Several coaches have served as Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden’s mentors through the years. But the same coach that helped Gruden get his feet wet in the coaching confines of the National Football League is currently preparing his team to defeat his student’s football club.
Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren gave Gruden his first opportunity to coach in the NFL when he was a part of the San Francisco 49ers organization. Holmgren, who is a decedent of the West Coast offense first implemented by Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh in the 1980s, took Gruden under his wing in 1990 while serving as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator.
He was in search of a offensive quality control coach that no one had ever heard of before, and Gruden, who had spent the four previous years coaching at the University of Tennessee, Southeast Missouri State and the University of Pacific, caught Holmgren’s eye.
When he was hired as Green Bay’s new head coach in 1992, Holmgren took Gruden with him, this time to serve as the Packers’ wide receivers coach.
It was there that Holmgren realized Gruden, who was just 29 years old, had what it took to coach, and be a head coach, in the NFL.
“I thought he communicated with his players as a young coach,” Holmgren said of Gruden. “He was a very young guy and he looked young. He looked even younger than his age. Yet he had tremendous presence and he communicated even better with his position. He started coaching wide receiver in Green Bay and we had there, Sterling Sharpe, who in my opinion was one of the greatest ones ever. His career was cut short. He was a tough guy. A good guy. A great receiver. Really smart. But he could be a tough guy to coach sometimes. Jon and Sterling? When he could coach him, I knew he could coach anybody. He’s so competitive. And he’s smart. Really a smart guy. Heck, it was an easy call for me. Again, he helped me, I can’t tell you how much he helped me, and I’m very proud of the job he’s done.”
One of the reasons Holmgren liked Gruden so much was because of his work ethic. Countless hours were put in to developing Green Bay’s receivers and the team’s West Coast offense-oriented attack. But if there is such a thing as working too hard in the NFL, Holmgren said Gruden, who is known for waking up every morning at 3:17 a.m. and getting just four to five hours sleep a night, was definitely guilty of it.
In his book, “Do You Love Football?”, Gruden recalled a time when Holmgren actually threatened to fire him if he didn’t leave the office and go home. Gruden said Holmgren actually gave him $50 and ordered him to go home and take his wife Cindy out to dinner.
According to Holmgren, that story has some validity.
There is (some truth to that),” Holmgren said. “I don’t know that I said I was going to fire him, or if I said it I don’t think he was too worried about it.
“He has a tremendous work ethic and doesn’t need as much sleep as most people. Frankly, I was a little concerned about it. we worked late in green bay, and he was always there later. Family is important to me. I want it to be important. I know it’s important to him and to all my coaches. So, there were a couple times I said,’You’re going home.’ He said, ‘No I gotta do this or that.’ I said, ‘No, you can do this tomorrow.’ I may have said that, yeah.”
Holmgren suggested that Gruden went above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, there were times when Gruden was willing to do anything to get to work and compete at the workplace, where several other future head coaches were in the making.
“Jon came to work a couple times all cut up,” Holmgren said of Gruden. “Bruises and bandages and cut up and knuckles scraped. I was like, what the heck happened to you? He would ride his bicycle at 5 a.m. in the morning, in the winter, from his house to the stadium. And he’d miss a curb or hit a post or all kinds of stuff would happen. I’d say, ‘Why not just drive the car?’ He’d say, ‘No, I got to get my workout in.’ The one thing that I look back on now, that I didn’t know at the time, all those young guys were real competitive with one another. Andy Reid, Steve Mariucci, Gruden, Ray Rhodes were all there. All these guys who were just starting out. Bright, energetic, young football coaches, all trying to make their mark. It was a great situation, very healthy situation, but I’m sure it was tough on them at times. Being the head coach, I was kind of unaware of that stuff, but obviously it worked very well for us.”
In 1995, Gruden was hired by Philadelphia to serve as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Holmgren went on to take the Packers to two Super Bowls (XXXI and XXXII), the first of which he won. In 1999, Holmgren left Green Bay to be the head coach of Seattle, and to this date, he’s compiled a 178-93-1 record and made 12 trips to the post-season.
Needless to say, Gruden, who eventually got his first head coaching opportunity at Oakland in 1998 and landed in Tampa Bay via a trade in 2002, credits Holmgren for some of his success, which includes the Super Bowl championship that he won in his first year as the Bucs’ head coach.
“He’s obviously been a big part of my career as a coach and as a person, and he’s certainly very good at what he does,” Gruden said of Holmgren.
Fans can expect to see a similar style of offense from both Seattle and Tampa Bay on Sunday, but neither coach runs the same exact version of the West Coast offense.
“I think over the years, all of us who were exposed to that offense early on, some of us carried it on in total, some of us changed it,” said Gruden. “The elements of it that seem very similar to me are his crossing packages and throwing underneath to receivers, which he did at Oakland and has done in Tampa. That’s very close to some of the stuff we try to do as well. After that, the running games are different. And I think all of us do what coaches do. You see what kind of personnel you have and you try to adjust and be flexible to that personnel. That’s where the differences come in.”
Ironically, Gruden will be charged with the difficult task of moving the ball on Seattle defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes’ defense. Rhodes was also part of Green Bay staff from 1992-94, and he was the one that hired Gruden in Philadelphia, where Rhodes served as the Eagles’ head coach from 1995-97.
“There’s another guy who’s a very good coach,” Gruden said of Rhodes. “He’s going to have those guys ready to play. I was really impressed, more than anything, with the effort that they played with last week in New Orleans — very, very high effort, all 11 defenders that were on the field. He’s a guy who can do it all. I’ve seen him play maximum zone, maximum pressure, the under front, the over front, the hot front, the nickel. He’s a diverse coach, a great motivator — players play for him. That’s undisputed over the course of his career.”
Sunday will not mark the first time Holmgren and Gruden go up against each other in a regular season game. They played twice a year when Gruden coached Oakland and before Holmgren and the Seahawks realigned from the AFC West Division to the NFC West Division.
“We did battle twice a year when I was in Oakland,” said Gruden. “It’s not the first time we’ve been through this. It’s great respect I have for him. We want to win this game in spite of that.”
For inquiring minds that want to know, the Gruden-Holmgren series is tied up at 3-3. However, that tie will be broken after the 0-1 Bucs and 1-0 Seahawks clash in Raymond James Stadium this Sunday. Who will prevail — the professor or the apprentice?
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