Head Coach Jon Gruden jokingly promised the Deer Park students a visit from 'Chucky' if they failed to listen to their teachers
Jon Gruden arrived at Deer Park Elementary School Friday morning with a big grin on his face, a smile he wore easily through two assemblies, several presentations and dozens of questions.
If he has to come back to Deer Park, however, it will be with a different expression on that famous mug.
"Any of you guys know who Chucky is?" said Gruden to an intimate crowd of several hundred third, fourth and fifth graders. "Do you know why I've got that nickname? I am a lot like your teachers that are here today. I'm a coach. I coach, they teach.
"Coaching and teaching is very similar. We have students that come to work and forget to do their homework. Derrick Brooks forgot one day. It made me really mad. You've got other students that don't finish their homework. I get really mad. That's when that guy Chucky comes out."
Gruden, who had delivered a similar message to kindergarten, first and second-grade students just minutes before, stressed to the rapt audience the importance of staying focused on schoolwork, listening to teachers and striving to achieve greatness. When the children responded affirmatively and enthusiastically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach hinted that he – or perhaps his alter-ego - would be holding them to their word.
"I want you to give me some commitment," said Gruden to the students. "Do you know what commitment is? I'm going to check on this, because I've met a lot of your teachers today. I'm going to ask you guys for some commitment now to do your best. I'm friends now with the principal here. If you guys don't do your best, that little guy Chucky's going to come back here looking for you."
Of course, the hundreds of young Buc fans sitting cross-legged on the cafeteria floor would probably consider a visit from Chucky another wonderful treat, but the message was strong nonetheless. Considered a master motivator on his normal job, Gruden proved just as adept at tailoring his message to a younger crew, easily switching approaches between the primary and intermediate student assemblies. The father of three young boys, two of elementary school age, Gruden repeatedly urged the Deer Park kids to learn from their teachers and believe they could succeed.
"I've got a little boy named Michael," said Gruden, referring to the middle of his three boys. "He's in kindergarten, and every morning he is a grouchy guy. He does not like to get up and go to school. Now, when he gets to school, he's okay. I like coaching guys who have genuine enthusiasm. Do you guys know what enthusiasm is? If you're going to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you're going to have enthusiasm. Like Warren Sapp – he comes to work every morning at 7:30. Now, he eats all our donuts and drinks all our coffee, but you know why he gets to work early? Because he loves it. He loves it. He absolutely loves it.
"And that's what you're going to do. You're going to find out, in school, what you love to do."
Gruden was invited to speak to the Deer Park students on Friday as part of the Staples Coach of the Week program run during the 2002 NFL season. Gruden was the winner of that award in Week 14, after the Bucs' stomped Atlanta, 34-10. Deer Park Elementary was also a winner, having been randomly chosen as the school to receive the resulting Gruden visit as well as a $5,000 check from Staples to purchase school supplies.
Because the in-season schedule for coaches and players in the NFL is extremely tight, the Deer Park visit was set up for after the campaign had ended. Of course, the Bucs' season ran a little long, pushing the visit into late February but also ensuring Deer Park an audience with the youngest coach ever to guide his team to a Super Bowl victory.
That, in fact, was something that Bragen Frank was curious about. At the end of each of his two speeches, Gruden answered a list of questions from a group of student representatives. Bragen asked the famous visitor how it felt to be the youngest Super Bowl coach ever.
"It feels pretty good, I'll tell you that," said Gruden, the smile getting broader. "It feels pretty darn good, man."
The inquisitive students grilled Gruden on his background, his parents, his work habits and the Bucs' prospects in free agency (really!). See below for more of Gruden's answers to the students' questions.
Gruden was more than happy to let his young friends into the world of professional football. Constantly drawing comparisons between coach-player and teacher-student relationships, Gruden used gridiron illustrations to stress the importance of study habits.
"One of our plays, our quarterback has to get in the huddle and he has to say 'Flip Right Double X Jet 36 Counter Naked Waggle at 7 X Quarter on 1,'" Gruden explained to shocked laughter. "That's a lot to say! So you've got to study. You've got to listen to your teachers. You've got to keep getting better."
Not surprisingly, Gruden found several ways to sprinkle the Bucs' 48-21 win over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII into the conversation.
