TAMPA – It's a few hours before kickoff, and Jon Gruden's guys are huddled around him at the stadium.
As the former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begins his weekly pep talk, the decibel level soars and Gruden's adjectives turn a little saltier.
After his concluding line, "Are you with me, men?" the meeting breaks up amid cheers as members of ESPN's camera crew disperse to get ready for the big game.
For three hours every Monday evening, Gruden's passion flows from a broadcast booth hanging above the 50-yard line instead of the NFL sidelines he roamed for 11 years as coach of the Bucs and Oakland Raiders.
In the 10 months since he and general manager Bruce Allen were fired by Tampa Bay, Gruden has reinvented himself, both in the workplace and in the home.
"The wound is still open, man," said the new sensation of ESPN's "Monday Night Football" telecast. "I have to admit it – I miss preparing, I miss the opportunity to help a player get better. I miss the fans, I miss the feeling in your stomach when you wake up on game day. But this is close."
Instead of putting the finishing touches on a Buccaneer game plan Friday night, Gruden, 46, watches his son, Deuce, play prep football for Carrollwood Day School, where his wife, Cindy, can be found in the concession stand while Jon works over the officials.
Cindy has accompanied Gruden to several Monday night games this season, flying back to their Tampa home while her husband heads off to the stadium to join play-by-play man Mike Tirico and fellow analyst Ron Jaworski in the booth.
"In my mind, Jon Gruden is a once-in-a-generation TV analyst," said Jay Rothman, "MNF's" lead producer. "I told Jon a few weeks ago that there are very few announcers fans will tune in just to hear their comments. They almost always tune in for the game and the matchup. But I put Jon up there with Howard Cosell, John Madden, maybe a Charles Barkley. He's got the glam factor."
Gruden's comfort level with Jaworski and Tirico is evident, a rapport forged during the summer, when the "MNF" announcers and Rothman crammed into an RV for a sweaty tour of NFL training camps.
"It's been really easy for the three of us on the air … and easier off the air," said Tirico. "Jon Gruden has energized all of us. The guy is so much fun to be around. What I've come to realize is what a good-hearted family guy and loyal friend he is. Wherever we go, Jon's friends are your friends."
The "MNF" ratings are up markedly since Gruden was named to replace Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser in May.
ESPN executives credit Gruden for providing a new vibe.
"Jon and I argue a lot, and it makes for good TV," said Jaworski, a former NFL quarterback who has formed a tight bond with Gruden. "Jay Rothman knew Jon and I were already friends. We play golf; our family goes to dinner together. … We didn't just fall off the boat.
"What I've learned about Jon this year is just how much he cares about his former players: Warren Sapp(notes), John Lynch(notes), even a Keyshawn Johnson(notes). He loves what those guys did for him as a coach. By bringing Cindy to games, in that regard, they probably found each other again, too."
Rumors follow Gruden around like his legendary sound bites.
"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," Gruden said. "I just got fired from a job and I'm trying to hang on to the one I've got."
Gruden is still being paid by the Bucs for the final three years of his contract, and his new lifestyle appears to be growing on him.
He remains immersed in NFL game films and each week brings an opportunity to renew acquaintances with coaches and players.
"This change has been a positive one for me," said Gruden, who returns home on Tuesdays and often greets Rothman the next morning with a lengthy e-mail detailing story lines for the upcoming matchup. "I've gotten in a lot better shape, mentally and physically."
Gruden's smooth transition has surprised players and peers.
"He seems to enjoy what he's doing," said Tampa Bay defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson(notes). "You can tell that his intensity level is very high every time he talks. He can be doing this for a long time."
Veteran Fox Sports broadcaster Sam Rosen, who worked Sunday's Bucs game against Green Bay, said he learns something new each week listening to Gruden.
"He's got a great analytical mind, and he's a natural communicator," Rosen said. "He's very easy to understand, not too technical, and the man clearly loves to talk football."
For Rothman, every game Gruden works for ESPN is a blessing.
"We all travel back on Tuesday, and we're zombies," Rothman said, "but there's Jon giving me 31 notes on the upcoming Denver-Pittsburgh game. And the guy's a flat-out rock star on the road. We were walking around New Orleans last week and you would have thought Elvis was on Bourbon Street."
"You can bring things up that you don't agree with, but you don't have to be negative," Gruden said. "Negativity drives me crazy."
Gruden said he wishes first-year Bucs head coach Raheem Morris and the 1-7 Buccaneers "the best" the rest of the way.
"Jon's not there with the Bucs anymore," Tirico said. "When you put the pieces together, you realize maybe it wasn't him. There's no doubt we're enjoying him a lot. He's a unique talent – the NFL Rookie of the Year in my opinion. Let's put it like this: I know Tampa's not better without him and we're a lot better with him."
- Jon Gruden