Oh, brother! 2 Coach Grudens: Raiders’ Jon, Redskins’ Jay
Sitting beneath a television at the Gruden family home in Florida are boxes filled with recordings of dozens of games coached by Jon or Jay in the NFL and Arena Football League.
There isn’t a single loss on any of those discs. That’s not because either of the brothers is unbeaten, of course. It’s because Dad, a former assistant in the pros and college himself, wants nothing to do with the setbacks. He refuses to sit through live broadcasts of his sons’ games. Why? There’s no way to know how they’ll end, he blames himself when something goes wrong, and the nerves are just too much.
“I’ll watch the whole game afterward — if they win. I won’t watch any game that they lose,” Jim Gruden said during a telephone interview. “Some nights, when there’s nothing on TV or nothing to do, we’ll put one on and enjoy it again. I tell my wife, ‘It looks like we’re going to lose this game.’ But by golly, we pull it off. Every time.”
He uses the word “we” a lot while discussing his kids’ work, and all of the Grudens will be counting on adding to the video collection when the NFL season starts in September. On most Sundays, there will be two games of particular interest: those involving Jon’s Oakland Raiders or Jay’s Washington Redskins.
“It was in our blood, mine and Jon’s. Both of us knew we were going to be in football, one way or another. But to get to be head coaches in the NFL was probably an unrealistic dream,” Jay said, leaning back on a couch at his team’s practice facility. “Somehow, we got here.”
Jon got there first, hired as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers at age 26, then getting his first head coaching job with the Raiders at 34 in 1998. Jay didn’t enter the NFL until more than a decade later, as an assistant on Jon’s Tampa Bay staff at age 35; he became a head coach four years ago in Washington.
With Jon leaving “Monday Night Football” to return to the sideline after a decade away, and Jay entering his fifth season, they will join the Harbaughs as the only sets of siblings to simultaneously hold jobs as NFL head coaches.
“They grew up in the same house, and they love each other, but they’re not very much the same,” Jim Gruden said about the two sons who followed him into the coaching business (a third — and oldest — brother is a radiologist in New York; Jon joked about being “the forgotten Gruden” as the supposedly least-loved middle child).
“They both had a dream to do this. I did it, and they wanted to do it. But I never knew they would take it to this level,” Jim continued.
Then, with a knowing chuckle, he added: “Personality-wise, they’re very different. One is a little more volatile. The other is more laid back.”
The explosive son, naturally, is Jon, who earned the nickname Chucky (a character in the “Child’s Play” horror film series) during his first go-round as a head coach. During 11 seasons with the Raiders (1998-01) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002-08), he won a Super Bowl and went 95-81 in the regular season.
The more relaxed is Jay, 28-35-1 with one playoff appearance. His prior head coaching experience was a brief stint in something called the United Football League and a longer tenure in the better-known Arena League, where he led the Orlando Predators to two championships (Jim says he has the discs to prove it).
Now they are NFL competitors, even though the Redskins and Raiders aren’t slated to play each other until the 2021 regular season.
If the Grudens remain in their current jobs, the only chance to match wits beforehand would come in the Super Bowl. The Harbaughs managed to make that happen: John’s Baltimore Ravens beat younger brother Jim’s San Francisco 49ers 34-31 for the title in 2013.
“When you play each other, embrace it and enjoy it. And try to win,” said John Harbaugh, who is still with the Ravens, while his brother now coaches at the University of Michigan.
As for their so-called Brother Bowl?
“The best part was winning. The worst part was Jim not being able to win,” he continued, before delivering the punch line: “But I would say the winning overshadowed that quite a bit.”
As one might suspect, Jon and Jay have entertained thoughts about a Gruden vs. Gruden game.
“That would be one of the coolest things in life, really. We’ve played against each other in the backyard since we were kids. A lot of those games ended because our dad spanked us both,” said Jon, 55, about 3½ years older than Jay. “I beat him for years. I beat the hell out of him. … Then something happened where he grew. He got stronger. He got bigger. He got faster than me. I haven’t beaten him one-on-one in basketball, one-on-one in golf — and haven’t beaten him one-on-one in anything for a long time.
“It would be cool to go up against him as a coach.”
If that happened, would Mom and Dad pull for one child against the other?
“I would hope not. If they would, they better be rooting for my team,” Jay said, grinning widely. “I was a better kid. I was the easier son to get along with. I always did what they told me. Ate all my vegetables. Jon, on the other hand? They had to discipline him a lot more than me. That’s a fact.”
If their father’s time in college football at Notre Dame and Indiana or his work in the NFL swayed their career choices, the Grudens credit their mother, Kathy, with instilling other key qualities.
“They encouraged us to find our passion and they supported us through some tough times. My dad was a coach; we grew up around the game. My mom was a teacher, so she emphasized the importance of trying to help your students not only pass, but help them get A’s and be great,” Jon said. “That combination helped us become coaches.”
Jim called Kathy “really the driving force” in their sons’ lives. She was the one who took them to all their games when they were young, consoled them after losses and officiated the typical sibling fights. (“He was the one that always picked on me,” Jay recalled.)
The most famous tussle came when Jon was a college student and Jay was still in high school.
“The ‘Gruden Rule’ was ‘Don’t ever hit in the face.’ So we would punch each other hard, but we would never hit each other in the face. So one day, we got in a fight on the front lawn, and I can still remember cars driving by, stopping, yelling at us to stop fighting. He hit me so many times, so hard, I could not walk. I could hardly get out of bed the next day,” Jon said. “That was the first time he really beat me up — and probably the last time we fought, because of that.”
It’s what brothers often do. What brothers also do is help one another.
Says Jay: “Obviously, I owe most of my success to Jon.” Even now, his staff has several of Jon’s former players or assistants, including Bill Callahan, Ike Hilliard and Randy Jordan.
Jon’s son, Deuce, worked for Jay’s Redskins until his dad got back into coaching and now is a strength coach in Oakland.
Jon hired one of Jay’s former colleagues, Paul Guenther, as his defensive coordinator and signed tight end Derek Carrier based in part on rave reviews from Jay, who coached him in Washington.
Jon also sought advice from Jay when making the decision to leave the TV booth.
“He thought I was crazy, really. The game’s changed. The role of a coach is a tough one right now, with the collective bargaining agreement and the development of players. The rules of the game are different,” Jon said. “‘Do you really need the pressure? Do you really miss the pressure?’ But I’m nuts. I missed it. I missed every part of it. He thought I was nuts, initially, but (he was) supportive.”
Jay offered tips about recent rules limiting practice time.
When Jay was hired by the Redskins, he said, he took to heart Jon’s admonition “just to be myself, really.”
What both agreed was difficult: When Jon was in the TV booth for Jay’s games; the Redskins went 1-6 on “Monday Night Football” the past four seasons.
“If you don’t win (or) you call a bad play, you’re going to be called out on it. That’s just the way it is. He had a job to do. I think it would be hard, if I was a commentator, to call him out for a possibly bad call. I might credit the defense or something like that for a ‘great’ call. That’s probably what he tried to do a little bit more,” Jay said. “Probably more awkward for him than for me.”
Well, that’s no longer an issue for the Gruden brothers. What is: Finding time to talk on the phone now that they’re on opposite coasts and getting ready for their teams’ seasons.
What they know they’ll both be able to expect, though, are postgame calls from Dad — once he’s been told the outcome.
“A few minutes. Nothing earth-shattering,” Jim said. “Just try to console or congratulate, one or the other.”