Bucs to take on former coach in Jon Gruden

by Gary Shelton on October 23, 2020

in general

Gruden infused the Bucs with a new energy./JEFFREY S. KING

Friday, 4 a.m.

The flavor didn't last. The winning wasn't forever. The scowl wore off.

But there for a while, Jon Gruden was the perfect coach at the perfect time.

For one magical season, he was the perfect supplement to a dynasty. He was filled with energy, and while working with him wasn't the smoothest transition in the world, he set a franchise on edge. He was demanding, and he gave off voltage, and he boosted the Tampa Bay Bucs to the mountain top.

Then he was a champion.

And because of it, Tampa Bay has never forgotten him.

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The Bucs and Gruden cross paths again Sunday night. The franchise that won a Super Bowl, and the coach that drove them to it, face each other in a game in Las Vegas.. It will be the first time Gruden will have coached against the Bucs since he guided the Raiders to a 45-0 victory in 1999.

That 2002 season was magical. After the Super Bowl victory, I suggested that Gruden might have been the best-ever first year coach. How many other rookies have won it all, and remember, Gruden came from the outside. Heck, he mispronounced Mike Alstott's name in his opening press conference.

But he went from not knowing his players to figuring out just how to get the best out of all of them. He retained Monte Kiffin and the defense, but players of that year were quick to sense Gruden's urgency. He made a lot of people uncomfortable, including those in the front office, but there was a different air. Under Tony Dungy, who turned this franchise around, an air of comfort had taken place. Gruden changed that.

Oh, you know the argument. Since that season, fans have argued whether Gruden or Dungy was more responsible for the Super Bowl. It's a silly argument. The truth is that it took both men -- and a lot of others -- to win it. Gruden never won another playoff game. With his offensive staff, it's doubtful Dungy would have won one here. But together, they were the planter and the reaper, and the Bucs harvested a title.

Success didn't stay. The Bucs' defense began to age, and Lynch left, and Sapp, and the Bucs paid for the high cost of obtaining Gruden.

In his later years, I criticized Gruden a lot. Oh, I always thought the guy could coach, but his shortcomings as a general manager kept digging the franchise a hole. He never won another playoff game after that Super Bowl.

In 2006, and I've told this story before, the Bucs started the season 0-4. I wrote on Sunday that it simply wasn't working with Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen, that the losses had started to build. Gruden had a walking-around guy on his staff. In the fifth week, Tampa Bay won a 14-13 game over Cincinnati.

As you know, in the NFL, you earn a lot of forgiveness for winning. So that day, in the locker room, I felt a heavy hand clap me on the back. "I read what you wrote today," the worker said. "Thanks," I said. Suddenly, the guy turned on me. "Lies," he said. "It was all lies! It was bleeping lies!"

For once, I kept my calm. I merely smiled at the guy and said, "Gee. I thought I got the part about being 0-4 right."

Of course, the Bucs didn't exactly improve when Gruden left the building. Raheem Morris replaced him. Greg Schiano came in, then Lovie Smith, then Dirk Koetter. It is only lately that the Bucs have stood upright again.

Was Gruden worth the trouble? Hell, yes. The Bucs won a Super Bowl. Without him, they haven't won any. He was worth his price tag.

That season, Gruden was the trail boss. He prodded that offense. He made them believe that they could win in Philadelphia. He decoded the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Love him or not, blame him for not maintaining Dungy's winning percentage if you win, but his fingerprints were all over that season. They always will be.

For the record, I like Jon Gruden. I find him to be funny and a great interview. I'm sure he didn't like a lot of what I wrote in those days. The Bucs hire their own cheerleaders; they didn't need me to be one.

But if someone from Tampa Bay were to run into him before Sunday night's game, there is just one message from his old homestead.


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