Jay Gruden's road to Washington passed through Tampa

In his first head coaching job at 47, the Redskins’ Jay Gruden says, “It’s been a pretty smooth transition” despite struggles.
In his first head coaching job at 47, the Redskins’ Jay Gruden says, “It’s been a pretty smooth transition” despite struggles.
Published Nov. 14, 2014

TAMPA — Jay Gruden's long, twisting path to the highest level of coaching football started 30 years ago when he was a coach's kid drawing plays in the dirt as a quarterback at Chamberlain High School.

"He was cool, calm and collected, just like he is right now," said Billy Turner, his coach with the Chiefs. "He seems like he's laid-back, but I know he's not laid-back inside. He's a fierce competitor. He was a smart player, just had eyes in the back of his head and a great knowledge of the game that ran in his family."

Gruden is 3-6 in his first season as the Redskins' coach, having started three different quarterbacks in those wins, and Sunday he faces a Bucs franchise that brought him to Tampa. His father, Jim, was Tampa Bay's running backs coach in 1982-83, then director of player personnel from 1984-86. Jay, too, has strong ties to the Bucs, having spent seven years as a low-level offensive assistant on his brother Jon's staff, including the 2002 season, which ended with Tampa Bay's Super Bowl win.

At 47, Jay is the fourth-youngest head coach in the NFL, yet he didn't get his first big break in the league until 2011 as the Bengals' offensive coordinator. He spent 18 seasons as a player and coach in the Arena Football League, winning four ArenaBowl championships with the Storm from 1991-96, then two years toiling in the United Football League with the Florida Tuskers before getting hired by Cincinnati.

"He's a competitor of the highest order," said Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Gruden at Louisville from 1985-88, seeing him lead the Cardinals to an 8-3 record as a senior for their first winning season in 10 years. "He's a level-headed person with great communication skills, all the basic fundamentals that come with the job."

Schnellenberger, who kept Gruden on his staff as a student assistant and a graduate assistant, remembers his persistence, especially in coming back from a serious knee injury his junior year.

"He was the Jim Kelly of my team up there," said Schnellenberger, who had raised Miami's program to national prominence. "His play his senior year was pivotal, the thing we needed to start our run. He changed the direction of the team."

Gruden's desire to play led him to the Arena League, where he was a prolific passer for the Storm in its early days in the Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field), before baseball came to Tampa Bay and sent the Storm across the bridge. His first head coaching job came with the rival Orlando Predators, and he won another ArenaBowl title in Tampa as a rookie coach in 1998.

"We could see it in the very beginning," said former Storm receiver Stevie Thomas, who caught 113 touchdown passes in Gruden's six years with the team. "He was a student of the game, just a wealth of football knowledge. There were times in games where the coaches were uncertain what to call, and sometimes he'd just make the call. You could see it in the making, even then."

Gruden's first season as a head coach hasn't been easy. Two of his three wins have come against the Jaguars (1-9) and Titans (2-7). But he has a chance at another Sunday against the team with which he honed his understanding of NFL offenses.

Gruden is surrounded by familiar faces from his Bucs years: general manager Bruce Allen, personnel executive Doug Williams, secondary coach Raheem Morris, receivers coach Ike Hilliard.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

"It's been a pretty smooth transition so far," Gruden said this week. "Our record doesn't show it, but we're moving along pretty good.

"Luckily, I've hired a pretty good staff of people I can rely on to do their jobs. I do a pretty good job of letting coaches coach and other people do their jobs, and if I have to step in, I will, but so far that hasn't been the case."