Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Gruden sidesteps controversy over Raiders' breakup

By Eddie Pells
The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - Squinting into the sunlight, glaring down at the reporters, Jon Gruden did his best to be a good sport. It wasn't easy.

"You guys are killing me," the Tampa Bay coach said when the 50th or 100th or maybe the 1,000th question on the same subject floated his way.

With the Super Bowl approaching, Gruden only wants the story of his strange breakup with his former employee and upcoming opponent, Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders, to disappear into the "rearview mirror."

But rearview mirror stories like Gruden's are what the Super Bowl is all about. And days like Tuesday - Media Day at the biggest single sporting event in America - are what tales like Gruden's are made for.

"I don't try to relive the whole thing," Gruden said. "Sometimes, change is inevitable. Things have gone well since then. Hopefully, we can all continue to have a nice life."

Indeed, they are all having a nice life.

Gruden, the 39-year-old wondercoach, got a raise and expense-paid move to the place where he spent his childhood, Tampa, Fla., to coach the team he always adored, the Buccaneers.

Davis got a king's ransom by NFL standards - two first-round draft choices and two seconds, plus $8 million in exchange for a guy who will never play a down.

Bill Callahan got Gruden's old job.

The whole gang made it to the Super Bowl - Davis and Oakland for the first time in 19 seasons and the Bucs for the first time ever.

And the rest of the football world?

They got Gruden Bowl I, possibly the most intriguing Super Bowl soap opera since Broncos coaches of the present and past, Mike Shanahan and Dan Reeves, aired their dirty laundry before the Denver-Atlanta Super Bowl in Miami four years ago.

"I don't have anything to do with it!" annoyed Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson said, as he grew weary of the Gruden questions. "I don't care about it. If you want to know about it, just take your notebooks down there and let him deal with that stuff."

Gruden dealt with it, and dealt with it. Occasionally, he'd field a lob about the linebacker or the long snapper or the tight end. Then, he'd deal with it some more.

"The whole thing embarrasses me. That's why I don't want to get too philosophical about this," he said. "I just want this to be a sidebar on the lower-right column of the sports page somewhere."

But this is more than mere sidebar material.

As the story goes, Gruden began to chafe after four years under the yoke of the strong-willed, eccentric Raiders owner.

Gruden had one year left on his contract after last season and made it known he wanted an extension and a raise or he wanted out.

"Bottom line was, Al Davis wasn't going to pay Jon Gruden four or five million dollars," said John Madden, the former Raiders coach-turned-TV analyst.

Gruden also wanted more say in personnel decisions. Davis has always made those calls with the Raiders. Gruden got tired of the perception that Davis was the "real" coach of the team, a stereotype every Raiders coach has fought over the years, thanks to the owner's constant presence at practices and in the locker room.

"Some of you have some of the information, some of you have none of it, some of you have all of it," Gruden said. "You can form your own opinion. I never looked at autonomy as an issue anywhere I've been. I can work with people. At the same time, when it comes to calling plays, when it comes to organizing players, that's the job of a coach."

Some Raiders, like Jerry Rice, loved Gruden. "He's similar to Bill Walsh," Rice said, invoking the name of his first, and beloved, coach with the 49ers. "But life is about choices."

Others, like Jerry Porter, were glad to see him go. "It was confrontation after confrontation with him, and I was always getting mad," he said.

Gruden said he tried hard to have everybody like him.

"But there are some people you will just never please," he said. "I expect some of those guys to have some bitterness."

One team's loss is another's gain, and the Bucs are ecstatic about the guy they got.

General manager Rich McKay said they needed a coach who could pump some life into their offense, and they went after him hard.

That's only part of the story.

Soon after Tampa Bay fired Tony Dungy last season, they thought they had Bill Parcells to replace him. Parcells reneged.

So, the Bucs turned to Davis and asked him about Gruden. The negotiations never took off. Tampa's coaching search meandered on, with Marvin Lewis, Ralph Friedgen and Steve Mariucci getting into the mix.

But eventually, the search came back to Gruden. The Bucs went back to Davis, made a deal, and McKay says there are no regrets about giving up so much to get him.

"If you find the guy who fits your team, and exactly what your needs are, then you've got to get that guy. Period," McKay insists.

Now reviled in Oakland, and loved in Tampa, Gruden insists he has only respect for Davis, and only good memories about his days with the Raiders.

"I don't like getting into the whole thing," he said. "My contract was running out. I got traded. Hopefully, in four or five years, we'll all be friends."

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