TAMPA — When a man has four daughters, he naturally wonders what it would be like to have a son.
Once Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren met Jon Gruden, he no longer had to imagine.
"I love Jon," Holmgren said of the Bucs coach. "I had all daughters. So when I first hired Jon, he was kind of like my son. I'm very proud of what he has done and what he has accomplished."
It's a fatherly sort of pride, of course.
Gruden, one of Holmgren's Green Bay assistants in the early 1990s, always sought to impress Holmgren. After all, it's what a good son does.
With the soon-to-be-retired Holmgren visiting Tampa for Sunday's Seahawks-Bucs game, Gruden reflected on the pair's relationship through the years.
"Goober," as Holmgren referred to Gruden, learned much of his offensive principles from Holmgren. He learned about meeting demands. Holmgren's success gave Gruden a standard for which to strive.
But ask Gruden to recall random memories of his mentor, and the little things come to mind.
"I remember putting the (game plan) board together," said Gruden, an offensive assistant in 1992 and receivers coach from 1993-94.
"He'd come in after watching film by himself around 1:30, 2 o'clock, and (the assistant coaches) would be so proud of the board we put together. Then he'd slash this and slash that and add his own."
• • •
Undeterred, Gruden persisted, making it a competition among fellow staffers that included future head coaches Andy Reid (Eagles) and Steve Mariucci (49ers and Lions).
The first milepost was designing a play Holmgren would actually include in the week's voluminous package of plays. The next would be developing one Holmgren would actually use. In 1994, the day finally came in a Monday night matchup at Chicago.
"I found two plays," recalled Gruden, who also was an assistant with Holmgren on the 49ers staff in 1990. "One of them I stole from the Eagles. It was a play out of split backs (formation). We faked to the tailback and slid (running back) Edgar Bennett into the flat. I said, 'This looks like a good play against these guys.' He let me put it in the game plan.
"The other play I stole from the Dolphins. I saw them hitting Mark Duper with this route. Mike was in a grouchy mood, but he finally put it in."
Then it got better.
"We get into the game, and damned if he doesn't call 'Fox 3 naked right fullback slide,' " Gruden said. "Brett Favre comes around the corner, and there's no one there. Edgar Bennett blocks the cornerback, and Brett runs in for a 33-yard touchdown.
"The other one we called was late in the game on a third and 14. Sterling Sharpe runs the route better than Mark Duper. He was wide open, and it was the decisive blow."
Holmgren, like any proud dad, wanted Gruden to know it was a job well done.
"After the game, we're on the plane, and Coach Holmgren is sitting up in the front. I'm in the back, of course," said Gruden, who was 31 at the time. "He says, 'Hey, Goober, come here.' I go sit next to him, and he says, 'Game ball. You get a game ball.' "
It remains one of the most memorable moments of Gruden's career even to this day when, at 45, he has a Super Bowl victory and a combined five division titles in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
• • •
Holmgren, 60, has an extraordinary resume even though injuries has decimated the Seahawks and resulted in their 1-4 start.
"We lost not only our starters and our backups (at receiver), we also lost the guys who worked at the Chevron station," he said.
Still, Holmgren's 170 wins make him the league's winningest active coach. And he has coached teams to three Super Bowl berths and one title. When he retires at season's end, he'll be missed by colleagues and subordinates from the past and present.
"Holmgren is going to be a Hall of Fame coach one day," Seattle running back Julius Jones said. "And I'm just real privileged to have the opportunity to play for him."
Ask Holmgren how he'd like to be remembered, and he says he hopes it's for the impact he had.
"I hope they look at me as a good teacher of the game," Holmgren said. "That's how I view myself. As far as the coaches are concerned, I take great pride in the fact these guys have gone on and become great coaches in their right. If I could believe I had a little something, just a little something to do with that, I would feel good about that."
He had plenty to do with it. Just like a father shapes a son.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.