Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl in 2002. They won the game in January 2003. This version has been corrected.
In 1991, the last NFL season that ended with a Washington Redskins Super Bowl title, Jay Gruden drew his first paycheck in professional football, as quarterback of the minor league Barcelona Dragons of the World League of American Football. In the nearly 23 years that followed, as the Redskins endured a cycle of failed coaches and mostly losing seasons, Gruden was quietly constructing a lengthy resume in professional football’s fringes, all of it unified by one trait: winning.
On Thursday, those divergent legacies merged when the Redskins named Gruden their new head coach, replacing the fired Mike Shanahan. The once-storied franchise that has fallen to unprecedented depths chose the largely unknown coach with the famous last name and the uncanny knack for winning.
Gruden, 46, was most recently offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, helping that team to three playoff berths in his three seasons there. He spent seven years in the 2000s as an offensive assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under his older brother Jon, now a popular analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
But the bulk of Gruden’s career, as both a player and coach, was spent in football’s hinterlands, from the WLAF to the Arena Football League to the United Football League, suiting up or calling plays — and occasionally both — for teams called the Dragons, the Surge, the Storm, the Kats, the Predators and the Tuskers.
Everywhere he went, he won. In 31 professional seasons as a quarterback, assistant coach and head coach — some of those seasons overlapping as he toggled between the NFL’s Buccaneers in the fall and winter and the AFL’s Orlando Predators in the spring — he was a part of only three losing teams, all of them as an assistant for his brother.
“First of all, I’ll say this about Jay Gruden: He’s a winner,” said Ed Khayat, a Redskins defensive end in the 1950s and ’60s who as head coach of the AFL’s Nashville Kats in 1997 gave Gruden his first coaching job. “As a player, as a coach, everywhere he’s been.”
Gruden’s meandering career — and his entire life, having grown up the son of a football coach — may have adequately prepared him to reach the pinnacle of his profession.
But it is safe to say he has never experienced anything like what awaits him in Washington, where he takes control of a fractured team that went 3-13 this season. He will occupy an office that has seen seven other coaches, including Shanahan, come and go since Daniel Snyder bought the franchise in 1999. He will become the public face of a franchise that was nearly riven by acrimony and a series of toxic media leaks as the Shanahan regime disintegrated.
“I don’t know what happened last year. I don’t care about last year,” Gruden said at his introductory news conference. “All I care about is next year moving forward.”
But he will inherit a quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who, while wounded physically and emotionally these past 12 months, is also only one season removed from his electrifying 2012 rookie year.
“I expect a lot from the starting quarterback,” Gruden said, noting he had not spoken to Griffin as of Thursday afternoon. “As long as he’s working his butt off, I will provide him with everything he needs to be successful.”
Gruden’s professional career path may have had more twists and turns than most, but his pedigree is pure football. His father, Jim, was a longtime coach and scout at the high school, collegiate and NFL levels. The three Gruden boys — Jim Jr., Jon and Jay — were born in Ohio, as Jim Sr. went from Fremont High School to Heidelberg College, two stops on a lengthy coaching resume.
Jay, the youngest, was the best athlete of the bunch. He was better than Jon, whose playing career ended at the University of Dayton, and Jim Jr., who became a doctor. He played four seasons under the legendary Howard Schnellenberger at Louisville, throwing for 7,024 career yards and leading the Cardinals to an 8-3 season as a senior, the program’s first winning season in a decade.
“He was a true field general for us,” Schnellenberger said in a telephone interview Thursday. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s come up the hard way.”
When Gruden failed to attract the attention of the NFL coming out of Louisville, he went off to Barcelona, but quickly grew homesick and called the AFL’s Tampa Bay Storm because it was close to his St. Petersburg, Fla., home. The Storm signed him, and he led the team to the championship in his first season. Despite winning three more titles there in the 1990s, he still did not get a sniff of the NFL as a player.
Any list of Gruden’s football mentors would likely start with his father and Schnellenberger, but it would also include his brother, Jon. Jay had already coached the Predators to two AFL titles in four seasons when Jon invited him to join his Buccaneers staff.
“His terminology and play design were similar to Jon’s,” said Brooks Bollinger, who was Gruden’s quarterback in 2009-10 with the Florida Tuskers of the UFL. “I think it would be wrong to say he got it all from Jon, but that was his starting point. No question the foundation of who he was from an offensive-philosophy standpoint was similar to Jon.”
Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title in 2002 in his first year with the team , became one of the most recognizable faces in professional football. His intensity and twisted facial expressions earned him the nickname “Coach Chucky,” after the maniacal, serial-killing doll from the “Child’s Play” movie franchise. After he was fired from the Buccaneers in 2009, he almost immediately went to work for ESPN.
“Jon is the more emotional guy,” said Jim Gruden Sr., in a telephone interview. “Jay is more laid back. I’ve seen him lose his cool, of course. But Jon can flip the switch on in a second — Jay’s not like that. He doesn’t fly off the handle. He’s kind of a different dude from Jon.”
For much of his adult life, Jay’s laid-back approach extended to his career aspirations. Rather than pursue every NFL job within reach, he was content to remain in Florida, where he was a constant presence for his three sons. When the Gruden coaching staff was fired in Tampa Bay and the Arena League went on a financially induced hiatus, Jay took a job as offensive coordinator on head coach Jim Haslett’s Tuskers team in the fledgling UFL. In two seasons in the league, the second of them as head coach following Haslett’s departure to be defensive coordinator of the Redskins, his teams reached the UFL championship both times.
It was only a couple of years later, when his sons began to reach college age, that Gruden went off on his own path in the NFL, joining head coach Marvin Lewis on the Cincinnati staff in 2011.
“It was never a goal of his until the year the Arena League folded,” Jim Gruden Sr. said. “He was never a guy who was a climber. He was happy where he was. But things change in life. His kids were getting to be college-age. You could see Jay was starting to think more about the NFL.”
There would be three more seasons of winning in Cincinnati, where the Bengals’ offense rose from 18th to 12th to sixth in the NFL in points scored during those three seasons. But all three seasons ended in first-round playoff losses, most recently Sunday, in a 27-10 defeat to the San Diego Chargers.
It was that loss that made him available for the Redskins to hire, ending a whirlwind process that saw them interview or consider as many as 11 candidates. Gruden’s familiarity with Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen — dating from their years together in Tampa Bay – and the lure of developing Griffin as a quarterback pulled him toward Washington.
For the longest time, the NFL didn’t want him, and for a time after that he didn’t want the NFL. But circumstances have brought them together in Washington: the franchise that can’t seem to win, and the coach who can’t seem to lose.
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