Today marks the anniversary of the day the Raiders hired Jon Gruden. Yes, they announced Gruden would be their head coach exactly 16 days ago! Well, there’s that. But this also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the other time the Raiders hired Jon Gruden — when team patriarch Al Davis took a flyer on a fresh-faced 34-year-old.
In some ways, the world hasn’t changed all that much since Jan. 22, 1998. The Warriors are getting a lot of headlines again, though now it’s because they’re the best team in the NBA, not because one of their players was getting a hearing after choking the coach (see: Sprewell vs. Carlesimo). And sexual predation is back in the news, though the #MeToo movement and the recent show of support for abused gymnasts look a lot different than the wringer through which we were putting White House intern Monica Lewinsky 20 years ago.
The two Gruden hirings? They could hardly be more distinct. To get a better idea of how things changed, I went into the microfilm and dug up some Press Democrat editions from January of 1998.
One surprise: The initial announcement barely caused a ripple.
In hindsight, it’s easy to believe that Gruden came to Oakland fully formed, already loved for his manic energy and expressive postures. Of course, that’s not true. He was a young assistant coach whom none of us knew much about, and the hiring was treated as such.
The Raiders confirmed Gruden’s signing three days before Super Bowl XXXII, and the little general took a back seat to the big game. The PD had a wraparound sports sheet devoted to the Packers and Broncos; you had to turn a page to find the Gruden story, and there wasn’t much to it. In fact, an adjacent story got just as much space. It was about a Los Angeles city councilman, Nate Holden, declaring that the Raiders’ return to Los Angeles was “imminent.”
After back-to-back seasons of ineptitude under Mike White and Joe Bugel, we seemed unsure what to make of Al Davis turning to this Philadelphia offensive coordinator.
Coverage of that Tuesday press conference, which took place on Jan. 27, was more substantial. For many in the Bay Area, this was our first real look at Gruden, the wunderkind. He sat at a podium next to Raiders senior assistant Bruce Allen, chief legal counsel Amy Trask and, of course, Al Davis.
In ’98, just as in ’18, Gruden declared that he would be calling all the plays. This time, it was fully expected. Back then it was a bold declaration for a young man coaching a team owned by Davis, the infamous meddler.
In 1998, Gruden announced that Bill Callahan, who had coached with him in Philly, would be the Raiders’ offensive coordinator. He also acknowledged that a couple of Raiders holdovers would remain on his staff.
For the most part, though, Gruden would need to go shopping for assistants. He was a young coach in a less-than-ideal environment, and he’d have to sell the situation to colleagues. One measure of how entrenched Gruden has become in NFL circles in the ensuing two decades is how quickly he was able to secure commitments from key assistants this time around. Coordinators Paul Guenther (defense), Greg Olson (offense) and Rich Bisaccia (special teams) were public knowledge before the Raiders introduced Gruden two weeks ago; all three were present at his press conference.