TAMPA — The man with one of the coziest gigs in professional football gets to his office at 3 a.m. every weekday.
OK, 3:30 a.m. if he is running late.
Jon Gruden is the consummate footballholic.
He pops up on America's TV screen a few times a week on ESPN, most notably for his gig as an analyst on Monday Night Football. But analytical interpretation doesn't begin to define Gruden.
He's a hybrid, really. A football coach who still lives the dream vicariously through his other job. His DNA can't be changed, which is why he breaks down film in the solitary quiet of his rented office in a Tampa Bay strip mall.
He's still plugging away, looking for an edge, even if the opponent is a hypothetical creature.
"I miss it every day," he told me in the tunnel of Raymond James Stadium while waiting to be introduced as part of the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII championship team Sunday afternoon."That's one of the reasons I get up early. I love football. I'm very fortunate to have the job that I have and it's really satisfied the urge. I'm very busy."
Busy enough not to want to come back and coach?
Gruden, 49, pops up on the coaching vacancy radar on a yearly basis. The first blitz of speculation came with college coaching vacancies. Tennessee? Arkansas?
Nope. No interest.
A second run at Gruden will start next month, when NFL coaches start getting canned. Besides select general managers, a few Bucs fans will start getting the nostalgic twitch as well, given the passion that Gruden brought to the game as their coach from 2002-2008. That run included the Bucs' only Super Bowl title, even though things eventually soured and Gruden was fired on Jan. 16, 2009, after seven seasons with the team.
The hard feelings have dissipated years later, as a sellout crowd on Sunday went nuts when Gruden was the last man introduced during a halftime ceremony as Gruden held the Lombardi Trophy up high for all to see.
Unfortunately, old-time memories were all Bucs fans left with Sunday, as the Philadelphia Eagles stole one from the home team — scoring on a one-yard pass from Nick Foles to Jeremy Maclin as time expired after converting a fourth-down pass on the previous play.
The Bucs are now 6-7, losers of three in a row, and quickly sliding out of any playoff conversation.
Under different circumstances — Greg Schiano is doing a nice job in a rebuilding mode for the Bucs — Gruden might be a candidate for a Bucs reunion. Won't happen. But there will be lots of places listed as Gruden's next stop, even if it's all speculative chatter. Life is as good as it gets for Gruden right now.
"A couple of weeks ago I was in Oakland and I got to light Al Davis' eternal flame and reunite with some of my Raider friends," said Gruden, who coached in Oakland from 1998 to 2001. "Life is going by fast. You only live once. I'm just trying to get the most out of every day that I can."
The game needs guys like Gruden, a man who brings the passion and excitement on every play. He's earned the label "Chuckie" — after the infamous facial expressions that mimic a killer doll — because of his persona on the sidelines.
"That little monster loves to coach," said former Bucs player Warren Sapp. "But I like him on Monday nights."
And frankly, that's a great spot for him. He's as involved as he can be, without having to deal with the misery that Schiano went through Sunday afternoon. Imagine that long, lonely drive home.
Gruden never worries about that any more. And just to quell any nagging thoughts about coming back, he visits the losers' locker room after games, so he can see their agony up close.
Winning is great. Losing crushes you.
Life of a coach.
Gruden will be up again, in the grind, early Monday morning.
And the best thing about it is he's undefeated in four years.