The future of coaching in the NFL emerged from a woodshed.
In 2004, Jon Gruden was in his third season as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each morning, Gruden would rise at 3:17 and head to work at One Buc Place, the team’s training facility that Gruden semi-affectionately dubbed “The Woodshed.”
At the time, the woodshed was the most decrepit facility in the league. It was nearly 30 years old, run down, overrun by rodents and, as one former Bucs staff member said, unlikely to pass any reasonable health or fire code test. It was so small, there wasn’t even a place to display the Lombardi Trophy the team won in January 2003. That was stored in a bag under the security desk.
The roof leaked, the lighting was dim, the air conditioning often didn’t work, and it was common to hear raccoons making their home underneath the floor. Making matters worse, the double-wide trailers that comprised the facility were situated about 300 yards from Tampa International Airport.
Despite those conditions, One Buc was the training ground for one of the most accomplished coaching staffs in NFL history. That staff featured six future NFL head coaches: Gruden, Kyle Shanahan, Jay Gruden, Mike Tomlin, Raheem Morris and Rod Marinelli. It included five more coaches who would, at some point or another, hold prominent offensive or defensive coordinator jobs in the league in Monte Kiffin, Joe Woods, Joe Barry, Bill Muir and Jeremy Bates.
“It was basically like a big motor home,” said Shanahan, who faces his old boss Thursday night. “My desk, there would be rat droppings on it when I came in in the morning. My office really was a closet, but they ran out of room. They put a desk in it, and literally when the door would open, it would hit my head. … It was just this big room where everyone was basically in their pajamas all week.”
“We had a lot of young, talented people in the coaching area. We knew it.”
Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin
Gruden hired Shanahan in 2004 to become his offensive quality control coach. It was Shanahan’s first job in the NFL after a season as a graduate assistant at UCLA. When he arrived, he joined a staff that had managed to strike a balance between grizzled veterans such as Kiffin and Marinelli and burgeoning young stars such as Tomlin and Morris.
And the woodshed fostered something among them.
“People were always around just grinding and working,” Shanahan said. “It becomes kind of like a fraternity, just in terms of everyone is there all the time, everyone has the same interests, and it’s just all ball 24/7.”
The original Gruden Grinders
One thing any young coach who works for Gruden learns almost immediately is that all the stories about his relentless work ethic are true. Aaron Kromer, whom Gruden hired in 2005 to be his senior assistant and who is now the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator, realized that from the moment he arrived in Tampa Bay.
Early every Wednesday and Thursday morning, Kromer would arrive at One Buc to find Gruden drawing 60 scout team cards for that day’s practice. Those cards featured a variety of blitzes and coverages Gruden wanted his scout team defense to show the offense at practice. The goal was to prepare his quarterbacks for anything that could be thrown at them so they could identify those wrinkles and make adjustments.
That would have Gruden working from roughly 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day just to get the blitzes drawn and understood.
“He does live, breathe, eat football,” Kromer said. “When I was there, that’s all he thought about.”
Gruden wanted coaches with passion, a characteristic he sought in any potential coaching candidate.
Kiffin, the defensive coordinator from Tony Dungy’s staff, was known for sleeping on a small couch in his office. He had an inherent understanding of what Gruden sought in coaching candidates.
When a possible hire would arrive in Tampa, Kiffin would ask for his shoe size so he could get the right size coaching shoes before going on the field and walking through teaching techniques. That would be followed by an extended session working on the whiteboard, plus game tape for more X’s and O’s work.
“Some people thought it was just a ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and it takes a couple hours or something,” Kiffin said. “But that’s not the way Jon wanted to do it, and I think it was a really good process because we really had thorough interviews, and I think that’s how we found really good coaches.”
That was particularly true on offense. From 2002-08, Gruden hired his brother Jay, Bates, Shanahan, Kromer, Nathaniel Hackett and Sean McVay. All were considered bright, young offensive minds who had no problem putting in the time.
“It was a great group of guys, the brat pack, you know,” Jon Gruden said. “I always have taken pride in hiring young coaches that love it, that have some passion for the game, that are good communicators. That was a fun time, for sure.”
Gruden also realized he didn’t need to tinker much with the defensive staff Dungy left behind. Marinelli, Kiffin, Barry and Tomlin were with the Bucs before Gruden’s arrival and remained after it.
“[Dungy is] the one that started that whole thing on defense, and you kind of didn’t know what we were about,” said Marinelli, the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. “That’s how we started. You get so much done when you just work together. There were no egos.”
‘The most important thing in my whole career’
Shanahan had been an assistant at UCLA for just six months when he got the opportunity to go to Tampa. Upon Kyle’s departure, his father, Mike, then head coach of the Denver Broncos, offered some advice.
Even as an offensive coach, Mike Shanahan told Kyle to focus on defense, and the understanding of offense would naturally follow. The idea was that the younger Shanahan would gain a deeper understanding of why a certain play would be run and what could work in certain situations.
