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THE 10 TOUGHEST JOBS IN TAMPA BAY

Difficult job, Jon Gruden's.

I rank it 10th.

It's a tough job at a tough time. The holes outnumber the money available. The expectations outweigh reality. The clock is ticking and the crowd is restless. Also, there is blood on the walls, and somebody is going to have to clean up the mess.

Yep, as far as sports jobs go around this area, Gruden's is the toughest, bar nine.

Oh, don't get me wrong. As far as the masses go, Gruden's is the most important job, and it comes with the highest expectations. As far as difficulty, well, it isn't Hercules cleaning up the Augean stables, but it's tough.

Still, Gruden has some advantages. For one thing, he isn't coaching the Bucs during the Richard Williamson era, back when Hugh Culverhouse squeezed nickels so hard he left thumbprints on them. For another thing, this is football, where a team has the ability to rebound fairly quickly. For a third, philosophy is no longer a subject discussed in different languages at One Buc Place.

So who does have the toughest assignment in Tampa Bay sports? (Hint: Despite early deadlines, it isn't me.) The list:

10. Jon Gruden, football coach, Tampa Bay Bucs: Gee, this time last year we were measuring Gruden so we could build statues. Lately, it seems as if people will just settle for cement shoes. That's what the ugliest title defense in Super Bowl history will do.

The criticism seems to have taken Gruden aback. Still, all he has to do to own the town all over again is win another Super Bowl. Just that.

9. Danys Baez, Devil Rays closer: Through team history, you could argue that closing for the Rays was one of the easiest jobs imaginable. For one thing, think of the hours. Frankly, the Rays didn't have the lead often enough to tax the closer.

Still, those last three outs are kind of pesky, and if the Rays are going to make this a more interesting year, there is no margin for error. Baez is going to get a hard look at closer. His job? To prove he is not, and never has been, Esteban Yan.

8. Bill Muir, Bucs offensive line coach: All you have to say is that Kenyatta Walker's still a starter, and for goodness' sakes, he might not even be the worst one. Muir should have spent his career trying to spin gold from yarn; it would have been less difficult. On the other hand, three new starters would make his job dreamy.

7. Nikolai Khabibulin, Lightning goaltender: Trade rumors are swirling. The promised defensive help has never arrived. And Khabibulin still must spend his evenings feeling like Gary Gilmore.

Hey, no one said it was easy. Khabibulin gets paid a lot of money to steal games, and he could be a little more consistent about it. Still, it's hard to skate with a franchise on your back.

6. Brad Johnson, Bucs quarterback: Hey, Brad. Did you hear the one about Kurt Warner coming to Tampa Bay? Well, you will.

Poor Brad. It isn't like he's the most secure guy, and suddenly, he's reading about Rich Gannon or Mark Brunell coming to take his job. Johnson has a huddle with a weak offensive line, slow receivers and recycled running backs. If I were Brad, I'd probably send telegrams to Gannon and Brunell and say, hey, if you want a piece of this huddle, be my guest.

Why does Johnson's job rank as more difficult than Gruden's or Muir's? Because the guy across from Kenyatta isn't hitting them.

5. Jay Feaster, Lightning general manager: In a game of quarters, Feaster plays with dimes. His roster is stuffed with players who haven't quite arrived and players who aren't quite done.

In the meantime, Feaster faces difficult decisions in the coming weeks. What does he do about his goaltender situation? Can he pick up a defenseman? How about a playmaker to be what Vinny Prospal used to be?

4. Chuck LaMar, Rays general manager: In a game of dollars, LaMar plays with nickels. It's a tough position, being caught between this team's ownership and its roster, surrounded by empty seats and the AL East.

Look, LaMar has deserved a lot of criticism over time, but you have to give him credit for smart shopping this offseason. Still, baseball hasn't given the Rays much of a chance to succeed. That's the toughest part of LaMar's job.

3. Bruce Allen, Bucs general manager: Think this job isn't tough? Look at the skid marks the last guy left getting out of town.

Being a general manager is a long-term job, and in Gruden, Allen is working with a short-term guy. Oh, make all the jokes you want about Gruden really being in charge, and how Allen can't talk if Gruden is drinking water, but that just makes the task at hand more difficult. The draft has been strip-mined for years. The salary cap feels like a low ceiling in a small room. And there is that darned media.

Allen's job: Make it work.

2. Chuck Hernandez, Rays pitching coach: A year ago, when Chris Bosio had this job, I thought it was the most difficult in Tampa Bay. It's still no stroll on the beach. The Rays don't exactly have a lot of Randy Johnsons on the mound.

Oh, and the job ahead? Well, there is Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez and Miguel Tejada and Carlos Delgado and Gary Sheffield and Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Giambi and Vernon Wells and Bernie Williams.

You have to get those guys out.

1. Robert McCullum, South Florida basketball coach: McCullum's challenge isn't just the most imposing in Tampa Bay, you could measure it against anyone's in the nation.

McCullum is the coach of a team with very little tradition and a small following in a state with limited talent. Yet, very soon, he will be thrown into a room with the new Big East, where all 15 of the other teams have reached a Final Four. South Florida never has won an NCAA Tournament game. In other words, McCullum's job is a little like trying to win a swordfight with an olive fork.

Here then, is the mantra for the rest of the guys on the list. Whenever things are at their toughest, whenever you feel outmanned, underfunded, unappreciated, hey, things could be worse.

What about Bob?

Up next:MAKING NEWS

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