The moment Mark Davis took over for his father Al Davis as the Managing General Partner of the Raiders, Mark knew just what he wanted to do to bring the Raiders back to prominence – bring back Jon Gruden.
Al passed four games into the 2011 season, so Mark would have his first shot at trying to convince the man who last built the Raiders into a championship caliber team to return and give it another go.
Mark didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the first of many attempts he would make at wooing Gruden back to the Black Hole. Each time he felt like he was close to getting him back and each time he was rejected.
“I’d say four times,” Davis said of how many time he felt like Gruden was close to returning. “My frequent flyer miles from San Francisco to Dallas to Tampa, did that maybe fifteen times.”
Davis had spent so much time in Tampa, he had come to have his own favorite restaurants – which one would assume is just knowing where the nearest PF Changs and Hooters were – and even a laundromat he frequented.
He got to know Gruden’s family, including his mother, wife, and three sons. An aspect of all this that, as he says, made the difference in the end.
“I didn’t really know Jon back when he was coaching here,” said Mark following the Gruden introductory press conference Tuesday. . . “But over the last six years I’ve really gotten to know Jon and his family and that I think was the important part of it. Getting to know the family and the family believing in the Raiders, believing in me, believing in Marc Badain, Tom Dellaney. We went down there with computers and everything else to help try to convince him that the Raider organization was where it should be.”
In those visits he was consistently impressed with what he saw from Gruden. His work ethic which Mark said never changed throughout the years. How Gruden approached his work in the booth was as if he had been preparing all these years for a return to football.
“Going down there and seeing him work, as hard as he works,” Davis said of Gruden. “He does get up at three in the morning and goes and starts watching film. Cut-ups, different plays, the same play from fifteen different camera angles. He’s got all that to look at. When I started going down there six years ago he had the passion. And five years ago he had the passion. Four years ago he had the same passion. He still has the passion.”
The visits became about more than just trying to woo Gruden to come back. It wasn’t just Mark going down there every few months to say ‘How ‘bout now?’ He was learning from his visits and actively sought Gruden’s advice on football matters.
It was one of those trips to Gruden’s Fired Coaches Football Association during last season that gave Mark his first signs that this time Gruden’s potential interest may be a bit more real.
For the second season in a row, the Raiders stayed over in Sarasota Florida in the middle of a back-to-back East Coast swing. This time, the Raiders were sitting with a 3-5 record having lost 5 of their last six games. Much of that was the offense faltering under new offensive coordinator Todd Downing just a season after the Raiders’ offense was one of the league’s elite units. Davis was frustrated and needed some advice, so during that week in Sarasota, he took the one-hour drive to Tampa to seek the advice of his pal Jon Gruden.
“And at that point in time I just wanted to know if he could help me figure out how to fix this franchise because I felt that there was a lot of regression,” said Davis. . . “I just wanted to know if he had some input for me. . . and he started talking about he could possibly be the one to help fix it, I started to believe it because it was a different conversation than we’d had in the past. In the past he wanted to do it, wanted to do it, but wasn’t ready to make a commitment. I just felt it.”
That was the first few days in November, halfway through the season, and Davis was already feeling like he might be looking at replacing Jack Del Rio just a season after giving him a 4-year extension.
Over the next month, the Raiders would win three of their next four to pull back to .500 in a three-way tie atop the AFC West and in control of their own destiny.
Little did we know just how much their ‘destiny’ would indeed be dependent upon the final month of the season.
Two weeks later, the Raiders had lost two games, including another brutal loss in Kansas City that all but eliminated them from playoff contention.
On Christmas Eve, the Raiders were in Philadelphia, set to face the Eagles on Monday Night Football with Gruden calling the game. It was then when Davis says he got the word from Gruden that he would take the job. Which means Gruden called that Monday night game already with a firm idea he would be the Raiders next head coach.
“I was pretty confident that he was all in,” Davis said of their Christmas Eve conversation. “And that’s the term that we were using in our discussions ‘Are you all in?’ and I never wavered from all in. This time he didn’t waver either.”
The day prior, with the Chiefs win over the Broncos in Kansas City, the Raiders were eliminated from playoff contention. Then they went out in prime time and lost to the Eagles with the offense turning the ball over five times and scoring just 10 points. If Gruden’s commitment the evening before the game wasn’t enough to make Davis’s decision, that performance was.
And as it turns out, Gruden’s commitment WAS enough. As Davis said when asked if he would’ve made the decision to fire Del Rio regardless how the rest of the season had gone; “Probably, yes.”
Such was the depth of his desire to bring Gruden back to the Raiders. After a six-year plight which included some 15 trips to Tampa, and four times thinking he might have a shot to get Gruden back only to get rejected, he finally got the go-ahead, and he wasn’t going to let him get away this time.
“Everybody knows that I’ve been infatuated with doing whatever it takes to get him here,” Davis said, “but really didn’t know how deep our conversations were going or how far along we were to making it happen. Somebody asked me what was harder: to get the 31 votes to go to Las Vegas or to get Jon Gruden and by far to get Jon Gruden was the toughest.”
What was different this time? He was ready.
“In my heart, I feel this is the thing to do,” said Gruden. “This is what I want to do. This is the organization that I want to be a part of and I am all in. I only live one time. This is something I feel deeply, strongly about and I am going to do everything I can to hire a great coaching staff and put the Raiders back on track.”