published Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Wiedmer: Gruden Vitale of football

KNOXVILLE -- It's Friday evening inside Thompson-Boling Arena, and Jon Gruden has more than 350 football coaches in town for the University of Tennessee's annual coaching clinic on the edge of their padded seats.

"Tempo!" Monday Night Football's color guy shouts with both enthusiasm and authority. "Tempo is where football is going, and it scares me a little bit. The ball's being snapped before the defense is ready. If you're an offensive coach, I plead with you, play faster."

Behind him, a giant screen begins showing individual plays from West Virginia's 70-33 pummeling of Clemson in January's Orange Bowl.

"If you're an opposing coach," Gruden continues, "you can't do anything but scream at your assistants."

At that moment, Clemson's Dabo Swinney is seen yelling at defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who was fired shortly after the game.

In the audience, a few chuckles break out, surely from the offensive coaches in attendance.

Adds the 48-year-old Gruden, his comments delivered rapid-fire: "I talked to [former Miami Dolphins coaching legend] Don Shula a few months ago. He says he doesn't even recognize the game anymore. The message is clear: Football's changing. And if it hasn't already, it will be coming to your high school this fall."

If the University of Arkansas is smart, Gruden will be coming into your living room from the Razorbacks sideline this fall, returning as a head coach for the first time since he was fired from the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the close of the 2008 season.

Gruden jokingly (we think) told the clinic, "The only coaching job I could get when I was fired by the Bucs was an assistant offensive line coach at a local high school."

In truth, the high school -- Carrollwood Day School -- is where his sons played football, and the program was surely fortunate to have him.

But if he's spoken to the Razorbacks about their opening after Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long fired Bobby Pinocchio -- oops, Petrino -- last week, Gruden isn't saying.

"John Daly's called me about it," Gruden said with a grin, referring to the professional golfer and Arkansas native. "But I haven't heard from the school."

And maybe that's for the best. Why limit Gruden's genius to one fan base when the entirety of Football Nation gets to enjoy his wit and wisdom now?

When it comes to energy and passion, Gruden is to all things football what Dick Vitale is to college basketball, only with a tad less volume and far more insight. If Dicky V's an ageless cheerleader, Jon-y G's the nutty professor, full of knowledge but never too full of himself.

For proof, just consider his critique of his widely admired work on MNF: "I love what I'm doing now. How can you not? But I'm still pretty raw. I've got to learn some three-syllable words if I keep doing it."

The guy the media once nicknamed "Chucky" for his resemblance to the doll character in the "Child's Play" horror movies did the coaching thing well enough to last 11 years as an NFL head coach and win the 2003 Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.

But he came to this year's clinic at least partly because he was a graduate assistant at Tennessee under Johnny Majors in 1986. It's where Gruden formed "great memories" of occasional dinners at Ye Olde Steakhouse with his future wife, Cindy, a UT cheerleader and Sevierville native.

Or as Gruden said, "This is where it all started for me."

And where it could also all wrap up one day.

"We actually get back this way a lot because my mother-in-law loves to see her daughter and grandchildren," he said. "We're building a house over there. Planting lots of trees. Trying to help the environment."

He spent more than five hours with the UT team Friday, hoping to turn around an environment that has produced back-to-back losing seasons.

Having worked with new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri when both were at Pitt in 1991, Gruden said of the former Panther: "He's going to help get the Vols back to what Tennessee used to be."

He also seems to believe junior quarterback Tyler Bray can get UT's quarterbacking back to where it used to be.

"There's no question he can throw the football," Gruden said of Bray. "There's no question he has the physical talents to be an outstanding player. He just has to go prove it daily on the practice field, in the meeting rooms and on game day. Hopefully, that happens."

If you listen to Gruden long enough, you get the feeling he hopes coaching will happen for him again.

"I love football," he said. "Probably at some point I'll coach again. I just need the right opportunity."

Though it would certainly be Monday Night Football's loss, perhaps the Razorbacks should give Gruden that opportunity.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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