For the past seven autumns, Jon Gruden stood behind a podium in his Bucs visor and analyzed the latest Tampa Bay win or loss with his snarly expressions, biting commentary and sarcastic wit.
This autumn, he will do the same, minus the visor, in one of the most prestigious jobs in sports broadcasting.
ESPN hired the former Bucs coach to replace Tony Kornheiser as analyst for the 40th season of Monday Night Football. Gruden will join the booth with play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico and analyst Ron Jaworski.
Humming the show's theme song while recalling childhood memories of how he begged his parents to stay up past bedtime to watch Monday Night Football, Gruden sounded enthusiastic about his new career even though it is thought he wants to return to coaching.
"Kind of like it's halftime of my life," said Gruden, 45. "Unfortunately, I don't know many things about other aspects of life. … I would just like to say how proud and excited I am to have this opportunity and how respectful I am of the job. I have big shoes to fill, and I know I have a lot to learn."
The shoes became available when Kornheiser decided to step down Monday after weeks of conversation with ESPN, which insisted he was not forced out.
Kornheiser, who lives in Washington, D.C., and will continue to co-host Pardon the Interruption on ESPN, pointed to his fear of flying and an MNF schedule that calls for only six Eastern time zone games in 2009 as the reason to quit the job he held for three seasons.
"If I could handpick a replacement of a football guy, I would cast a net and drag in Jon Gruden," Kornheiser said. "He is the two things you most want — smart and funny — and has the two things I don't — good hair and a tan."
According to ESPN, Gruden was the only candidate to replace Kornheiser and he was not required to audition even though Gruden's broadcasting experience is limited to work for the NFL Network at this year's scouting combine and draft. The deal came together so quickly that Gruden said he hadn't even told his three sons.
"When Tony made his decision, Jon was the guy," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president of production. "What stood out is when you look at his resume. There are not many people running around who have won a Super Bowl and 100 NFL games. … He has been outspoken and innovative in his coaching career. He was the only choice."
Williamson said ESPN had talked to Gruden about joining the network in some capacity well before Kornheiser decided to quit. Aside from MNF, Gruden will appear on ESPN Radio and other platforms, in addition to being a part of ESPN's 2010 Pro Bowl telecast and Super Bowl and NFL draft coverage.
In seven Bucs seasons, Gruden compiled a 60-57 overall record, with his crowning achievement coming when the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. He was fired in January after the Bucs lost their final four games last season and missed the playoffs. As long as Gruden is not coaching, it's thought the Bucs owe him the $15 million remaining on his contract for the next three years.
"My offseason has been a tough one," Gruden said, "with the way we finished the season and then the sudden change that we all had to react to as a family. We disappeared for a little bit and shared some time with one another and that was excellent. Then we regrouped and I got to experience a taste (of broadcasting) with the NFL Network."
Gruden received positive reviews for his analysis on the NFL Network, and it was assumed he would have plenty of network suitors. But Gruden said he did not weigh offers from any other network. The one network with a key opening is NBC, which is looking for a studio analyst for Sunday Night Football to replace Cris Collinsworth, who has moved to the booth to replace John Madden. But it's thought NBC did not consider hiring Gruden. The reason for that, as well as other networks' hesitance to approach Gruden, likely is because Gruden is expected to return to the sidelines.
"I dearly miss coaching," Gruden admitted.
During a conference call with the national media Monday, Williamson and Gruden dodged several questions about how long Gruden would stay with Monday Night Football, the length of Gruden's contract and whether Gruden had given the network any assurances on how long he would stay. Based on their answers, it doesn't appear as if Gruden is committed for longer than one season.
Gruden will make his ESPN debut with a preseason game on Aug. 13, a Super Bowl rematch between the Cardinals and Steelers. The Bucs are not on the MNF schedule.
"Today's a new beginning for me, a change of life," Gruden said. "Whether it's me being critical or me being myself, I'll do the preparation and do everything I can to do a good job."