It took me seven years, but I finally interviewed Jon Gruden today. And now I want to die.
Before we get to today, a little backstory. Gruden has been the lead analyst for Monday Night Football since 2009, joining ESPN’s television crew after he was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following a 9-7 season in 2008. Gruden was 57-55 in seven seasons with the Bucs, a record that included a Super Bowl championship in his first season after leaving the Oakland Raiders in 2001. In total, Gruden was 95-81 as an NFL coach, winning five division titles and the one Super Bowl in 11 seasons.
Gruden was the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl, and was the youngest offensive coordinator in football when the Eagles hired him in his early 30s. Gruden was a fine coach. He was good, not great, but to this day, people in Philadelphia still wish he had become the Eagles’ head coach. Year after year, Gruden’s name comes up whenever there is a coaching vacancy. Last week, it came up with the Texas Longhorns job. The Rams job might be open soon, and now that they’re in Los Angeles, Gruden’s name is in the mix. He must have the best agent in the business.
I asked Gruden about that today; about the rumors around his return to coaching, about his love of Philly and if he regrets the timing of never getting to be the head coach here — shit, I even asked him about cheesesteaks and he said his favorite in the city was Pat’s or Geno’s — and it’s the best 7:30 interview you will never hear. Because it didn’t record.
The video recorded. Look, here’s a clip from the video.
Only, there’s no audio. (And now I want to die.)
Instead, you get these amazing gifs of me and Gruden talking with our hands. Here’s me saying something important about ESPN. Look how important what I was saying must have been to him.
Here’s is Gruden talking about the tusk curvature of a wooly mammoth, and if said wooly mammoth would be a better quarterback than Carson Wentz.
Here’s me, listening to Gruden tell me that he is in the middle of the best interview he’s ever been a part of in his entire life.
(Let’s stop to laugh at that for a moment together.)
Losing the audio of an interview happens to reporters sometimes, but what’s fun about today is that in the hundreds of interviews I’ve done in my career, this has happened exactly once before, while covering a Monday Night Football game in Philly. Eight years ago, ESPN invited me to do a behind-the-scenes of their production and I conducted individual interviews with their entire crew, including Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski and Tony Kornheiser. I lost half of the Kornheiser interview that day, but was able to re-create it with clever editing.
There was no clever editing today.
Kornheiser made way for Gruden on MNF the following season, the same year I started writing for Sporting News. To track Gruden’s success in the broadcast booth, I started to Fact Check him, a recurring weekly post I reprised two seasons later at Bleacher Report.
If history remembers that ‘the internet’ was not high on Gruden as a television analyst, I was that internet.
And yet, as the years rolled on, Gruden got better on TV. A lot better. Now, in 2016, he’s actually very good. Lisa Salters, ESPN’s MNF sideline reporter, told me last week she doesn’t know how Gruden doesn’t win analyst of the year every year. And so this moment, today, was a big deal for me. I had come around on Gruden — and I’ve been an internet writer for a decade, so I don’t come around on much — but I was still the guy who made a living fact-checking him, who spent years watching MNF on mute who now suddenly started to — gulp — like the guy.
To say I wanted to barf this morning was an understatement. And I don’t often get nervous for interviews the way I got nervous for this, but I felt I couldn’t talk to Gruden face-to-face without at least telling him I was tough on him in the past. “People didn’t like me on the internet,” he asked, rhetorically, “well I probably didn’t like you very much either.”
It was gold, and a moment that kind of, sort of, maybe helped the last 10 years of my career come full circle. Jon Gruden and I were talking about how Jon Gruden and I didn’t like each other. Share that moment with me, reader.
With that, here’s a rundown of what we discussed.
I asked Gruden about the rumors of him going back to coaching. Surely his agent likes the chatter, and ESPN loves the chatter so long as he stays with them, but does he love the rumors? He told me he’s always considered himself a coach, even now, and he prepares for TV — he watches hours and hours of film — like he’s a coach. He didn’t even throw in the cliche ‘but I’m undefeated every week’ line. See, it was such a great interview. Rumors, he said, are just that. He doesn’t get involved in rumors.
We joked about how much better he’s gotten on TV — he deadpanned, “some people think I’m good at this,” while clearly taking pride in how much better he’s become. I did ask about how he’s more willing to be critical of players and coaches now than he was in the past, and he mentioned that he still likes to be positive when he can be, and if that means celebrating a one-yard run, then he’s going to do it if he feels it warrants the plaudit. (He didn’t use the word plaudit. It wasn’t that good of an interview.)
Gruden said he does wish he had a chance to coach in Philly, and while he didn’t go so far as to call it a regret, you could tell the man loves the city. His son still lives around here, and if there was ever the right timing and he wanted to come back to coaching, I got the sense it wouldn’t take the Eagles long to convince him.
That said, he was high on Doug Pederson, though clear that 5-5 is pretty darn mediocre at this point in the season, putting more of that on the litany of issues the team is dealing with, not limited to a makeshift offensive line and a group of receivers who cannot catch.
We talked about Carson Wentz, too, and Gruden is very high on him, suggesting we haven’t seen anything close to what he expects Wentz to become. I asked if he had to build an NFC East team around one of the division’s quarterbacks, who would he choose: Wentz, Dak Prescott, Eli Manning or Kirk Cousins and, after reminding me his brother coaches one of those guys right now, Gruden punted on the answer, saying “I don’t play fantasy football, man,” leaving that kind of prognostications to the experts on the internet.
It was a great answer. Seriously, look how great it was and imagine you could hear it, too!
Seven years. A really fun interview. A handshake. A pat on the back. And no audio.
Karma on the internet sure is something. (I still want to die.)