D'ADAMO: Gruden pumped life back into franchise

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden is physically only three years removed from the Oakland Raiders but it seems more like 10 years. Gruden's influence on the franchise, however, still somewhat remains because his hiring as the Raiders head coach before the 1998 season went beyond job title.

Since the Oakland Raiders have moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995, owner Al Davis has made several moves. Needless to say, good and bad. Gruden's hiring represented the former.

Gruden was ostensibly traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2001 season after he and the Raiders had talks of a contract extension break down. Oakland promoted then offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to head coach. Callahan had two extremes in seasons, leading the Raiders to the Super Bowl before getting their doors blown off by Gruden's Bucs. That season was followed by last year's 4-12 campaign, which ended in Callahan getting fired amid a multitude of injuries and player unrest with the coaches.

Two years later, Gruden is coming off his first losing season (7-9 in 2003) as a head coach. Callahan has returned to the college ranks, to the University of Nebraska, where he is trying to shape a program renowned for option football into the West Coast offense.

Gruden brings with him to Oakland on Sunday night, a offense that has all the potency of a popgun. The Bucs are 0-2 and have yet to score an offensive touchdown. Things won't get any easier against a Raiders defense that, while the jury is still out on them, showed signs of improvement in a 13-10 win over Buffalo -- but I digress.

When the Raiders hired Gruden in January 1998, the franchise was at a crossroad after a horrendous 4-12 season in 1997 under Joe Bugel. The Raiders were also a team that was arrogant about nothing.

Gruden came in and immediately changed the attitude of the players. Even at the age of 33, he gained something that perhaps no other coach in franchise history had since Tom Flores and John Madden. Gruden, just by the sheer force and independence of his personality, assured the players that the Raiders were his team -- not Davis.

Davis is known for his fondness of the vertical passing game combined with the power running game. While the Raiders have since returned to that philosophy under Norv Turner, the fact that Gruden convinced Davis to emphasis a short-to-intermediate passing game was a feat in itself.

The Raiders were 8-8 in each of Gruden's first two seasons. In 1998, Oakland started 7-3 before a multitude of injuries curtailed the momentum of a team seemingly ticketed for the playoffs. In 1999, the Raiders went 8-8 again with no loss being by more than seven points. Pundits might say that wins are wins and losses are losses no matter the final margin but those who followed the 1999 Raiders know different. For the first time in goodness knows how long, the team had established its self-respect.

In 2000, the Raiders returned to the playoffs after a seven-year absence and advanced to the AFC title game before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore.

Granted, players like quarterback Rich Gannon and several others should get credit for the Raiders return to success. By his own admission, however, Gannon, who had been a journeyman, came to Oakland in large part because of he and Gruden hit it off immediately.

Gruden grew into an international celebrity. The "Chucky" personality created that identity and the mere sight of Gruden scowling on the big board at the Oakland Coliseum or any billboard around town was the surest way to crank up the noise.

Based on e-mails to this scribe's mailbox, the feeling Raiders fans have toward Gruden now is pretty mixed but they miss him more than they think. When the Oakland and Tampa Bay met in the Super Bowl, some Raider fans bristled that the team would not have reached the Super Bowl, as it did under Callahan, if Gruden remained. That statement is very dense since the Bucs smoked the Raiders when they got there. Maybe they feel that way because they felt Gruden betrayed the Raiders.

The fact remains, Gruden pumped some much needed life back into a franchise that was sorely lacking in that area.

Vince D'Adamo can be reached at vdad7@yahoo.com

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