Sharing the Truth

In the spring of 1990, Jon Gruden received a phone call that changed his life. At the time, Gruden was the protégé of Walt Harris during Harris' stints as the head coach of the University of Tennessee and the University of the Pacific. Gruden's father, who worked as a scout for the San Francisco 49ers, had been talking to the 49ers offensive coordinator about his son.

That offensive coordinator was Mike Holmgren.

The elder Gruden told Holmgren that his son had strong aspirations to join the San Francisco organization (then the class of the NFL after its second straight Super Bowl victory), and that young Jon would work hard, stay loyal and wouldn’t overstep his bounds if given a chance. Coincidentally, Holmgren was looking for a Quality Control Assistant – someone who would help him chart plays and keep everything organized…essentially, somebody who would “sweat the small stuff” so Holmgren wouldn’t have to.

After traveling to the Bay Area and interviewing, Gruden got the call – the job was his. It was the beginning of a ride to the top of the NFL for him, and Gruden is the first to acknowledge that it was Mike Holmgren who started the NFL portion of that ride.

Gruden’s first task may have been the most daunting. While Holmgren and the other coaches went on their customary month-long summer vacation, Gruden was to learn how to draw up plays on a computer. Having never even turned a computer on before, he had to burn the midnight oil do it. As he wrote in his 2003 book, “Do You Love Football?!”, the complexity of the 49ers offense under Holmgren made the task even more daunting.

“Drawing plays for the San Francisco offense, in which you could run the same play three hundred different ways, made it that much tougher,” he wrote. “You could have Brown Right A Right or Y Shift to Brown Right A Right. You could have Blue Right E Motion or Blue Right E Counter Motion. You could have a whole dozen separate drawings of just 2 Jet Flanker Drive. All summer I’d walk in there at four or five in the morning, draw day and night until I collapsed (Gruden slept many nights in a small office in the 49ers’ complex), then come back the next day to draw some more.”

His reward for this work was the princely sum of $800 per month, but when the coaches returned, his “side benefit” was the ability to learn his trade from the likes of Holmgren, Walsh, secondary coach Ray Rhodes and the late offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick (who Gruden still calls his idol). At the time, no better education existed, and Gruden spent 1990 helping Holmgren with play charting and other administrative duties.

Holmgren saw something in the young, sandy-haired grinder – after the 1990 season, he called Paul Hackett (Holmgren’s predecessor in San Francisco), who coached the University of Pittsburgh, to line up an interview for Gruden. Holmgren told Gruden that it was time for him to get some coaching experience, so as time went on and Holmgren became a head coach himself, he’d feel comfortable in adding Gruden to his staff.

Gruden got the job, coaching Pitt’s receivers and helping with the quarterbacks through 1991. In 1992, Holmgren called again. He had just been hired as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and wanted Gruden to come on board as his Quality Control Assistant again – but this time, Gruden would also send in the plays from the sideline and help Holmgren transfer the 49ers offense to Green Bay. He still ran the occasional errand (including a trip to the airport in 1992 to pick up a quarterback that the Packers had traded their first-round pick to the Falcons for – some guy by the name of Favre), but he’d get a better feel of the nuances of pro coaching.

In 1993, Holmgren promoted Gruden to the position of receivers coach, where he got to work with the talented but temperamental Sterling Sharpe (perhaps an educational precursor to the Keyshawn situation 10 years later?)

Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, left, shakes hands with Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden after the Seahawks defeated the Buccaneers 10-6 Sunday afternoon, Sept. 19, 2004, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

After the 1994 season, the 49ers called Holmgren and asked if Gruden would be available to interview for the position of quarterbacks coach. Holmgren told Gruden about the opportunity, and then said, “I’m not going to let you go. Why would I let you go to San Francisco? We’re trying to beat them!” Certainly a vote of confidence for the young future coach, but Gruden wondered what Holmgren had in store for him.

The answer came very quickly. Holmgren called Gruden back into his office an hour later to inform him that Ray Rhodes, who had just been named the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, wished to talk to Gruden about becoming the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Since the move from position coach to coordinator was hardly a lateral one, Holmgren couldn’t say no this time. Gruden went off to Philadelphia in 1995 with the blessing of his mentor.

The rest was a quick, steep climb for Gruden – after three years in Philadelphia, Gruden was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1998. In his four years in Oakland, he turned a 4-12 doormat into a contender. He then went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, and beat the Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII with a defense built by former coach Tony Dungy and an offense pushed over the top by Gruden himself.

In following the Super Bowl year with a 7-9 season, contrary 11-5 and 5-11 campaigns, and 2006’s disappointing 4-11 mark, Gruden is now learning more about the personnel side of things. He and GM Bruce Allen are trying to rebuild as the last vestiges of the ultra-successful McKay/Ruskell era fade away. He has more power as an administrator than ever before, and it will be his task to balance the maturation process of a young offense and the redefinition of a defense whose primary playmakers are aging quickly.

Holmgren’s 2006 season has been a disappointing follow-up to the 2005 Super Bowl campaign, in which his own offensive acumen combined with former Tampa Bay executive Tim Ruskell’s personnel skills to complete a Seattle construction project that began in early 1999. The Seahawks have won their third straight division title, but their 8-7 record speaks to a great many issues that must be dealt with in the off-season.

But for our purposes, it is Gruden’s mercurial rise, and the major part Mike Holmgren played in it, that should be remembered.

There are many ways to judge the success of any coach. Victories, obviously…but it’s worth remembering that Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells both considered their best coaching years to have come in less-than-perfect seasons.

In Lombardi’s case, it was the 1963 Packers team he was proudest of. That Packer team suffered the season-long suspension of Paul Hornung in a gambling scandal, lost Bart Starr for four weeks with a broken hand, and grieved with a nation after the assassination of Lombardi’s friend, President Kennedy. Although they finished second to the NFL Champion Chicago Bears that season, Lombardi was always careful to mention the heart and resolve of that team.

Parcells had similar issues with the 1999 New York Jets when Vinny Testaverde lost the entire season to a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Jets finished 8-8, but Parcells later said that he had no regrets about the job he and his team did under difficult circumstances.

Perhaps it is the overall influence of a coach that should decide his ultimate place in the annals – and although it’s something Seahawks fans are aware of with Mike Holmgren, perhaps this aspect of his career is given relatively short shrift. It’s not just that there are times through his career when it seemed that Holmgren couldn’t coach a game against a man he didn’t somehow mentor or influence…it’s the extent to which that influence took place.

No matter how often Gruden, Mariucci, Reid, Jauron and so many others have taken or will take the field in the future, it is the lessons of the teacher who shared the truth that they will take with them as they make history of their own.

Perhaps Gruden says it best: “Confident. Concise. Crystal-clear. No one does it better than Mike Holmgren.”

And perhaps those frustrated Seahawks fans who have assembled “Fire Holmgren” clubs, and choose to look beyond the front office errors and the injuries and the almost inevitable march of parity, should let the student become the teacher.


Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.


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