"Have you guys ever seen a quarterback reverse out and hand the ball off to a running back?" he asked the older students. "Like when Brad Johnson reversed out and handed the ball to Mike Alstott on the goal line, did you see him run right over those Raiders and score a touchdown? Well, what if Mike Alstott wasn't listening or wasn't taking directions? What would have happened if Mike Alstott would have gone the other way? Fumble! We would have lost the Super Bowl! So you've got to listen and pay attention to the directions, right?"
Deer Park's staff and faculty, decked out exclusively in Buccaneer garb – including, in some cases, student-fashioned pirate-ship hats – seemed almost as excited as the kids about the coach's visit. And a relaxed Gruden obviously enjoyed himself.
"This is very exciting," he said. "I have three young boys of my own and this is where we're laying the foundation with our youth. To come out here and meet some kids and meet some faculty, to be a part of this, is exciting.
"(Education) is critical, and it's not easy. It takes commitment. To be a great coach or a great player, you need concentration and you need to learn how to do things, and for that you need teachers. That's why I'm here, because I believe in the life-long impact a teacher can have on children."
Gruden's two-hour visit to Deer Park Elementary is sure to have a lasting impact as well. The student crowds were attentive, interested and extremely well-behaved, and it's clear that Gruden's message was received.
Ten-year-old Ryan Jerothe said he had learned one very important lesson on Friday. "To stay in school and do your best," he said.
Another 10-year-old, Alexa Pospiech, was obviously moved by Gruden's use of examples from the Bucs' locker room. What surprised her most about the coach's talk?
"That some of the players don't always pay attention," she said. "That everyone needs to pay attention to their teachers."
Gruden left the Deer Park campus at 11:00 a.m., after speaking to the entire student body and meeting much of the faculty. As he approached the parking lot, just to be sure his concepts had sunk in, Gruden made one more stop. The Bucs' coach poked his head into Mrs. Edgemon's gifted class and said, "You guys had better be listening to your teacher."
Ah, a Chucky sneak preview.
At the end of each assembly, Gruden gamely fielded a list of questions presented by select student representatives. Below are his answers to those questions
Primary Students – Questions read by Garrett Dessinger, Lora Scudlo, Austin Richardson and John Hanson
Q: Were you involved in football when you were young?
"Yes. My dad was a coach when I was a little boy going to kindergarten and first grade, so I've been around football my whole life. I wasn't a very good player, that's why I got into coaching. Some of you guys are probably good players and I'm looking forward to coaching you someday."
Q: Is it hard to be a coach?
"Is it hard? Sometimes it is hard. When you've got to tell your players to go into that locker room and lift weights and run, and they yell at you, that's hard, man. That's hard stuff to do."
Q: What do you do as a coach?
"Well, a coach has to put the game plan together. We have assistant coaches, we have trainers, we have all kinds of people that you have to work with when you're head coach. And you have all kinds of players – big players, little players. Does anybody know who our littlest player is? Martin Gramatica, that's right. A coach has to help put the game plan together, he has to organize his staff and his team. That's not always easy, but that's pretty much what I do."
Q: What makes you a great coach?
"I'm trying to become great. You can only get so much out of your life. The only goal I have is to max out – that means do the very best that I can. Hopefully, one day I can say that I did great. But I know this – we were great this year, weren't we?"
Q: What's your work schedule?
"My work schedule? You guys don't want to know. Do you want to know? I very rarely sleep. I'm like some of you guys. You guys probably stay up too late, too, right? But during the season, I get up every day…every single day I wake up at 3:17 in the morning. 3:17! Can you guys believe that? It's dark outside, my wife is sleeping, my boys are sleeping and I sneak out the back door. Sometimes the only thing that's awake are the wild animals outside. But we work hard, and sometimes I don't get home until about 10 o'clock at night. But that's what makes it fun. You've got to love what you're doing."
Q: What do you like to do when you're not working?
"I like to go fishing. Do you guys like to fish? Raise your hand if you like to fish. I like to go to the beach, I like to go hang out at the beach. And I like to play with my kids. I have three little boys I like to play with."
Q: Why did you want to coach the Bucs?
"I grew up in Tampa and I really think that the uniforms are cool. And I think we can win. I know we've got a chance to be a great team in Tampa. That's why I wanted to come down here."
Q: How did you become the coach of the Bucs?