As a low-level offensive assistant, Shanahan’s primary function was to draw up every play being used in that week’s game plan. Every Tuesday morning, he’d arrive to a list of about 140 drop-back pass plays Gruden had left for him, turn on some Lil’ Wayne and spend the next 10 hours drawing those plays on a computer.
After that first year, Shanahan took his father’s advice to heart. It didn’t hurt that he was working at a place where defense was king and the coaching staff was unafraid of offensive interlopers.
“He was in a little cubby hole, and he was working on offense, and he would have the door cracked so he could listen to our defensive meetings, and we were talking through the defense,” Kiffin said. “He was just a sharp young guy.”
Despite the competitive environment between offense and defense, Shanahan was soon welcomed into those defensive meetings, and he sat with the staff nearly every day after practice. Tomlin, Barry, Morris, Kiffin and Woods never batted an eye at having him around, teaching him the finer points of the Tampa-2 scheme. They also gave Shanahan their tip sheets, and after games, he would watch the defensive game tape.
Those two years in Tampa — and his fellow coaches’ willingness to help — set the stage for Shanahan’s ascent up the coaching ladder.
“That’s what’s been kind of the foundation to me,” Shanahan said. “That was the most important thing in my whole career, I believe.”
Preparing for more
The lack of ego among the Bucs’ staff helped many of those coaches get better at their jobs. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of competition. With so many young alpha males on one staff, there were plenty of intense basketball games and racquetball matches with the requisite trash talk along the way. And then there were the practices.
“It was fun. It was challenging,” Tomlin said. “We had a lot of young, talented people in the coaching area. We knew it. We sharpened our swords on one another. We were highly competitive. … [Gruden] challenged us. He pitted us against one another. It was fun, man. We all have long-lasting friendships and relationships based on that shared experience.”
A typical practice in those days was designed to create an intense environment. The defense generally stuck to the Tampa-2 system, and Gruden and the offense were so familiar with it, they’d often gash the defense in practice. Shanahan would tell the defense it needed to do something else, only to be rebuffed because the defensive coaches were simply refining the scheme that would almost always work on Sundays behind the guidance of Pro Bowlers such as Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber.
When position coaches weren’t preparing for practices, they were expected to dig in on the NFL draft, and general knowledge of prospects wasn’t enough for Gruden.
Two weeks before the draft, he would gather 20-30 play cutups of the top 300 players in the draft, 150 on each side of the ball, and the entire staff would meet from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and dissect each prospect. The work was tedious, but Gruden believed it served two purposes.
First, it would give each coach a head start on scouting opposing players, knowing that most of them would land elsewhere. Second, it would help remove bias when the Bucs were on the clock. For example, if linebackers coach Joe Barry thought a tight end was a better player than a potential linebacker addition, it would help make decisions easier.
Above all, it helped every staff member see the bigger picture in regard to roster building, something that would come in handy later in their careers.
“I have kind of approached that way in the draft ever since then,” said Barry, now the linebackers coach with the Los Angeles Rams. “I kind of force myself to learn and know the draft at every position just because as a defensive coach, all those offensive players that are getting drafted, you better know them just because for the next 10 years, you’re going to be coaching against them. I thought that was really cool the way Jon approached that.”
Onward and upward
In his first year as Tampa’s coach, Gruden led the Bucs to a win in Super Bowl XXXVII on the strength of a dominant defense and power running game. Soon after, many of his coaches were well on their way to becoming hot commodities for teams in search of head coaches and coordinators. The Bucs managed to keep most of that staff intact for the few years that followed, though it was just a matter of time before other teams came calling.
At the end of a disappointing 2004 season in which the Bucs went 5-11, Shanahan called his dad and recommended he hire Tomlin, who was coaching defensive backs, as his defensive coordinator in Denver. He made similar recommendations about Barry and Morris and told him that Woods was ready for a move up from defensive quality control to position coach.
Going 11-5 in 2005 opened the door for promotions for most of Gruden’s top lieutenants. Even so, it was a matter of when, not if the staff would be broken up.
Marinelli departed to become head coach of the Detroit Lions. Tomlin became the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator, a job he held for one year before becoming the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach. Morris left to become defensive coordinator at Kansas State before returning to the Bucs as defensive backs coach and, eventually, replacing Gruden as head coach in 2009. Shanahan became wide receivers coach for the Houston Texans and was elevated to offensive coordinator by 2008. Woods followed Tomlin to Minnesota to coach defensive backs.
“You put a Super Bowl-winning staff, and you fast-forward 15 years, and you look at the faces,” Tomlin said. “Opportunities are born out of success, as it should be. That’s what this thing is about. That’s why winning is so important. We’ve all probably had the opportunities we’ve had because we won a Super Bowl in Tampa, and it hadn’t been won before. That’s the story. The younger guys you didn’t know then, you know now.”
NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer, Lindsey Thiry, Jeremy Fowler, Vaughn McClure, Paul Gutierrez and John Keim contributed to this story.