OAKLAND -- Jon Gruden walked toward midfield with a tense Raiders victory finally secure, exchanging pleasantries with L.A. Chargers coaches he spent all week trying to beat. He worked that crowd with smiles, handshakes and bro hugs, spending most of his time looking for open space.
The Raiders head coach found some and quickly made a break for it.
Gruden doubled his pace, removed his jacket and headed straight for the Black Hole. The notorious fan section was ready and waiting for another moment with their man, one of their greatest champions.
Gruden got the Elvis treatment over 54 seconds walking Oakland Coliseum’s southern rail, borderline mobbed while trying to make personal connections with this devoted following. He accomplished that mission several times over, reveling in a Week 10 victory with people dressed like gorillas and fighter pilots and other creepy outfits only fit for the Coliseum and Halloween.
Gruden stood before the press a short while later, face paint smudging his cheek and spilled beer on his shoulder, his jacket and visor given away in the crowd.
He was asked, clearly by a reporter unfamiliar with his disposition, if those Black Hole trips were getting a little too rough to repeat.
“No, I never think that,” Gruden said. “Every win, I’m going down there. I get face paint all over me. I get to see some costumes I have not seen before at any football games. It’s awesome.”
Gruden’s bond with the fan base runs deep. That’s especially true in Oakland, still the capital of Raider Nation.
“There’s something about these people,” Gruden said. “They’re nuts. They’re the closest thing to me that I’ve ever seen. We have that in common.”
There is grit and determination, a ferocious bark and bite in Gruden and his followers. And, of course, they share an unwavering devotion to all things Raiders. They are like family in that they can be at times mad with Gruden’s performance while still wishing him well.
That kinship always will stay with Gruden, even as the Raiders transition to Las Vegas in 2020. Relocation’s right around the bend, with but one game left at Oakland Coliseum. That comes Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which he hopes to punctuate with one more celebration in the Black Hole.
“That’s what I coach for,” Gruden said. “I love people. I love football and they love it more than anybody. People can make fun of me and say whatever they want, but when we win, I’m going down there. And when we lose, usually I stick around the parking lot, hang out with the guys and try to get them ready for the next home game. I like to share my joy with some joyous Raiders fans as much as possible.”
That’s Gruden’s way of saying thank you for ardent support during his days as a 30-something head coach. It’s a thank you for keeping him in high esteem after he got traded to Tampa Bay – the 2002 Super Bowl and a 2004 return to the Coliseum are rare exceptions – and eventually moved into broadcasting. It’s a thank you for patience while he rebuilds the Raiders roster during his return to the Silver and Black.
Gruden earned loyalty from a fanbase starving for a return to greatness. The Raiders moved back to Oakland in 1995, after 13 seasons and a Super Bowl win in Los Angeles. The second East Bay stint started with three subpar seasons under two head coaches before Al Davis hired Philadelphia’s 35-year old offensive coordinator in 1998.
Gruden entered with a plan and started to execute it well, following two 8-8 seasons with an AFC West title and a trip to the conference championship game.
“Success makes you exciting,” said former Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman, who worked under Gruden from 1998-2000 before retiring to become a pastor. “Him coming in with a new attitude and passion and all those facial expressions made him a popular figure. During that short period of time, there was a lot of winning and overall excitement surrounding the team. Raiders fans were so hungry to win, and he was the face of that new movement.”
Kaufman’s right. Gruden’s personality was an important part of that package. All the dramatic facial expressions and raised eyebrows, all the yelling and the four-letter words let fans know he was giving ‘em hell on their behalf. His commitment to the craft became legend, with the entire East Bay aware he was getting up at 3:17 a.m. to help the Raiders win.
“He brought what I would I refer to as a zest and a zeal that had been missing,” former Raiders CEO Amy Trask said. “He was also just so expressive that fans likened him to Chucky and he embraced that, and it really took off. …The popularity of Jon Gruden grew and grew among Raiders fans.”
That was especially true in 2001, when Gruden won another division crown and was controversially felled by the NFL’s tuck rule in New England. Fans stayed true even after he was traded from Oakland to Tampa Bay for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. They obviously were upset after he beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, but time healed that wound.
That was clear when he came back to Oakland Coliseum to broadcast an NFL preseason game between the Raiders and Cowboys. Gruden rarely, if ever, left the press level when covering games, but took a lap before that 2012 exhibition that went just like recent his trips to the Black Hole. Fans lined the rails waiting for a moment of his time or an autograph, proof that their adoration never died.
Neither has Gruden’s connection to this region. He certainly hoped to give it another shot at glory this season but couldn’t keep a midseason hot streak going long enough to remain in the playoff hunt. That sets up an Oakland Coliseum finale that carries few football ramifications but plenty of emotion for Gruden, his family and everyone in the stands.
Gruden hasn’t been nostalgic heading into this game, choosing to focus on the preparation required to give these Raiders fans one more win to end this Oakland era. It’s one more chance to salute an area that means so much to him.
“In a lot of ways I was raised here, you know what I mean?” Gruden said. “It was the beginning of my NFL coaching career, at least my head coaching career. I just love it here. I had my first son here and I have a lot of history here. And some of my friends, a lot of my friends are in the Black Hole. A lot of my only friends are here. (laughter) I don’t have a lot of friends except the guys in the Black Hole. I only get to see them six or seven times, and I get emotional talking about it.
“Look, we’re excited about the future in Las Vegas. I don’t want to underestimate that either, but we’re also very respectful of where we come from.”