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Gruden instilled championship mentality early
By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- There was a time, an eternity given the NFL's dense-as-plutonium years, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a joke -- a one-note punchline for bad.

And then Tony Dungy arrived as head coach in 1996 and, soon after, the Bucs arrived with him. Tampa Bay averaged nine wins a season and made the playoffs four times. But when the last three seasons resulted in only a single playoff victory and the offense never seemed to progress beyond a raw, rudimentary level, Dungy was asked to leave.

The chaos that ensued revealed an organization in disarray and recalled all those bad jokes that the "Yucs" had spawned.

"I'll never forget at the Pro Bowl," said strong safety John Lynch. "We don't have a coach they fire Tony and we're supposed to have Marvin Lewis, (Bill) Parcells. We kind of became the laughing stock of the league for a while because it was such a zoo going on."

Jon Gruden
Gruden has clearly led the Bucs in the right direction.
After all the nonsense, all the games, the Buccaneers decided that Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was their final, final answer. For this, they paid dearly: $8 million and four prime draft choices as compensation to Raiders owner Al Davis and $17.5 million for Gruden's five-year contract.

"All I know is I got traded in the middle of the night. You come into this situation … it wasn't easy," Gruden said Tuesday in the harsh glare of Media Day. "It's not like a whole staff came with me. I was the only coach who came in, selling what I was selling."

What are coaches, if not salesmen? They bully, they bluster, they bludgeon if they have to. Anything to close the deal. Their pitch: "Pay the price," "reap the reward."

The Buccaneers, we now know, bought it.

"We jumped in -- feet first," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "It's your message. Tony (Dungy) was not a rah-rah, confrontational guy. Jon's a juice guy."

The Bucs hired Gruden, in large part, because he is a brilliant offensive technician, the evil twin of defensive strategist Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots. The Raiders' dazzling offense, on display here at Super Bowl XXXII, is Gruden's handiwork. He recycled a journeyman quarterback, and Rich Gannon became the MVP. He aggressively recruited the best receiver in the game's history, and Jerry Rice again became a force. The offensive line, as good as there is, anchors the league's top-ranked unit.

Tampa Bay has not risen to this lofty position, but there has been dramatic progress. More than half of the starters are new this year, but quarterback Brad Johnson achieved some career numbers. In Dungy's five previous playoff appearances, the Bucs scored three touchdowns. They had four in the first half of the divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Still, it is fair to say that Gruden's more important impact on this team -- the reason they are one of two teams left among 32 -- is that juice Sapp is talking about.

"Face to face, two days after he got here I got a message that he wanted to see me," Sapp remembered. "I go right in there, and he gives one of those (classic Gruden grimaces). You know, 'Hey!' I look at him and I smile and I say, 'Listen, coach, in my job, it takes two people (to block me), and it still ain't no lock. So, you're not going to intimidate me.' "

Juice.

The challenge
Gruden is 39 years old, still four months younger than the NFL's next youngest coach, Jack Del Rio Jr., the newly named Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. Gruden's record in five seasons is 54-32, a winning percentage of .627. That compares favorably with Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Paul Brown and Bill Parcells.

They say that today's generation of professional coaches doesn't instill the discipline and the work ethic that those men demanded from their players. Today's pampered, highly compensated athlete doesn't respond, the theory goes, to a demanding, in-your-face approach. Too many coaches -- too many parents today -- just want to be friends.

"I'm like everyone else," Gruden said. "I want people to like me. For some reason, it doesn't always work that way."

Once we got to training camp and he laid out that schedule in front of us, we knew we had a chance to be world champions.
Bucs DT Warren Sapp

Clearly, Gruden is a throwback in the fiery tradition of Lombardi.

"The first meeting," linebacker Derrick Brooks remembered, "he sat down and the first words out of his mouth were 'championship.' We don't have to discuss it amongst nobody but us, and that let you know he was here and he meant business.

"He stared at me and said, 'I'm going to need you to lead this football team.' It was going to be a key in his mind because he knew the loyalty this team had for Coach Dungy.

"We were very receptive to who he was and how he went about his business. We bought into his philosophy real quick because we saw the passion and the desire that he has to win. It's something we share in common."

Gruden, it should be noted, graduated from the University of Dayton with a degree in communications.

"Once we got to training camp and he laid out that schedule in front of us," Sapp said, "we knew we had a chance to be world champions."

In his first meeting with the team, Gruden told the defense that being good was no longer going to be good enough.

"He challenged us," Lynch said. "He felt like it was time for us to become a dominant defense. I think we've become dominant this year.

"What we accomplished, while the league's offensive numbers went the other way, that's something."

That's 12.3 points and 252.8 yards per game and 31 interceptions -- the league's best numbers.

It was Gruden, pushing and prodding, who goaded the defense into achieving its dazzling potential. He asked for nine defensive touchdowns and wound up with five. It is a measure of Gruden's personal charisma that the defensive players were uniformly disappointed that they didn't reach his goal and had to be content to merely lead the league.

Back in training camp, in a 9-on-7 drill, Gruden called a bootleg against his aggressive defense.

"He challenged us by calling us out," Sapp said. "When he ran the bootleg, I just stood there and laughed at him. I told him if he was scared to run the ball then he should just say he was afraid. He looked at me and said, 'I've been looking at your film for the last two years and there have been quarterbacks all around you running around bootlegging.'

"That pissed me off, so I said, 'OK, if you're going to play like that, use the boot.' I had to tell the (defensive) end to watch the boot. It became a challenge the way he poked at us all the time and it became real personal for us.

"It put us in a whole different mindset and light. He really got us going."

Most coaches try to bring harmony to the disparate offensive and defensive units, particularly when one is far superior to the other. According to general manager Rich McKay, Gruden deliberately played the offense against the defense.

"From the first mini-camp, he promoted skirmishes between the offense and defense," McKay said. "I think that invigorated the Warren Sapps, the Derrick Brooks, the John Lynches of the world. They were going to be accountable.

"We had been to the playoffs three years in a row prior to that. I mean, we had done some good things. I think what Jon did was change the mindset. He figured out how the team operates. He did not try to change that dramatically. Clearly, he re-energized us."

Gruden is, unquestionably, the star of this Super Bowl. He is the architect of both teams -- monuments to his hard work, sacrifice and unwavering focus.

But lost amid the celebrations and congratulations of this snarling workaholic is the pressure under which he has operated. Think about it. Faced with meager options, the Bucs spent a total of $25.5 million and mortgaged their short-term future by parting with four draft choices. The deposed Dungy had been to the playoffs three years running. Nothing short of this superb stage would have been acceptable in the minds of some at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.

"It was tough on Jon," McKay said. "He felt it. He internalized it. He worked hard to try to get through, but when we lost the first game at home (to New Orleans in overtime), where we don't lose What I give Jon credit for is he didn't miss a beat. It didn't set him back.

"He came into a situation that wasn't the easiest and he made it as smooth as it could be."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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