Jon Gruden has some pretty snappy campers
From Tampa, Fla.
The professor sits alone in his darkened office, hunkered over the glowing screen of his laptop. His granny glasses, the only sign that the onetime boy wonder has truly aged, hang precariously on the tip of his nose.
It’s Sunday morning at 7 a.m., and former NFL coach Jon Gruden is waiting in his makeshift office for his star student of the day, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Every wall is lined floor to ceiling with videotapes, a Library of Congress-worthy collection of blitzes, protections, routes, goal-line plays, Hail Marys — everything, spanning at least five decades.
The ace prospect arrives in shorts and flip-flops, stepping through an obstacle course of cameras, cords and TV lights. ESPN will capture the study session from every conceivable angle (including cameras hidden in bookshelves), then slice it up for the network’s many media platforms.
Luck is one of 10 quarterbacks who will fly to Tampa to spend a day with Gruden before the April draft, with the coach preparing a custom, in-depth film and grease-board session for each. Those are edited into 30-minute shows for each quarterback, plus an hourlong show that includes all the quarterbacks. The series kicks off with Luck on March 31.
The No. 1 draft pick-to-be takes a seat across from Gruden.
“I’ve got something for you,” Gruden says, sliding a canvas rucksack across the glass table to him. “It’s a sweatshirt, T-shirt, just some stuff.”
Then, already knowing the answer, the ex-coach playfully asks: “Did you bring me something?”
“No,” Luck says sheepishly, his cheeks briefly flushing Cardinal red.
In truth, last weekend’s eight-hour give-and-take would leave both feeling enriched. This is the third year of “Gruden’s QB Camp,” which is shot in his hole-in-the-wall office in the back of a Tampa strip mall, and on the practice field at nearby University of South Florida. The first year featured interviews with Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Jimmy Clausen, and the shows were so popular with the network, viewers and the players that the roster has now grown to double digits.
This year’s shows, in order, feature Luck, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, Boise State’s Kellen Moore, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, Houston’s Case Keenum, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler, Arizona’s Nick Foles and Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill.
“It’s almost turned into a rite of passage for all these quarterbacks,” Luck says. “I know I watched the shows, and all the guys on my team did. A year ago, when I said I was going to come back [to Stanford], the guys were like, ‘Aw, but I wanted to see you on Gruden’s camp.’ Guys get into it. And, two, he’s a great coach. You learn stuff. Every quarterback wants to learn more.”
Gruden, 48, knows what he’s doing. He spent 11 seasons as an NFL head coach, first with Oakland, then Tampa Bay, compiling a record of 100-85 and winning a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in 2002 (by beating the Raiders team he built.) He was fired by the Buccaneers in 2009 but didn’t leave Tampa, instead staying in town with his wife and three sons.
As speculation swirled that he would immediately resume his coaching career with another NFL or college team, Gruden shifted gears. He rented an office and formed the tongue-in-cheek FFCA — Fired Football Coaches of America — a hangout where his coaching brethren could come to watch film and talk football; he took a job as the assistant offensive line coach on his son’s high school team, and he signed with ESPN as a “Monday Night Football” analyst, a job that reintroduced America to his made-for-TV observations and devilish “Chucky” squint.
In terms of preparation, Gruden is in “a different stratosphere,” says “Monday Night Football” producer Jay Rothman.
“The beauty is, our team is his team, and he coaches us up like no other,” Rothman says. “My whole staff has never been more prepared. It’s ridiculous.”
In October, Gruden signed a five-year extension to stay on the show through the 2017 season. Last month, ESPN announced he would be the lone analyst in the booth, with the network opting to reassign Ron Jaworski.
All the while, Gruden has maintained his workaholic ways, rising each morning in the wee hours and studying tape to such a minute degree it’s as if he were preparing his own team to play.
“I want to organize the greatest cut-up library of all time,” he explains before Luck arrives. “So if I ever do coach again, and I put in my offense, I’ll be able to pick and choose from some of the greatest concepts that are around.
“So when I put in ‘Twenty-two Z-In,’ I can show you Joe Montana running it in 1988, then I’ll show you Brett Favre running it in 1992. I’ll show you Steve Young running it, Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete running it, Randall Cunningham, all the way up from Rich Gannon to Brad Johnson to Andrew Luck.”
His office is a revolving door of coaches and players, all stopping in to talk football. Gruden has broken down concepts with Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oregon’s Chip Kelly. Georgia recently flew in its entire coaching staff to meet with him. Grambling’s Doug Williams is a regular at FFCA headquarters.
“It’s football. It’s just true football,” says former college coach Ron Zook, who has stopped by the office to watch the Luck interview on a closed-circuit TV in an adjacent room. “I’ve had more fun in this place than I have in the past 10 years. Because you don’t have all those things as a head coach you have to worry about and deal with. Pure football. It’s give and take.”
Critics of Gruden the broadcaster point to his habit of over-praising players and seldom taking anyone to task.
“I get too positive at times,” he says, “but every play makes somebody happy. I’ve heard John Daly say in golf, ‘Every shot makes somebody happy. I miss a putt, somebody’s happy.’ So if it’s a one-yard loss, you could say, ‘That’s a [bad] play, terrible block. That coach is an idiot.’ Or you could hit the talk-back button and say, ‘Hey, Vince Wilfork just destroyed the left guard! Hey, Vince Wilfork just made a helluva play!’”
Gruden says current NFL quarterbacks frequently call or stop by when they’re in town, although he declined to cite specific examples on the record as not to anger their coaches.
“There are coaches in the league who call me with projects too,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a Thursday night game and it’s a short week. How about giving me some red-zone ideas? You got any Cover-4 beaters?’”
The idea of conducting in-depth interviews with the top quarterback prospects came out of a discussion with Rothman, who was determined to keep Gruden engaged after the first season of the show, sensing the network would have a better chance of keeping him — as opposed to Gruden returning to coaching — if it could keep him busy.
Rothman asked him a simple question: How do you evaluate a quarterback?
Gruden gave a detailed account of how he flew to Notre Dame and interviewed Brady Quinn, showing Rothman the two-hour videotape he used in the process.
“In the tape, he intercut Brady Quinn’s career, NFL video, situations, red-zone blitzes, third down, foul weather, big games, bowl games, night games, day games, everything,” Rothman recalls. “Then, he starts screaming and yelling at me like I’m Brady Quinn. He’s getting mad at me. I saw that and said, ‘If I can get Bradford, Tebow, McCoy and Clausen down here, and I get you the tape to work with them, could you do that?’ He said, ‘I’d love to do that.’”
On this day, Luck is in the interview chair, and he marvels at how detailed Gruden’s analysis is. The coach intersperses hard-core football with humor, at one point grilling the quarterback about his decision to throw to the wrong receiver — resulting in a pick-six — in a triple-overtime victory at USC, and at another, asking him to explain why the Stanford band has a tree as a mascot.
He asks Luck to draw up a series of plays on the board, which the quarterback does without a hiccup of hesitation. Gruden has him bark out a snap count at full volume, just the way he would at the line of scrimmage. He quizzes him on why he chose Stanford.
“It’s a lot of fun to go to a place and win when they say you’re not supposed to win,” Luck tells him. “When they say you can’t, that’s probably a big reason a lot of us went to Stanford. To win at a place where you’re not supposed to.”
Rothman says Gruden has turned down eight coaching jobs since joining the network. Gruden concedes he’ll probably return to coaching at some point.
“I miss it terribly,” he says. “I don’t get in here because I hate football. I love it, man. Love it.”
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