Will Jon Gruden be the Second Coming for the Raiders? Can Jonny G become as big as Jimmy G?
As you know, Gruden had the job in 1998, but things were different. Back then he would have needed to boost his public profile dramatically to rise to the level of an unknown quantity.
That was before he won a Super Bowl (Tampa Bay in 2003), became a national ESPN TV presence or was named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” by People Magazine. (Seriously, in 2001.)
Nope, when he got the Raiders’ job, he was the youngest coach in the NFL at 34, and his success was no slam dunk. The late Bobb (that’s right, with three “b’s”) McKittrick, then the offensive line coach for the 49ers and a Gruden mentor, captured the conventional wisdom.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” McKittrick asked. “Even if he gets fired after two years, he’s still only 36.”
To recall those days, I went back into the archives and looked up one of my favorite writers — me. I was writing a sports column for the San Francisco Chronicle then, and like everyone else, I was in Gruden’s thrall.
At first, we didn’t know what to make of him. With his visor, blonde surfer ’do and sideline snarl, he looked more like an angry golf pro than a head coach.
But he had us when he bit off the first sound bite. In 1997 the Raiders went 4-12. And not a promising, saw-a-lot-of-good-things-out-there 4-12 either. They were awful.
“We don’t talk about those times, that’s for damn sure,” Gruden growled. “Unfortunately, we are known as a team that folds in the face of adversity. (Sound familiar?) Well I’d like to judge this team on this team. Not what happened years ago.”
You know the rest. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, Gruden’s work with journeyman quarterback Rich Gannon began to pay off. He won consecutive AFC West titles, then was traded to Tampa Bay by Raiders owner Al Davis.
There he won three division titles and the Super Bowl.
He was fired in Tampa in 1999, but even handled that with flair. He founded the FFCA (Fired Football Coaches Association), a football think tank, which turned out to be a place to hang out until he was hired as a talking head for Monday Night Football.
What I’d forgotten was what a hoot his wife, Cindy, is. Together they were the First Couple of Bay Area sports. Jon with the glower and Cindy with the witty counterpoint.
They met at the University of Tennessee. Cindy, a former cheerleader, was a grad student and Jon was on the coaching staff — sort of. Mostly he was a gofer.
“He used to try to impress me with that ‘X-Y jet scramble’ football talk,” she said. “You know how he is. He is so full of bull. He just loves to spin a story. But he had his act together, which was rare at that early age.”
The two embarked on the kind of quixotic coaching journey that had failed dreams written all over it.
The big leap off the high dive came when he gave up a steady job coaching wide receivers at the University of Pacific to come to the 49ers as sort of a video librarian/food-run/hang-arounder.
McKittrick described it as “a 16-hour-a-day part-time job.” He also said his son tried it for a while but quit because he found it too dull and unrewarding.
Gruden rode a bicycle to 49ers headquarters — it was all he had — and made an impression. McKittrick says he would look up during meetings and see that Gruden had set up a desk in the hall and was taking notes.
After that it was just one tropical vacation spot after another. He got an assistant’s job in Green Bay, which is where they had Jon II (known as Deuce).
“With the wind chill, it was 84 below the day he was born,” Cindy recalled.
He landed the offensive coordinator job in Philadelphia, where he clashed with famously self-absorbed running back Ricky Watters. In one game the Eagles ran four plays inside the 20 and Watters didn’t get the ball. He ran off the field, pointing at Gruden and holding up four fingers to represent how many times he’d been overlooked.
“Yeah,” Gruden said later. “What you didn’t see was me in the press box giving him the finger back.”
So, will this work the second time around? Who knows? There’s lots of talk about whether he can mentor quarterbacks, but it says here Derek Carr is going to thrive. If you run down the list of passers he worked with — see Phil Barber’s column — it reads less like a “Who’s who” and more like a “Who?”
Gannon, who may be on Gruden’s staff, was his Raiders success story, and remains a fan. The guy can coach. And he can scheme you dizzy with play calls.
The only question is if he wants to put in the maniacal hours that made him successful. Frankly, not many coaches return to the game and succeed. So he may not.
But it won’t be dull. Ask Cindy, who grew up in sleepy Knoxville, Tennessee.
“It used to make me crazy, it was so quiet,” she said. “Then I met Jon and there was no more of that.”
Contact C.W. Nevius at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cwnevius.