FAB 3. Gruden Wowed The Bucs’ Players
Upstairs in the executive offices of the Glazers they are contemplating the future of head coach Dirk Koetter and the current Buccaneers coaching staff. With a terribly disappointing 4-8 record during a season of high expectations, the Glazers will likely wait it out and evaluate how Koetter finishes the season before deciding to make any moves.
But know that this is the time of year when owners that are considering making a coaching change are communicating with agents and putting feelers out there to gauge interest. The New York Giants already have a head coach vacancy after firing Ben McAdoo and more firings will happen in less than one month, culminating on Black Monday, the day after the end of the 2017 season.
Downstairs in the Bucs locker room, the players aren’t focused on whether Koetter and his staff have four games left or not. They are simply focused on beating Detroit at home and notching their fifth win of the season, as they should be.
During open locker room on Thursday I wanted to get the players’ impressions of former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, who has been rumored to want to return to coaching – possibly in Tampa Bay. Gruden hasn’t coached since he was fired by the Glazers in 2008, and has spent his time studying the NFL and college football while working at ESPN doing color commentary for Monday Night Football and his famous Gruden’s QB Camp show, featuring the top quarterback draft prospects each year.
With Gruden returning to Raymond James Stadium to cover the Bucs vs. Falcons game on December 18 when he will also be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor, I asked some offensive and defensive players how much they know about Gruden. I also wanted to ask the players about the impression he made on them when he addressed the team before practice following his Bucs Ring of Honor press conference on August 2 in training camp.
If you are age 40 or older reading this, the answers may surprise you.
“He is a great guy, but I didn’t really watch football when I was young, so I didn’t know anything about him,” Bucs middle linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “That’s no disrespect to him, but I didn’t know anything about him. I knew who he was by his face and everything. He won a Super Bowl, right?”
“He’s very emotional and he loves the game – you can tell he loves the game,” Alexander said. “Like I said, I don’t know all that much about him because I didn’t really watch football like that when I was young. I was just out playing. I didn’t know no anybody. From what I’ve seen he is a great person and I’ve heard he is a great coach. He is a great person. People listen when he speaks. I guess he did a hell of a job here. That’s all I know.”
Bucs safety Josh Evans was just as clueless about Gruden’s past with the team.
“No, I don’t know much history around football, and I didn’t grow up watching it all the time. I played it, but I didn’t watch it all the time,” Evans said. “He won the Super Bowl in 2002, right? I was in second grade then I think. So no, I don’t remember him.”
Tight end O.J. Howard had heard of Gruden and his achievements before, but never saw him coach in Tampa Bay.
“I know they won the Super Bowl that one year,” Howard said. “I really know him mostly for the quarterback camp he does. The Gruden QB Camp – just seeing him on there grilling those guys and being as competitive as he is. That’s what I mostly know him for.”
Second-year cornerback Ryan Smith also knows Gruden from television rather than the sidelines.
“Honestly, nah, I’d never really heard much about him growing up,” Smith said. “I didn’t even really like football when I was younger. I didn’t pay too much attention to it. I can’t say I know much about things that happened back then. I know that he does the quarterback camps. I know that much, but I probably just learned that a couple years ago. I can’t tell you too much about him.”
It’s interesting that in this day and age how the younger generation of players knows all about Bill Belichick – but not Bill Parcells, his mentor, or Vince Lombardi or Chuck Noll, the men he surpassed in Super Bowl victories. Gruden has been out of coaching for nine years, so for 23-year old Bucs players, they would have been just 14 years old during Gruden’s last year in Tampa Bay.
Yet when the Bucs first met Gruden on August 2 at One Buccaneer Place very few players actually knew who he was.
Until he spoke.
Then they understood why he was a Super Bowl winning coach in Tampa Bay and why he’s going to be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor.
“Any time somebody has won a Super Bowl, I’m very focused and locked in to what they have to say,” Alexander said. “That’s where I’m trying to go. I’m trying to get every little piece of what they did and what made them as a team to help my team out. I’m paying attention. He had me locked in and I learned a little bit from him. Next time I see him I’m going to talk to him even more. When he approached me, I didn’t know him. I knew his face a little bit, but people were like, ‘That’s Jon Gruden.’ It was pretty fun to meet him. I definitely felt the vibe. He’s a great guy.”
Gruden spoke to the team for a few minutes with his typically intense style. As each word left Gruden’s mouth, the players inched forward in their seats.
“I was locked in,” Smith said. “He knows football. He knows what he is talking about. I just felt his presence. He said some real stuff. That was my first time seeing him. I didn’t get to interact with him like face to face, but just to be in his presence was pretty dope. He said some real stuff as far as staying in love with the grind and that the time is now with the people we have. Clearly, the season hasn’t panned out how we wanted it to, but he said some real stuff.”
Evans too was locked in.
“When he came to talk he definitely had a lot of key points,” Evans said. “You could feel the passion he has for football. He rubs some of that off on you and you look at things different. I listened to every word. I didn’t know much about Gruden before, but just hearing him talk he sounds like he knows what he is talking about. Then you find out the background on him and you can see why.”
Howard made sure to grab his notebook and jot down some of the things Gruden said in his speech.
“He spoke to our team and gave some good tips,” Howard said. “I remember taking notes on that. He did a good job of just telling us about that year and what they did when they won the Super Bowl that year – what it took. He gave us tips and a lot of the guys on the team wrote it down. It was a fiery speech.”
Although known for his offensive acumen, Gruden shared that he challenged the Bucs’ Super Bowl-ready defense to score nine touchdowns in 2002. His speech appealed to every player.
Bucs fullback Alan Cross came away thoroughly impressed with meeting Gruden for the first time.
“When I was young I just watched Peyton Manning,” Cross said. “I knew about Alstott and all those guys. I didn’t know – I was a kid – I was too young to know he was the coach. Getting older I’ve heard a lot of great things and he has a lot of words of wisdom. He knows what he is talking about. He’s a ‘Been there, done that,’ type of guy. He’s like an old vet in the locker room, so you always want to listen to him.
“When he came that one day I talked to him about (Cross’ college teammate) Paxton Lynch because he had him on his quarterback camp show. He sat down next to me and he talked for about 10 minutes. He’s just a guy – just a normal dude. He’s a nice fella to talk to. You can tell he loves the game of football. He’s not in it for anything else but to coach and see guys grow as a man on and off the field.”
Howard didn’t get as much face time with Gruden as Cross did, but loved his talk to the team.
“He speaks with so much passion and fire behind his voice that you just want to sit there and listen to what he has to say because you don’t want to miss it,” Howard said. “You want to listen. You’re locked in. I had a chance to introduce myself and shake his hand. I never got the chance to talk X’s and O’s with him. I had to run to meetings so I didn’t get the chance to really sit down and talk to him.”
Perhaps Howard will get that opportunity next year in some form or fashion.