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
"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
Alas, Gruden reserves his affections for his wife, Cindy, and
their three sons--Jon II, 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 cliches 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."
An hour after Saturday's victory Gruden sat in a private area of
the Oakland locker room with his agent, Bob LaMonte, and his
father, Jim Gruden, who had attended a Raiders game for only the
second time in Jon's tenure. "I tell our guys, 'There are players
and there are playas, and we want players,'" Jon said. "All I can
ask for is maximum effort and focus. I may not be the greatest
coach in the world, but I'm a grinder."
With the Ravens looming, Gruden knows his most daunting grind
awaits. Then again, it sure beats geometry.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Sittin' Pretty The Raiders turned heads of even their most gruesomely attired fans by vanquishing the Dolphins in Oakland [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN Zach Attack Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas gets a little air in pursuit of Raiders running back Randy Jordan during Oakland's AFC divisional playoff victory (page 38). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK SCRAMBLE LEGSFour of Gannon's five carries resulted in first downs for the Raiders.