Gruden no-show for media

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Jon Gruden was a no-show, and several of his players came in disguise.

The man who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into their first Super Bowl stayed behind Monday to game-plan for Sunday's title game against Oakland. His players arrived in all kinds of casual attire, including Warren Sapp in a No. 7 Eagles jersey with Jaworski, as in Ron, printed on the back.

Keyshawn Johnson was wearing a black No. 44 San Antonio Spurs jersey with Gervin, as in George, on the back.

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And when the Raiders arrived later in the evening, nearly all of them were wearing jacket and tie. No Darth Raider costumes. No Grim Reapers.

Just an early twist to what should be an intriguing week at what many are calling the swashbucklers' Super Bowl.

Gruden's non-appearance was the most noteworthy event. He and his coordinators received permission from the league to come to San Diego a day later.

''The problem is in a one-week Super Bowl where you have to travel across the country. You travel today, it kills your one big planning day,'' Bucs general manager Rich McKay said.

''Jon was concerned about game-planning because he does a lot of that himself.''

Gruden was, uh, pirated away from Oakland for a very handsome booty of $8 million and four draft choices sent to the Raiders. At the time, some said he was leaving Oakland Coliseum's Black Hole for another -- a black hole of an organization.

But he was just what Tampa Bay needed, providing the impetus for this Super Bowl run with his hard-charging style, something the Bucs obviously lacked while falling flat in the playoffs under Tony Dungy.

He certainly was on his players' minds Monday night.

''Jon brings an attitude to the table every day,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ''It is nothing magical. It's the way he approaches life. He is a get-it-done guy. Put it on his shoulders.

''Gruden, if you know anything about him, he is about as intense as it gets. And it rubs off on us, on everything we do.''

What the Buccaneers have done is overcome their sorry history. For 19 years, the Raiders have tried to get back to the title game, but that's nothing compared to Tampa Bay's pursuit of respectability, let alone championships.

Sapp claims critics only concentrate on non-football issues with the Bucs, but that isn't true. What fans remember is an 0-14 debut season; 26 losses before a victory; two solid decades of unprecedented failure; and, when they finally turned things around, an inability to get this far.

These, however, are the new Bucs, the Gruden Bucs, the brash Bucs capable of slowing down the NFL's top-rated offense with their No. 1 defense. It's a far cry from what everyone came to expect from one of pro sports' most downtrodden franchises.

''He felt the team out,'' McKay said. ''He didn't try to change the chemistry dramatically. He re-energized us.''

Or, as Sapp said following the NFC championship victory in Philadelphia, ''If he would tell me to jump off the Walt Whitman Bridge, I would jump off.''

When Gruden jumped ship, Bill Callahan, whom he hired, moved from the supporting cast to a starring role. He's overseen a significant increase in the Raiders' offensive potency; they scored 450 points during the season and have 71 in two playoff games.

Most important to the Silver and Black and to Al Davis, the team's maverick owner, Callahan ended nearly two decades without a trip to the big game.

Unlike his Bucs counterpart, Callahan did accompany the Raiders to San Diego on Monday. Davis was the third person to exit the charter plane, which was decorated on both sides with giant Raiders decals. Davis was easy to spot, wearing his trademark black jacket and white paints.

Callahan was barely noticeable, but he doesn't care about the spotlight, which is good. Davis, who stayed behind the scenes last week, isn't likely to do so again.

''He's a great guy,'' said Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time leading receiver. ''He knows the game of football and he wants to win.

''Right before every game, I see him on the sideline. He gives me the fist and says, 'Let's go.'''

Of course, many in the NFL still would like Davis to go away. They consider Davis a villain because of his endless series of lawsuits and threats against the league. That his team failed to play for a title from 1985 until now -- with both Los Angeles and Oakland as their ports of call -- probably was a source of extreme pleasure everywhere outside Raider Nation.

''Mr. Davis is the Raiders,'' safety Anthony Dorsett. ''It rolls off him and onto us. He could tell you about every player. He could tell you the guy on the practice squad's wife and kids. He loves this football team.''

And he loves the image he has created for it. The only problem is, the guys on the other side might be ready to steal the treasure before Davis' Raiders can grab it.