TAMPA — The beers and the "love ya, bros" were flowing Saturday night at the Hooters in Tampa. Jon Gruden, who will be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor at halftime of tonight's home game against the Falcons, worked the room, greeting family, friends, former players and coaches at an invitation-only event.
Highlights of the Bucs' 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in January 2003 played on every television in the (Wing of Honor?) dining room.
Gruden admitted all of it was a bit too humbling.
"It's almost like you're dead, you know what I mean?'' Gruden said, smiling.
But the reality is that at 54, Gruden's popularity has never had more life. He earns $6.5 million from ESPN as the star of Monday Night Football and countless millions more endorsing anything from Nationwide Insurance, to Corona to, well, Hooters.
Because of his age and the fact that he has won a Lombardi Trophy, Gruden is the most-coveted coach at every level of football but so far has resisted what some believe is an inevitable return to the sideline.
"I don't foresee myself coaching anytime soon," Gruden said when he was elected to the ROH in August. "But I do like getting as close to the fire as possible.
"All I really have going is football. I don't know what I would do without it. I'm happy with what I'm doing. I study as if I am a coach. I still make my own breakdowns. I still come up with my own playbook — I just don't have anybody to give it to."
All that might change soon.
Gruden and everyone else is aware of the awkward juxtaposition that his celebration presents tonight. The Bucs are his team. Tampa is his hometown. And now current Bucs coach Dirk Koetter is 4-9 and could be fired at the end of the season pending the outcome of the final three games.
When his name is unveiled at Raymond James Stadium, the inevitable chants of "Gru-den! Gru-den! Gru-den!'' or "We want Jon!" are likely to start in the 300 level and roll down like thunder.
All of which begs the question: Why did the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, fire Gruden in the first place?
What's indisputable is that they haven't found anyone better to coach their football team.
The Bucs haven't reached the post-season since 2007. They haven't won a playoff game since the Super Bowl despite the hiring of Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith and Koetter. The Bucs have had only two winning seasons in the past nine years.
In fact, the uncertainty surrounding Gruden's firing is evidenced by the fact it took the Glazers nearly three weeks after the 2008 season to pull the trigger on him and general manager Bruce Allen with three years remaining on their contracts.
It was so shocking that when Gruden called agent Bob Lamonte with the news that day, Lamonte essentially hung up on him thinking it was "Chucky" just screwing around.
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Certainly, it was a deflating season. The Bucs started 9-3 and shared the best record in the NFC with Carolina. They needed only to win one of their remaining four games to reach the playoffs and lost all four, including the season finale against the JaMarcus Russell-led Raiders.
Some believed Gruden had grown stale. He didn't have any real personal relationships with his players and there were some who were distrustful.
"I was never buddy-buddy with these guys, and I regret that," Gruden said. "I wish I was a little more player-friendly. I didn't go golfing with them. I regret that in some ways. I hope they remember me as providing competition, playing the best players and doing what was right for the team at all times. I hope that's what I'm remembered for the most."
Gruden's strength was never personnel evaluation. His decision to bring in Allen, who was nothing more than a yes man to Gruden, was a mistake. Together, they only made the playoffs twice (2005, '07). The drafts under Allen were unproductive. Even with all of Gruden's play-calling acumen, the best the Bucs finished in scoring offense was 18th (three times).
"I know a lot of things I could've done better, and I regret not doing better,'' Gruden said.
All that aside, the biggest reason for Gruden's dismissal might have been financial. Not what the team owed Gruden and Allen. It was how much debt the Glazers acquired in the purchase of the Manchester United Soccer Club in England.
Without getting too much in the weeds with talk about the Collective Bargaining Agreement with NFL players, the Glazers knew that with the new agreement, there would not be a salary floor to be spent on player costs until 2013.
Gruden loved veteran players, and he was always going to insist on the club spending mightily on free agents (and rightfully so). From 2005-09, it was reported that the Glazers spent more than $300 million servicing the debt on the purchase of Man U. Sure enough, in 2010, the Bucs spent an NFL-low of less than $90 million in player costs, a savings of about $40 million had it not been an uncapped year.
Even Gruden's close friends aren't sure whether he wants to return to coaching. Gruden has kept up with the game and is in his lab early each morning watching film at his Fired Football Coaches Association. Hiring a coaching staff would be a challenge since most of his former staff is either elsewhere or retired. But he loves the Bucs' offensive weapons, particularly quarterback Jameis Winston.
If he were to coach, it's clear that the Bucs and Raiders are the teams he's emotionally invested in.
"I've always been in indirect contact, wishing them luck and all that, but I've never been on anybody's radar really," Gruden said about maintaining contact with the Glazer family. "I'm just trying to hang onto the job I have."