Inside the spectacle of Jon Gruden’s first day back with the Raiders

By Matt Schneidman - The Mercury News
Oakland Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden answers questions during Tuesday’s press conference in Alameda, Calif. - Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP photo

ALAMEDA, Calif. — For almost an hour straight before Jon Gruden arrived, the weight room at Raiders headquarters buzzed with former players, current high-ranking staffers, media and anyone and everyone wanting a glimpse at Gruden’s official return to coaching.

Hundreds of people filled the room, transformed from a full workout facility to a press conference hall with weight racks and lifting benches — oh, and a music booth — to the side. A black turf carpet with white letters spelling “Raiders” led from the back of the room to the front, almost 30 rows of chairs lining the sides. One Raiders staffer manned a rope in the middle, unhooking it every time one of the over 100 media members or special guests in attendance ventured to their seat.

“It’s better than being bored!” he remarked when I commented on his arduous task.

The pathway to the stage felt like the red carpet. Mark Davis finally reeled in his big fish. The Raiders did everything they could to make Gruden’s (second) Alameda introduction as much of a spectacle as possible.

“Somebody asked me what was harder, to get the 31 votes to move to Las Vegas, or to get Jon Gruden?” Davis said. “And by far to get Jon Gruden was the toughest.”

Finally, mere minutes before Gruden took the stage, the room fell silent. Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie made their way to the table overseeing the masses while Gruden stood behind a curtain to the side. Then the silence broke.

“Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiderrrrrrrrrssss” bellowed forward from the back of the room, and Charles Woodson made sure everyone knew he was there. He entered alone from the rear door and sat among the notable Raiders alumni in the building, a group of nearly 40 including Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Jim Plunkett, Howie Long, Jim Otto, Rich Gannon and many others.

Davis thanked Gruden’s parents, who watched the festivities from Tampa, then introduced Gruden’s wife and three sons in attendance. They all walked across the stage to their seats in the front row.

After three seconds of silence, the lights went out.

If you’re going to pay someone $100 million over 10 years, they get a hype video. Jon Gruden definitely got his hype video.

The massive screen at the front of the room flashed TV clips of news outlets reporting Gruden’s potential interest in the Raiders last week, accompanied by a dramatic narration.

“Whispers became rumors,” echoed throughout the room from the deep-voiced narrator. “Now the rumors are reality.”

Clips from Gruden’s first tenure with the Raiders played in short spurts. “Hit the tight end and work the middle!” he shouted in one. “Let’s go, go, go, go, go!” he yelled in another. “We’re not posing for football cards!” he belted in a third.

“Recognize this face?” the narrator said.

Gruden now stood in view at the base of the stage’s steps. He hid in darkness for only a minute before the lights came on. Davis spoke into the mic one more time.

“Raider nation,” Davis started. “This is a big F’n deal.”

Gruden climbed the stage, embraced Davis, then McKenzie. He raised his right hand to the crowd while some in the first two rows stood and pumped their fists. It took a while for the applause to die down, the cameras to stop flashing, the videos to stop recording.

“I’d just like to thank Mark Davis and Mrs. Davis for this opportunity,” Gruden began. “I used to get phone calls from Al Davis at 3 a.m. Now, I get them from Mark Davis at 3 a.m., but I want to thank you for this opportunity from the bottom of my heart.”

He took 28 questions, touching on everything from his coaching return to his unchanged demeanor to Derek Carr to his three coordinators. Gruden didn’t delve much into the Raiders’ upcoming move to Las Vegas or how his offense might look, but he was infinitely more engaging than Jack Del Rio ever was. He made jokes, re-connected with reporters from his first go-around in Oakland and engaged his former players in attendance. He even fielded a question from one of them.

“Coach, this is your first overall pick from 1998, Charles Woodson, here with the Raiders alumni. All of us just want to know, is there a no-trade clause in your deal?”

Everyone laughed. Gruden, too. And after he confessed there is indeed a no-trade clause in his contract, he became emotional thanking the alumni sitting toward the back of the room. They’re welcome back any time, he said, before thanking them for being on time, unlike his coaching days. More hoopla.

The charismatic coach was back home, working the room like only he knows how, putting on a show.

After the press conference ended, every combination of important figures you could think of posed for pictures on the stage. Gruden, his family, Davis, McKenzie, Gruden’s agent Bob Lamonte, Raiders president Marc Badain, you name it. Interview scrums with Davis, Gannon, McKenzie and others broke out both inside the facility and on the practice field outside while alumni mingled on the damp grass.

Some approached Gruden to introduce themselves, some to say hello again after two decades. As a drizzle started to fall on Alameda, Gruden finally meandered inside for several on-camera interviews.

Long and Rice and Eric Allen, among hoards of other former Raiders, stuck around just like old times. To chat about Gruden, about life, or to consume the monstrous buffet inside.

That’s what the Raiders wanted Tuesday to feel like — just like old times — and the spectacle on display made sure of it.

Oakland Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden answers questions during Tuesday’s press conference in Alameda, Calif. Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden answers questions during Tuesday’s press conference in Alameda, Calif. Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP photo

By Matt Schneidman

The Mercury News