Dawn was but a rumor and the songbirds were still deep in slumber last Thursday when Jon Gruden flashed the smirk that melts the hearts of silver-and-black-loving ladies everywhere. Gruden, the Oakland Raiders' third-year coach, was doing his best to alleviate California's energy shortage, eschewing the heating system at the team's Alameda training facility for an invigorating flow of chilly air through his office window. Adding to those conservationist credentials, Gruden studied oversized note cards bearing red-zone formations with the aid of a single reading lamp. "If you turn the lights on, it kind of gives a sweatshop feeling," Gruden said. "When I used to sit in class studying geometry, or one of my other favorite subjects," he added, his voice radiating sarcasm, "those fluorescent lights used to kill me. I'm more comfortable when it's dark and cold. Hey, when I'm grinding, I need all the help I can get."
With apologies to Berkeley-based Peet's Coffee & Tea, Gruden's grind has become the toast of East Bay. The Coach Who Never Sleeps struck again in Saturday's divisional playoff at Network Associates Coliseum, prodding his Raiders to a 27-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins that brought AFC West-champion Oakland to the brink of its first Super Bowl in 17 years. If Gruden can't conceive of a game plan to topple the Baltimore Ravens, who visit the Raiders for Sunday's AFC Championship Game, it won't be for a lack of effort. Even in a profession in which the typical workday begins before Howard Stern's first lesbian reference, Gruden makes George Seifert look like George Costanza.
Thanks largely to Gruden's tireless leadership, Oakland (13-4) snapped out of a six-season slumber in which the club was stuck somewhere between mediocrity and calamity. In dismantling the Dolphins, the Raiders looked not only poised and prideful but also perfectly prepared. "This team is a reflection of Jon Gruden, as any good team is of its coach," says Pro Bowl guard Steve Wisniewski, one of four Raiders left from the team's previous playoff appearance, a 29-23 divisional-round loss at Buffalo, in 1994. "We have an enthusiastic, fun-loving group, and even when we lose, we're well-prepared. As good as we were [against Miami], it gets better. When this team hits on all cylinders, I don't think anyone can stay with us."
Since taking over in Oakland at the age of 34 as the NFL's youngest coach, Gruden has made such a striking impact that his presence now dwarfs even that of owner Al Davis. Though Davis still patrols the Raiders' universe in his singularly strange attire, Gruden has become the face of the franchise: On the field his piercing glare underscores his team's feisty persona; off it, his handsome ruggedness causes legions of female fans to swoon. One website catering to women who follow the game refers to Gruden as Coach Gorgeous. Six hours after Oakland's shutout of Miami, a Bay Area network affiliate's anchor said of Gruden in the opening segment of her 10 p.m. newscast, "He's just soooo cute."
"The chicks dig Gru, and it comes up all the time," says Raiders fullback Jon Ritchie. "In October, the night before we played in Kansas City, I rode the elevator at the team hotel with an elderly woman. When she found out I played for the Raiders, she said, 'The team with that handsome coach? God, I'd like to be stuck in an elevator with him. If he were here, I'd kiss him right now.' "
Alas, Gruden reserves his affections for his wife, Cindy, and their three sons—Jon 11, 6, Michael, 4, and Jayson, 7 months. He shrugs off any reference to his sex-symbol status, saying, "I'm just a damn coach." Largely because of Gruden, the franchise's paranoia has been replaced by a healthy lack of pretense that does not allow excuses. "You get what you deserve," Gruden told his players leading up to the game against Miami, and they seized the day in convincing fashion.
Quarterback Rich Gannon completed 12 of 18 passes for 143 yards and no interceptions, which only begins to tell the story of his smooth stewardship. Lord, he was born a scramblin' man: Five times Gannon bolted from the pocket, picking up four first downs and 31 yards. Wisniewski and his linemates—"the Big Uglies," as halfback Tyrone Wheatley calls them—handled Miami's highly regarded front seven. Wheatley (19 carries, 56 yards) had a pedestrian game, but the doggedness that helped resuscitate his reeling career since Miami cut him in the summer of 1999 was evident on his two-yard touchdown burst that closed out the scoring with 5:56 left in the third quarter.
Once a failed first-round draft pick of the New York Giants, Wheatley equates his determination with that of the pack of pit bulls he formerly bred and raised. "A lot of my characteristics can be found in pit bulls," Wheatley says. "Some guys listen to Lombardi or other motivational speakers to get themselves psyched, but I don't need any corny clich�s or other words of wisdom, because with me it's all instinct. In the world of pit-bull fighting, one pit bull doesn't give a s—- if the other pit bull is a two-time winner. All he knows is, We're going to fight, and I'm going kick your ass if it takes all day."
The Raiders dug in on defense, holding Dolphins halfback Lamar Smith to four rushing yards—197 less than his total in Miami's wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts the previous week—and frustrating quarterback Jay Fiedler all afternoon. A brutally misguided Fiedler pass on the Dolphins' first drive became a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown by fifth-year nickelback Tory James, who finished with two interceptions, a forced fumble and a broken-up pass on fourth down. Yet while James is one of many gifted Raiders, this is not a particularly flashy team. Contrary to common perception, Oakland's talent level is far from overwhelming. "It's not like we have a bunch of All-Stars," says backup halfback Terry Kirby (72 combined rushing and receiving yards against Miami), "but I've never been on a team that loves the game so much."
As Gruden sat in his office two days before the game, hours before the first meeting of the morning, he took a swig of instant coffee and touched on a similar theme. "I like guys who like football," he said. "I'm fired up to play the Dolphins' defense, because you can see their swagger on film—they look forward to the next down."