, his parents live nearby and his brother Jay is on his staff. ``But it's not like we're playing Parcheesi every night,'' he said.

There are, however, some major differences in his life. Gruden didn't have to save the Bucs, the way he had to rebuild, reorganize and revamp the fully dysfunctional Raiders when he arrived in 1998. Tampa Bay is a good team, and many players weren't convinced they needed a new coach when Tony Dungy was fired.

``There were some bitter people in that locker room,'' Gruden acknowledged.

Gruden isn't a kid in his first coaching job. Though at 39 he's still the youngest head coach in the NFL, he's now a proven commodity. He is earning big bucks -- $17.5 million for five years -- and will be judged against the four high draft picks and $8 million that the Bucs handed the Raiders to get him.

``I think he'll always be measured by the stick of what the Glazers paid for him,'' said his mother, Kathy.

And Gruden has learned not to look back. Because if you do, a grenade might smack you in the forehead.

He has heard the revisionist history leaking out of Oakland. He has heard the snipes and shots. Such as, the Raiders lost their last three regular-season games in 2001 because he created so much tension in the locker room.

``I'm sorry about that tension, boys,'' he oozed. ``Maybe if we made a couple of field goals, that our kicker was good enough to make, maybe I wouldn't have been as tense. I a-pol-o-giiiize.''

Another complaint

Or that Jerry Porter never got the chance to flourish under Gruden.

``Maybe Jerry Porter wasn't ready to be an every-down player,'' Gruden said. ``Maybe 10 years from now Jerry Porter will say it was a beneficial time in his career.

``Not every student likes the lesson, but someone has to make a decision. You're the head coach. You'd like everybody to love you, to follow you. That's the goal. But there are 53 men on a team.''

Or that bringing in Rich Gannon and Jerry Rice was actually the work of Al Davis.

``That's exactly right,'' Gruden drawled. ``I didn't want any of those guys.''

Or that the Raiders' offense was handcuffed by his play-calling.

``I thought we did some pretty good things,'' he said, tiring of the game. ``We talked about great things and didn't quite get there. I hope they continue to explode to a new level. I'm not going to get all sensitive. If someone criticizes me, I'm not going to crumble up and blow away.''

Eleven months ago, Gruden vanished in the Oakland night and popped up in front of a film projector in Tampa. Except for occasional contact with Gannon and Bill Callahan (and the fact that Gruden could meet his old team in two weeks in San Diego), the Raiders are in the past.

``I'm gone and the new guy there is doing a great job,'' he said. ``I try not to look in the rearview mirror.''

If he did, here's what he would see: A year ago, Gruden had one year left on his contract. Davis had clearly tired of the Gruden job rumors -- Ohio State, Notre Dame -- and the coach's stardom.

Though the Raiders had talked about a new contract during the season, sources say Davis backed off his original promises. Gruden was heading into a lame-duck year.

Then Tampa Bay's coaching search devolved into slapstick. The Bucs passed on Marvin Lewis. Bill Parcells passed on them. When Steve Mariucci got involved, the Raiders got busy. Davis saw that Gruden could end up in San Francisco, coaching his archrival, and struck a midnight deal. The Grudens' phone rang Feb. 18 at 1 a.m. and, within minutes, the family was heading to Florida.

``I was just shocked,'' Cindy Gruden said. ``But this is the perfect place for us.'' So far.

Family pitches in

The in-laws help Cindy with the three boys (Jayson, 2, is the only one who still growls ``Go Raiders!'' to Bucs fans). And Gruden's team had the best season in Buccaneers history, compiling a 12-4 record.

Yet Sunday's game -- Bucs against 49ers -- is the game Gruden is supposed to win. Actually, it's the game before the game he is supposed to win. The Bucs hired him to get to the Super Bowl.

It's a lot of pressure. But Gruden doesn't worry whether he was worth the high price extracted by the Raiders.

``I'm worth a pair of size 9 turf shoes,'' he said. ``Whoever is in this position is expected to win games.''

Others see his value differently.

``He's worth every draft pick we gave up,'' said longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who loved talking football with Gruden at the Florida beach in past summers. ``You never know what a draft pick is going to do. But we knew what we got when we got Jon Gruden.''

Though Gruden's success is only marginally better than Dungy's, and his revamped offense has struggled much of the season, his impact has been felt everywhere.

``He's made the offense accountable for every snap it takes,'' defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``And he's spread joy and love and fun. You've never seen anything like the bounce we have now.''

The challenge

Gruden won the players over by challenging them to be great, not good. He won them over with his self-deprecating humor and his crazed competitiveness.

``Tony had such respect and admiration from the whole locker room that it had to be someone special to replace him,'' safety John Lynch said.

After a season under Gruden, even the most devoted Dungy disciples concede that the Buccaneers needed a change.

Gruden, for his own comfort and long-term job security, needed a change, though you won't get him to acknowledge it.

``I'm the anti-comfortable man,'' he said. ``I'm not thinking about 2005 or 2007. I live in the short, immediate term. We're in the NFL. And these guys are hungry.''

In that way, life this January is the same as it was last January.

``The practice field is the same size,'' Gruden said. ``My film projector is the same size.'' But, it is pointed out, his house is bigger.

``Is it?'' he asked with surprise.

Maybe he's right. In Gruden's world, nothing much has changed.

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