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Fennelly: Payoff came in practices for Jon Gruden's Bucs

Warren Sappand Jon Gruden at Tampa Bay Buccaneer training camp at the Disney Wild World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista in 2003. (Times 2003)
Warren Sappand Jon Gruden at Tampa Bay Buccaneer training camp at the Disney Wild World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista in 2003. (Times 2003)
Published Aug. 2, 2017

TAMPA — It began near Disney World, at training camp in a place called Celebration. And it ended in celebration: Super Bowl champions.

It began with a bang.

It was the first play of the first 9-on-7 drill at 2002 Bucs training camp, the first camp under the Bucs' new head coach, the firecracker: Jon Gruden. The Bucs defense, already a potent force, received instant education.

"That first 9-on-7, first play, he ran a naked bootleg on us," said Bucs Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.

Naked boot. No one saw it coming. Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson, free as a bird, ran about 90 yards for a score.

"The Bull going down the sideline, high stepping like Deion Sanders with the ball behind his head," Sapp said.

Gruden screamed at the defense.

"They've been running boot up your butt for three years!"

Jonny Rocket had arrived.

Gruden will be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor on Dec. 18 at halftime of the Monday Night Football game against Atlanta. He'll be at a news conference Wednesday at One Buc Place. It's appropriate that it's during Bucs training camp, because it was at the first Gruden Bucs camp that the man, up at 3:17 every morning, began relentlessly pushing the Bucs toward that Super Bowl.

RELATED: Bucs' Ring of Honor induction 'humbling' for Jon Gruden.

It's nothing against Tony Dungy, who first converted those Bucs into believers and contenders. Gruden and Dungy both belong in the Ring. Gruden will go first. Tiebreaker: He won the Super Bowl. It works for me.

The work began even before that first camp.

"I remember the first time I was in a meeting room with him," Johnson said. "He told me, 'We're going to win the Super Bowl. We're going to get players in here. I'm going to make the defense play better. On offense, we're going to play better. We're going to win it this year.' "

"Eye opening for me was that he scripted his practices as if it was a game against us," Bucs Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks said. "Training camp is where you're supposed to be working on things. He was working on beating us."

"He came in with higher expectations than we had for ourselves," former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "That was a hard thing to do. Score nine touchdowns on defense and we win a Super Bowl. That's what he said again and again."

The Bucs would score nine touchdowns on defense, including three in the Super Bowl.

"But the expectations on both sides of the ball were not equal when Gruden got there," Barber said. "He challenged the offense like we were always challenged on defense."

"You brought your game every day," Johnson said.

RELATED: Jon Gruden on interest in return to coaching: 'Nothing changed'.

Gruden was everywhere at once.

"One-liner after one-liner, quote after quote, analogy after analogy, all about getting better," Johnson said.

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"We'd think, 'Will he ever slow down?' " Brooks said.

He would not.

"I thought we overachieved the year before, when we went 9-7," Johnson said. "People forget how many guys Jon brought in. Roman Oben, Kerry Jenkins, Joe Jurevicius. We had a recruiting party for Keenan McCardell. Brought in Rickey Dudley, brought in Ken Dilger, brought in Michael Pittman. All those guys were in the middle or late in their primes, dependable guys.

"We had a practice in the spring when Keenan came on that recruiting trip. We had a practice in the stadium. Every time we scored, Jon had them firing cannons. We were doing red-zone package, so those cannons were going off nearly every play. Jon loved those cannons."

"He called me out in front of the group at OTAs," Brooks said. "He said for all the awards I'd been receiving, I'd never won defensive player of the year. If you're such a great player, win defensive player of the year and we'll win a Super Bowl. After, I told him, 'Coach, you called me out.' He told me, 'Of course I called you out. You have more and I want it.' That's the G-rated version."

Sapp laughed.

"One night early in the season, somebody at the club said, 'What's up with that, Sapp, the coach saying he's there at 3 in the morning?' I thought: Let me go over to One Buc, park in his spot and see if he shows up at 3:17 in the morning. I drive over to One Buc. Park my Mercedes in his spot. Damn near fall asleep. At 3:16, I hear HONK. What the hell? It's Gruden. I put it in drive and pulled alongside him and said, 'I was just checking to see if it was real.' "

It was real. All the way to San Diego. From Celebration to celebration, it was real.

Here's to Chucky. He honked the horn. He fired the cannons.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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