Jay Gruden takes unusual path to Redskins

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
10:25
PM ET

ASHBURN, Va. -- His path started out as a typical one, with Jay Gruden starring at quarterback for the University of Louisville. He left there as the Cardinals' all-time leading passer.

But there was no shot at the NFL. He's not tall, he's not strong-armed and a knee injury as a sophomore altered his game. So he wasn't drafted. And thus started quite a journey, one that started with a gig as quarterback for the Barcelona Dragons and then Sacramento Surge of the World League of American Football.

After a graduate assistant's job with Louisville, he jumped to a $500-a-week gig as a quarterback in the Arena Football League for five seasons.

One of his linemen, Carl Watts, once told the St. Petersburg Times that Gruden's fearlessness as a quarterback wasn't always good (which should give him something in common with his new quarterback, Robert Griffin III).

"You know he's about to take off and scramble," Watts said. "I pick him up and say, 'Jay, you got to cut this out. We need you hanging around until the end.'"

His Louisville coach, Howard Schnellenberger, told the Times that Gruden, “Took a real physical beating with us.”

Gruden won six Arena League championships, including two as a coach. He once admitted to Dan Daly of the Washington Times that he was a little bitter that he never earned one invite to an NFL camp.

“Given the opportunity I could have at least played some preseason games or something,” he told Daly in 2003. “I think the rest of the league thought, 'If his father [a scout] doesn't want to sign him, why should we want to sign him?' But I see these other slappies who've gotten nine or 10 years in and wonder why that couldn't have been me.”

Even in that article, his brother, Jon, predicted Jay Gruden would someday be a great coach. But Jay Gruden often admitted that he was not as intense or driven as his brother. Jon Gruden would be with their father, a former director of player personnel in Tampa, while Jay Gruden said he'd be watching cartoons.

Still, he stayed on the path. He was the offensive coordinator for the Nashville Kats in 1997, then the head coach of the Orlando Predators from 1998 to 2001. He served as an offensive assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2002 to '08. During that same period, after the NFL season ended he was the Predators' quarterback from 2002 to '03 and then their head coach from 2004 to '08.

"He's a hard worker," Redskins general manager Bruce Allen said. "He would commute in the middle of the night from Orlando to Tampa."

Gruden not only called the offensive plays, but also the defensive ones for the Predators. And he resisted overtures from college and NFL teams. Finally, after two years in the United Football League, first as the offensive coordinator under Jim Haslett and then a year later as the head coach of the Florida Tuskers, Gruden made the jump to the NFL. He served as Cincinnati's offensive coordinator the past three seasons.

“There's a lot at stake here,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 2011 during his first offseason with Cincinnati.

Yes, there was. And it led him to Washington.

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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