No, the moment for that came and went more than three years ago, in the winter of 1999, when Gruden was coming off his first season as Raiders coach and could see that all his work was beginning to pay off. The phone rang. It was Bobb McKittrick, the notorious offensive-line coach of the 49ers. Nearly a decade earlier, as an offensive assistant in San Francisco, Gruden had sat at McKittrick's knee, writing down and soaking up everything the man said, watching hungrily as McKittrick spent all his waking hours making decent players great. Gruden worshiped McKittrick for his toughness and intellect. Gruden had been a volunteer ball boy for Bob Knight at Indiana and had seen workaholic NFL coaches Dan Devine, George Seifert and Mike Holmgren up close. None of them could touch McKittrick. He was the best coach Gruden ever saw.
"Jon?" McKittrick said over the phone. "I've got cancer and I'm going to die."
Gruden stammered a few words, but McKittrick wasn't listening. "I wanted to call and tell you: It's not just about football," McKittrick said. "Go be with your kids and your wife. Football is irrelevant. I don't want you to be like me."
But Gruden didn't want to hear it. By then he had arrived at a point, as Raiders coach, that suited his driving ambition. He had found his place, and nothing, not even the sting of words like these, could make him move. Gruden likes to say, "I'm a real shallow guy," but that's less an innate quality than a conscious choice. Offered a glimpse of the deepest water there is, Gruden forced himself to look away.
"But Bobb," he said. "I want to be just like you."
The boy with pink hair hesitates, unsure, a bit scared. "What's wrong with you?" Jon Gruden says. "I want to see a mean face!"
The boy stands frozen. Cameras snap. The crowd of strangers is laughing. Somebody had had the bright idea of drawing fake stitches on his face, scrawling CHUCKY on his forehead and shoving him into Gruden's path as the coach walked off the practice field one morning at training camp. Who knew the boy would be expected to act the part too?
As beautiful as Gruden is supposed to be, his sideline expressions are not pretty. In 1998, as Raiders running back Harvey Williams stood wilting under a torrent of Gruden invective, he took in the coach's arched eyebrow, the shining eyes and the lopsided grin that was anything but happy, and came up with a nickname that perfectly captured the fearsome sight: Chucky. As in the gleefully homicidal doll in the horror movie Child's Play.
"Har-vey Will-iams," Gruden says, using that aw-shucks cadence common to coaches and airline pilots, when the '98 incident comes up in conversation. Then he remembers why he'd been so mad. "He went the wrong way on an audible," Gruden says. "Ninety-six is to the right, 97 is to the left: We called a 96, he went 97. The guy went the other way. Of course there were only five major television networks at the game, 70,000 fans there booing. Sorry for getting upset. Gee. Next thing I know, a newspaper has a picture of Chucky next to a picture of me. Next thing I know, no one knows my name anymore."
Don't be fooled: Gruden loves this. He crouches next to the boy with pink hair. The boy just stands rigid, posing for a picture with a blank expression, but Gruden knows what's expected. He grits his teeth and growls. "Rrraaar!" says the new coach of the Buccaneers. "RRRAAARRR!"