Twenty years ago, Jon Gruden was a rookie head coach in the NFL. Like any young coach, he had some learning to do before he established himself as a proven commodity.
Some of those lessons came away from the football field. A little more than a month after his Raiders regular-season debut, Gruden celebrated a 7-6 win over the San Diego Chargers with a bit too much to drink at a postgame team gathering – it’s tough to fault Gruden for turning to alcohol after being involved in a game that featured 27 punts and five interceptions.
The blame came with Gruden’s decision to get behind the wheel of his car for the ride home, from Oakland to Pleasanton. Sure enough, Gruden was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol and subsequently arrested for driving under the influence.
The next day, I learned of Gruden’s arrest and wrote the story. Before submitting the story, I phoned Gruden at home to give him a chance to comment.
His wife Cindy answered and said her husband was watching Monday Night Football. I asked if I could speak with Gruden. To my astonishment, Cindy Gruden passed the phone to Jon Gruden.
After some small talk, I told Gruden the purpose of my call and asked him for an on-the-record comment.
“I’ll wait to see if justice prevails,” Gruden said. “I’m confident it will.”
Once the story broke, Gruden was instructed not to speak about the subject until a later date. That meant that his words to me were the ones that appeared in every story on the topic for a couple of days.
When the media assembled in Alameda for Gruden’s next news conference, I had no idea how I would be treated by Gruden, but I expected some kind of blowback.
The news conference went off without event, though Gruden was peppered with question about his arrest. Afterward, Gruden walked from the front of the media room toward the exit and stopped when he spotted me.
“Hey, when are we going golfing?” Gruden asked.
“Once the season ends, we’ll make that happen,” I replied.
“I’m looking forward to whipping your ass,” Gruden said, as he turned and walked away.
He then paused, turned and said, “But you drive” and patted me on the ass.
I laughed, then processed what had transpired. To me, it signified that the exchange was Gruden’s way of letting me know that he understood my job and that our relationship had not been affected by the story about his arrest.
This story resonates because it was an early example about how Gruden saw the big picture, recognized how everything worked and treated everyone accordingly.
Longtime colleague Jerry McDonald, the most-seasoned Raiders reporter around once summed up Gruden in a way that can’t be topped: McDonald said, in essence, that part of what makes Gruden so successful is his uncanny ability to get everyone in the building to feel as if they are a part of the team’s success.
Gruden’s enthusiasm, work ethic and focus are palpable. He is in the team’s year-round facility before anyone else arrives in the morning and he’s there long after everyone else has departed most nights.
Contrast that with Lane Kiffin, who arrived in 2007 with an inherent distrust of owner Al Davis, CEO Amy Trask and everyone else there before him. He confided in assistant Mark Jackson, who he brought with him from the University of Southern California, and no one else during his 20-month tenure.
Again, it was McDonald who captured Kiffin perfectly when he wrote, fans flock to Gruden when he shows up at a bar such as noted Raiders hangout Ricky’s Sports Bar in San Leandro, whereas Kiffin would have a hard time filling up a table for four even if he was buying.
Bill Callahan, Dennis Allen, Tom Cable, Art Shell and other Raiders head coaches had their critics, too, be it Davis, some in the front office, assistant coaches, players or fans. Gruden was a galvanizing force.
That’s going to come in handy with a Raiders team that is in far better shape than the 4-12 disaster Gruden inherited from Joe Bugel in 1998, but nonetheless a team with issues.
Some of those issues might require Gruden parting ways with a coach, cutting a player or changing the way things are done. Others might just require a friendly pat on the ass.