"I shouldn't tell you guys that. I used to work for another team. Does anybody know what team? The Oakland Raiders. I got a call in the middle of the night from a guy and he traded me. He's traded me to Tampa Bay, and I was so excited. I couldn't wait to get down here."
Q: What kind of student were when you were in elementary school?
"Oh boy. You know, I'm a lot like you guys, probably. There were a couple subjects that I was really good at. I was really good at math. I could count to a hundred by threes – three, six, nine, 12, 15, 18, 21. I could count. I knew math inside and out. I loved it. But I was not very good at spelling. It used to drive me crazy. I was pretty good but I wish I was better."
Q: Do you think any of your children will follow your footsteps and be a coach?
"I don't know. My two-year-old likes football a lot. I've got a two-year-old named Jayson. My other sons like Tonka trucks and dinosaurs right now."
Intermediate Students – Questions read by John Silva, Alex Markunes, Kelsey Bain, Bragen Frank and Jessica DeMeo
Q: If your team members become free agents, do you have any other prospects in mind?
"That's a good question. That's why I've got to go back to work. We're going to lose a couple players. Nothing ever stays the same in this world. We're going to lose a couple players, but we're going to go get some more players. You bet."
Q: How does your wife pursue her own interests when you have such a busy life?
"What, do you want me to get my wife here and you can ask her that? When you get married…do you guys have boyfriends and girlfriends yet? What kind of question is that? No – we've got three little boys and she is very committed to helping me raise them. Hopefully, her independence can help her through this time until the kids get a little bit older."
Q: What words of wisdom do you have for the students so that they may become as successful as you?
"What words of wisdom do I have for you? Does anybody remember one of the things I've said today? Somebody stand up and tell me. We're going to commit to what? We're going to do our best, aren't we? We're going to listen to our teachers, right? And we're not going to let anybody out there tell us we can't be great, right? You know what, I wasn't even a pro football player. Did you know that? I played at a small college in Dayton, Ohio. I was a quarterback, and I wasn't even a starting quarterback. And all the time, coaches and people told me that I couldn't play. Then they told me I couldn't coach. Then they told me I'd never coach in the NFL. But no one ever tells you you can't be great. Am I right about that? That's the best wisdom I can tell you."
Q: What qualities do you possess that make you so successful?
"Well, the big thing I try to do is, when we put the team together, we try to bring people in who can be motivated. It's hard to be a coach, it's hard to motivate a person who isn't motivated, right? Are you guys motivated in the things that you do? Yeah, but I bet there are certain things you're not motivated about, right? Okay, we've got to get guys who are committed, motivated self-starters that love football. That helps me be a better motivator."
Q: How did your father influence your decision to be a coach?
"My father was a coach. My dad coached at Notre Dame. Have you guys ever heard of Notre Dame? He coached with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers years ago. Remember the orange jerseys? My dad was a coach when he was your age and I always liked what he did. I always wanted to do what he did, and he influenced me by helping me get around people who could coach and teach me to become a coach."
Q: Do you really get up at three o'clock in the morning and why do you do it?
"I get up at 3:17 during the season. I slept in until 5:05 today because I stayed up late putting this speech together last night. But I get up early. A lot of people don't need as much sleep as others. Some people need 12 or 13 hours of sleep, right? 14 hours. 15 hours. But I get up early and try to grind."
Q: Besides money, what is the key element to the Bucs' success?
"Besides money? After money, what did you say? I forget. Somebody brought up money. No, the key to our success is we've got to have great players. Coaches, the number-one job that we have is to find great players. The only way you can become a great player is if you go to college and you become a great player at that level. But we've got to find great players and that's what makes great teams."
Q: How did you celebrate your Super Bowl win?
"I probably shouldn't go there, should I? That was the most exciting thing of my life, really. One of them. We won the Super Bowl. I used to work for a football team. Does anybody know what team I used to work for? The Raiders. That was a big game, personally. I wanted to beat that team, and they wanted to beat me, I could feel it. When Dwight Smith intercepted that last pass – you guys know who Dwight Smith is? – he went running down the field right in front of me. I was so excited I was out on the field. And after the game, I went back to the hotel. It was late. I took my three boys, all of them were asleep. I went down there in the lobby and I just celebrated, danced around like a fool. I was excited."