Oakland Raiders football fans will see a familiar face on the sidelines this year — head coach Jon Gruden, who last coached for the team in 2001. And fans of the University of Dayton Flyers might also recognize something familiar. Gruden, a 1986 UD communication graduate, played back-up quarterback for Flyer football team. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he became in 2003 the youngest head coach at that time to win the Super Bowl, and for the last nine seasons he’s provided color commentary for ESPN’s Monday Night Football. We caught up with Gruden to ask about everything from his days wearing the red and blue to today’s colors of choice, silver and black.
First UD dorm room?
I lived up on the hill, Stuart Hall.
Last UD house?
I lived on 1532 Brown St. with Rob Diorio and Mike Bencivenni. We had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t the Taj Mahal, if you know what I mean.
Favorite Milano’s sub?
Meatball, every Wednesday and every Saturday night.
Why Wednesdays and Saturdays?
My mom would send me some money, and it would get there on Wednesday, and I usually had enough left on Saturday to get my meatball sub. I was eating at the dorm the first couple years, then I moved off campus and I really struggled to eat, so Milano’s meatball sandwich came through — it was a real clutch situation.
Favorite place to study on campus?
I used to go to the library back when there was a place that had books and people would actually go and look at books. There were quiet carrels and I would go in and study there. Then I started drinking coffee, and we would go to a couple of the 24-hour breakfast places like Denny’s.
When was the last time you were on campus?
A couple years ago. We had a game in Cincinnati so we took the Monday Night Football bus to campus. We ate at that great steak house right next to Timothy’s, the legendary Pine Club. It was awesome — had the onion straws. Then we knocked on the door at 1532 Brown St., and there were some young ladies that were living there. I introduced myself and asked is there any way I could get a tour of this place. I think Mike Tirico [Monday Night Football play-by-play announcer] was with me. I showed him where we used to live, and it just brought back great memories. I got to reunite with Mike Kelly, my old UD football coach.
Describe coach Mike Kelly in three words.
Energetic, passionate and consistent. He’s very energetic — he drives too fast to get to work. He just loves every day, he loves Dayton, he loves football, he loves to see young people get better, and he’s consistent or relentless — one of those two words. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer, and I’m very fortunate to have played for him.
You came to UD to play quarterback and spent a lot of time on the bench as back-up. Were you disappointed?
I was very disappointed. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. But I was very proud too, very proud to have stuck it out. I got to play in games. I got to hold for extra points and field goals. I got to mop up some games. Mike Kelly made sure when we got a 45-point lead and there was less than 3 minutes left — he made sure the lead was safe — he put me in for some duty. Look, I had a blast, I had a blast. I wouldn’t change anything. I told my sons that, I tell a lot of players that. I say, “Hey being part of a team, you don’t have to be an All-American or first-string all-conference. You still get the benefits of being on a team.” A lot of people today quit, they transfer, they give it up, but I’m really proud of the fact that I sucked it up and I finished.
Name one lesson learned you carry with you today.
You still have a big role on the team. I was scout team quarterback; I played on special teams; I was backup — I knew the plays, I was ready to go if needed. Everybody has a role — it may not be the role that you want, but whether you are in business or whether you’re in the military or you’re on the police force, everybody on the force has a role and every role is very important, so I took pride in my role. I remember when I got recognized with the Andy Zulli Award for having a good attitude and working hard — that is probably still today the most important award that I’ve ever received.
What did you think every time an NFL coaching job opened and your name was brought up?
I never really wanted to get out of coaching. I got traded once and I got fired once, and when I got fired and the game was taken away from me I never thought I’d take long to get back in it. But I really started liking Monday Night Football. I got to see other teams practice, I got to meet the players, I got to see their facilities, I got treated first-class at ESPN. We had a blast. Mike Tirico and I became best friends; I loved working with Ron Jaworski; and the producer and director, Jay Rothman and Chip Dean, have become two of my best friends. I’d look forward to going on the road. Then we got to do Gruden’s QB camp, I got to be an analyst on the draft, I got access to the video, I did clinics, I mean I was just the busiest I had ever been. So to answer your question I was having a heck of a lot of fun. I really thought about coming back several times, but I was really involved in football, I just wasn’t coaching. But I was coaching, I had quarterbacks coming to my office, I had coaches coming down, we had a lot of fun, but I think the timing was just right this time and emotionally I was ready to go.
In stories about you accepting the Raiders’ coaching position, you are reported to have said the football gods were calling you one more time. How did they speak to you?
I’m a very simple person, but I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have coached it, I got to play college football at a great program, and I got to broadcast it. And I kind of feel like when you get to be 54 years old, in quiet moments you get to reflect on how fast time has flown by and what you get to do with the rest of your life. I just kind of felt this calling to come back and coach, and try it one more time, and see if we can help the Oakland Raiders. This is a special place to me, my wife and I had our third son here, we were here for four great years and we kind of felt there was some unfinished business that we’d like to see if we can resolve.
Why the Raiders?
I loved the Raiders as a kid growing up, and Al Davis [Raiders then-owner and general manager] gave me, as a young coach, an opportunity that very few young people get. I think I was 34 years old when I became the head coach of the team. They have so much tradition. When you close your eyes and you think of the silver and black, you think of the Raiders. They’ve had numerous Hall of Fame players, they’ve had a storied history, and I really took a lot of pride trying to restore that.
Your dad, Jim Gruden, is a veteran of collegiate and professional football. You and brother Jay are NFL coaches. Your brother James is a doctor. If you were the normal brother, what would you be doing instead?
Probably the 6 o’clock sports on local TV somewhere. I was a communication major. You know that education I got at Dayton came in handy. They taught us LOMM — large open moving mouth. Enunciate your words. Speak clearly. Some of those persuasive speaking classes I took came in big-time handy.
My dad had coached at Dayton under John McVay in the very early 1970s. It was a coaches’ cradle. George Perles, Len Fontes, John McVay, Tom Moore — there were some great coaches that came through Dayton. I wanted to be a coach, and I really felt that the AstroTurf stadium, the winning atmosphere, the University of Dayton, the history, we lived in Kettering when I was a kid, it was just a hotbed of football — football had a lot to do with it. Obviously education is really important, and it had a lot to offer, but the familiarity of Dayton, the tradition of their football program, and just kind of following my dad’s footsteps had a lot to do with it.
Five words to describe UD.
Diversity — it’s a Catholic school, but it has something for everyone.
Competitive — it was competitive on the football field, it was competitive in the classroom, and I just felt good about waking up there every day and knowing I was going to be pushed.
We asked Jon Gruden’s former Flyers coach Mike Kelly, “What three words would you use to describe Jon Gruden?”
He’s a grinder, he’s committed and he’s strategic.
Their senior years, I did exit interviews with my guys. I asked them all to tell me what they’re going to be doing in 10 years. Jon comes in, points a finger at me from across the room and says, “Coach, I don’t know where I’m going to be in 10 years, but by the age of 40 I’m going to be the head coach of Michigan.” Here’s this guy — he wasn’t a starter, but he was a player. How’s he going to be a head coach?
After graduation, Jon got a position as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, and he was strategic in his moves from that moment on. He grinded his butt off. And by the age of 39, he told a major college program that shall remain nameless, “No, thank you.” He made it.
* A shorter version of this interview appeared in the Autumn 2018 University of Dayton Magazine.