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Jon Gruden does not go deep. "I'm a real shallow guy," he says without a hint of embarrassment. "It's not like I've got a three handicap, or I can play the guitar, or I can tell you anything about the stock market. It's not like you and I could have a conversation about anything else. I've got this job, I've got my three boys and my wife, my family. That's it. I like to fish a little. But there's not a lot of me."
He pauses, cocks an eyebrow, turns back to the computer monitor. He tries to be polite, but really, he has no time. It's 5:20 a.m. on a Monday in August, and Gruden has been sitting in his Orlando hotel room for the last half hour rushing to type up the day's script for the offense. He keeps his back to his guest, speaking over his shoulder with one eye on the screen. With just a week to go before his debut as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a preseason game against Miami, he's still a long way from getting his new coaching staff, 11 newly arrived free agents and the Bucs' offensive unit—which is scrambling to master its fourth system in four years—on the same page. Not that Gruden expects anyone to feel sorry for him.
Why should he? At 39, Gruden, the youngest coach in the NFL, has enjoyed one of the most spectacular rises in football history. In his four years as coach of the Oakland Raiders he revived one of the league's storied franchises, attracted the interest of two of the nation's fabled college programs ("I don't know many guys who had a chance to coach Ohio State and Notre Dame back-to-back, and turned them down," says Jim Gruden, Jon's father), was named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People and so dazzled the Tampa Bay owner, Malcolm Glazer, and his sons that they surrendered $8 million and two first-round and two second-round draft picks to get him—without once speaking to Gruden directly. "He's special," says Bucs executive vice president Joel Glazer. "When you're dealing with special, sometimes you do special things."
Indeed, Gruden has such star power that Tampa Bay fans have shrugged off what Bucs safety John Lynch calls the Glazer family's "embarrassing" mistakes as it struggled to hire a new coach after firing Tony Dungy at the end of last season. So many Raiders and Bucs have described Gruden as an "offensive genius"—a term used so often these days that you'd think the NFL housed the greatest collection of brains since Los Alamos—that no one cares anymore that the Glazers bungled shots at master builder Bill Parcells and former Florida coach Steve Spurrier.
"Those guys deserve to be called geniuses," Gruden says. "I'm just a grunt. You know what I mean? I'm just trying to get another four or five plays into this script, as you can see. I wouldn't be getting up this early if I was a genius, man."
This is not false modesty. No one has ever accused Gruden of lacking confidence. But ever since he got into coaching, in 1986, he has been living a grunt's schedule—beginning each day at 3:17 a.m., often ending it near midnight—because when he was a teenager a lot of people thought he was stupid, and he has never gotten over it. Jon once told his father that he works so hard because he's not as smart as other NFL coaches. "And I think he's right," says Jim, a San Francisco 49ers scout.
Jon's one blessing is that, in a profession marked by baggy eyes and coffee breath, he came equipped with a body custom-designed to take the punishment. He rarely napped as a child and was always up before his two brothers. The slightest noise wakes him, so he cranks up a loud fan by the bed to drown out the night. "I feel like I'm on a plane," says his wife, Cindy. "He's awake while he sleeps." Yet, Gruden says, he never feels tired, and he attacks each day as if his hair were aflame. "His energy is unreal," Lynch says.
"Everything is just bam-bam-bam high intensity," Cindy says. "He's so programmed to work like a maniac, he knows no other way. We went to Busch Gardens and he said, 'I'm going to the bathroom; I'll be back in 30 seconds' One time we brought a movie home, and I went up to put the kids to bed. When I came down, he was previewing the movie in fast-forward. I was like, 'Can't we just watch it at regular speed?' "
In Tampa, much has been made of Gruden's local ties. Two decades ago his father served as an assistant to the Bucs' first coach, USC legend John McKay. Jon and his younger brother, Jay, spent a lot of time with the team, and both would copy Doug Williams's raspy snap count—"RED-day!"—in the backyard. After the Bucs fired Jim, who was by then director of player personnel, in 1987, the Grudens hated the franchise in unison. But Jim and his wife, Kathy, stayed on in Tampa, where Kathy would have a long career as a beloved elementary-school teacher and then, with the boys scattered around the country, beat kidney cancer. Jay became an all-state quarterback at Tampa's Chamberlain High, later married a former Bucs staffer and now lives in nearby Orlando. Now Jon, in answer to his mom's prayers, is back in Tampa. He has the Bucs franchise in his hands and the city by the scruff, and he and his brood live just five minutes away from his parents. A nice tale of a family reunited, if only Jon cared about such things.
"A lot of that [homecoming story] is exaggerated," he says. No one who knows Gruden has any illusions about him. No one expects him to be sentimental or more thoughtful. "You think he'll spend more time with his family just because he's in Tampa?" Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon asks rhetorically. "Family's important to him, but he's not going to change."