Bill Callahan calls Jon Gruden his friend and his mentor, and he says Gruden deserves a chunk of the credit for the Oakland Raiders being in the Super Bowl. But when Callahan followed his former boss in Oakland to the podium here today as the two coaches conducted their final news conferences before Sunday's meeting between the Raiders and Gruden's new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Callahan made it clear he believes that his club's exploits this season should convince everyone that he has stepped out of Gruden's shadow.
"I would never take away the things that Jon has accomplished in Oakland," Callahan said. "He stands on his own merit . . . but this is a new regime. This is a new era, and obviously this is a new experience for this staff to get to the point where we're at. We're confident in what we've done this year. We've improved ourselves. Going into the program, it was important to us to maintain what Jon had done and to improve upon it. We accomplished that goal."
Callahan has been the "other coach" all week, operating outside the glare of the spotlight while Gruden has fielded the expected barrage of questions about his departure from Oakland last February, when the Buccaneers gave the Raiders four high draft choices and $8 million for the right to hire him. The soft-spoken former career-long assistant coach has taken it all in self-deprecating stride. Callahan has talked about beginner's luck and has called himself just a 46-year-old offensive line coach who likes to shut himself off in the film room.
But he also is the man who, after being promoted by Raiders owner Al Davis from offensive coordinator to head coach on the heels of Gruden's exit, opened up Gruden's offense to make it the NFL's top-ranked unit and got Davis's franchise back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 19 years. His players swear by him, and Callahan said today that he never felt overmatched by the task that Davis put in front of him.
"I never thought, in any context, that it was too big," Callahan said. "I never felt that. But I did know that I had nothing to lose. . . . We tried to push the envelope and stretch ourselves from a system standpoint to be the best that we could. We finished that. . . . I had nothing to fear and I had nothing to lose, so we went for it all."
Gruden spent four years as the Raiders' head coach and lured quarterback Rich Gannon, wide receiver Jerry Rice, running back Charlie Garner and others to Oakland, but even he acknowledged today that the offense the team ran this season was not really his.
"They're doing a lot of things differently," Gruden said. "They're doing some great things on offense, very creative things."
Callahan and Gruden have known each other since 1992, when Gruden was Mike Holmgren's wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers and Callahan was the offensive line coach at the University of Wisconsin. Through a mutual acquaintance at Southeast Missouri State, where Gruden served as the passing game coordinator in 1988 in his first full-time coaching job, Callahan arranged to meet with Gruden at the Packers' facility.
"I would go up there and research and try to steal plays, basically," Callahan said. "Jon was one of those guys that was always in the film room, always looking at film and trying to create new ideas. He really had a passion about what he wanted to do."
The two hit it off, and when Gruden became Ray Rhodes's offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles in '95, he brought along Callahan as the team's offensive line coach. When Gruden got the Raiders' head coaching job in '98, Callahan went with him as his offensive coordinator.
"Bill and I have worked together closely a lot of hours, personal hours and professional hours," Gruden said. "I've learned a great deal from him in terms of technique, fundamentals, visions that he has offensively. . . . This is a great football coach."
Callahan is seven years older but Gruden, 39, always was the dynamo, the coach going somewhere fast.
"He's been my mentor," Callahan said. "He brought me into this league. He gave me advice. He took me basically by the hand and outlined everything that I've learned as an offensive coach under his system."
Callahan knows his old boss well, and said today he's certain that the first thing the Buccaneers coaches talked about in their offensive game-planning meeting this week was -- as always -- pass protection. So the Raiders, Callahan said, will try to have some new blitzes and some new pass-rushing wrinkles ready to go after Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson on Sunday.
"Jon Gruden's philosophy, from what I've seen from him and what I've learned, is that if they haven't seen it, they can't prepare for it," Callahan said.
Gruden seemed happy just to survive the week with his sanity intact. Both coaches said they did their best to keep their players' routines as normal as possible amid the Super Bowl hoopla, but Gruden never could escape the Oakland issue. He even was asked today how much credit he would deserve if the Raiders win Sunday.
"This has been a real strange week for me," said Gruden, who indicated that he had not spoken to Davis since the day the deal with Tampa Bay was completed. "Some of these questions are almost impossible to answer without making somebody mad.
"The only thing I can say is I'm so happy for a lot of those people there. If they win, then they deserve to win and I tip my hat to them. At the same time, I can't tear myself in half with all these emotions. I'm the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and I'm very excited about that. . . . I realize this compensation, this trade and all this business, is something you have to talk about. But you're going to be judged whether you're brought in for a pair of turf shoes or for a draft pick, to perform and win games. I just try to zero in on that fact."