The Jon Gruden many people are accustomed to seeing in recent years bears no resemblance to the seemingly maniacal head coach that stormed the sidelines for the Raiders from 1998-2001.
Once Gruden left the coaching ranks, when he was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shortly after the 2008 season, he retreated to a life of watching his three boys grow up, making up for lost time with his wife Cindy, and breaking down film in a non-descript office in Tampa.
Eventually, Gruden added broadcasting to his lightened workload, as he quickly developed into a rising star at ESPN. Time and again, Gruden spurned overtures from college and NFL teams to get back into coaching.
There are a generation of Raiders fans whose recollections of Gruden are limited to YouTube and ESPN footage, stories told by their parents and whatever comes across their Twitter timeline.
That’s about to change. It won’t be long before Gruden makes his presence felt way beyond cutting into Raiders owner Mark Davis’ net worth by $100 million or so and goosing sales at the local Hooters.
When Gruden joined the Raiders in 1998, he set about making his mark from the outset. His first big move came when he cut high-profile cornerback Larry Brown.
For the story, here’s an excerpt from one of the two chapters on Gruden in “Al Davis: Behind the Raiders Shield,” a book I co-authored with longtime Raiders scouts Bruce Kebric and Jon Kingdon – it was released Sept. 1:
During Gruden’s first minicamp – a time when coaches get a chance to assemble most, if not all, of the players on the roster for practices over a three-day period – veteran cornerback Larry Brown marched into Gruden’s office after one practice.
Brown had joined the Raiders in 1996 — parlaying a two-interception, Most Valuable Player performance in that year’s Super Bowl, as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, into a five-year, $12.5 million contract with the Raiders.
That made Brown one of the highest-paid defensive backs in the league. It did not make him immune from Gruden’s master plan.
Brown played in 12 games his first two seasons with the Raiders, and he performed at a level not commensurate with his lavish contract.
Yet, he still felt emboldened, be it as a result of his shining moment in the Super Bowl, his contract or the fact Gruden was new to the job
On this day, Brown entered Gruden’s office and launched into a tirade. He informed Gruden that he wasn’t pleased with the way his predecessors, Bugel and White, treated him and instructed Gruden, in no uncertain terms, about how he wanted to be used from that point.
Gruden stoically listened as Brown ranted. Once Brown finished, Gruden calmly called Mark Arteaga, his assistant, into his office.
“Mark, would you please buy him a ticket and send his ass back to Dallas,” Gruden said to Arteaga.
Just like that, Gruden jettisoned Brown from the roster. It wasn’t until that afternoon’s practice that the players learned of Brown’s absence.
It suddenly became clear to all when rookie cornerback Charles Woodson, whom the Raiders selected with the fourth pick of the 1998 NFL draft, showed up at practice wearing the No. 24 that Brown had donned earlier that day.
Roster moves were the domain of Davis. Gruden had cut Brown without consulting his boss.
Later that day, Kebric saw Gruden in the coaches’ locker room.
“He was really dejected,” Kebric said.
“Well, I think I’m gone,” Gruden said.
“What are you talking about?” Kebric replied.
“I think I’m going to be fired,” Gruden said.
“Why?” Kebric asked.
“I just put Larry Brown on a plane back to Dallas,” Gruden said.
“You did what?” Kebric said.
“Yeah, Brown came in, he started complaining, and I told him, ‘If you don’t like the way we’re doing things, Mark Arteaga will get you a ticket back to Dallas,’ ” Gruden said.
“Does Al know about this?” Kebric asked.
“No, that’s why I think I’m going to be fired,” Gruden said.
“Jon, this is the best move that you could make because the players don’t care for Brown,” Kebric said. “They know he’s around here only for one reason. He’s one of Al’s scholarship guys. You have a contract, right?”
“Yeah,” Gruden said.
“This will be the first big move that you make in this organization,” Kebric said in an attempt to reassure Gruden.
Davis was upset but there was nothing he could do. Veteran players such as wide receiver Tim Brown quickly warmed to Gruden, as well.
“They jumped on Jon’s side because they thought, ‘Hey, he’s not going to put up with keeping all of Al’s scholarship guys,’ ” Kebric said.
Davis had a penchant for keeping players around longer than he should, if for no other reason than to save face and avoid admitting he had made a mistake. Larry Brown simply was the latest, most-high-profile example.
“It was difficult for Al to concede his mistakes in his choice of free agents or drafted players that he personally and often individually selected,” Kingdon said. “He was a victim of ‘pride of authorship.’ There was a double negative with this attitude. He was throwing good money after bad and tying up roster spots with players that simply could not help the team.”
That Gruden survived getting rid of Brown showed not only that there was a new sheriff in town but that Davis would give Gruden some latitude. Just the same, Davis had been adding assistant coaches to the Raiders staff. This did not deter Gruden, who had a plan in place when he arrived in Oakland.
One day Kebric asked Gruden, “Jon, how do you coordinate 16 assistant coaches?“
“Bruce, I tell them to stay the fuck out of my way,” said Gruden, who also served as his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“They may have had others listed in those roles,” Kebric said, “but Jon ran the whole offensive show.”
Larry Brown was merely the first to learn the hard way that Gruden was hellbent upon winning, and you had better be just as passionate about winning or else you were of no use to Gruden.
In 1999, the Raiders selected well-regarded University of California wide receiver Dameane Douglas, who had just shattered Keyshawn Johnson’s Pac-10 record for most receptions in a season, with 100.
Gruden zeroed in on Douglas early on and never relented. It became apparent that Gruden was going to use Douglas as an example for a team that had lacked toughness and discipline.
At one point, Douglas muffed a punt in a training camp practice, which sent Gruden into an expletive-laced rant, despite the presence of media and fans.
“Dameane Douglas, you’re running around like a blind man, looking for a place to take a fucking shit,” Gruden yelled at a dejected Douglas. “Now get the hell off my god damn field.”
On it went. Sure enough, soon after the Raiders broke camp, Gruden cut Douglas, even though he was a high fourth-round pick on a team in need of receiving help beyond Tim Brown and James Jett. Brown caught a team-high 90 passes, Jett was next among wide receivers with 39, followed by Terry Mickens with 20.
Yes, Douglas could have helped the Raiders. But, he was of more use to the Raiders, in Gruden’s mind, as an example to others that anything less than full dedication to the cause no longer would be tolerated.
Somewhere, Larry Brown and Douglas are shaking their heads and laughing, while those on the Raiders roster ought to be quaking in their cleats and honing their games. The old Gruden is back, and he is going to make sure everyone knows who’s in charge.