Monday Night Football tried a Cowboy, a comic, a columnist and a Cosell. To fill the latest vacancy in the broadcast booth, ESPN went with a winning formula — a coach, and a Super Bowl champion at that.
Fresh off getting fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden was hired to replace Tony Kornheiser this season.
The snarl-for-snarky swap came after Kornheiser cited a fear of flying in his decision to leave after three years. The same fear beset one of the most popular MNF announcers ever, John Madden, who retired from his TV career last month.
Gruden has spent his entire adult life coaching football, and said this job would give him an “opportunity to see things from a different angle.”
“Kind of like it’s halftime of my life,” the 45-year-old Gruden said Monday on a conference call. “Unfortunately, I don’t know many things about other aspects of life.”
Gruden won the 2003 title with the Bucs, and there’s no telling how long he’ll stay away from the field. Neither he nor Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, would directly answer how long Gruden’s contract lasts, or whether he was free to leave for an NFL post if one is offered.
“Maybe I can hang in and keep this job for a while,” Gruden said, later adding, “I dearly miss coaching.”
Gruden will join Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski when the show starts its 40th season this fall. Gruden will make his debut with a preseason game Aug. 13, a Super Bowl rematch between the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
MNF has used all sorts of personalities over the years, dating to its debut on ABC. Gruden recalled watching in the days when Howard Cosell and Don Meredith shared the booth, and comedian Dennis Miller’s stint led to Kornheiser’s run.
Kornheiser will continue to appear on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”
“My fear of planes is legendary and sadly true,” he said in a statement released by the network. “When I looked at the upcoming schedule it was the perfect storm that would’ve frequently moved me from the bus to the air.”
“If I could handpick a replacement of a football guy, I would cast a net and drag in Jon Gruden,” he said. “He is the two things you most want — smart and funny — and has the two things I don’t — good hair and a tan.”
Williamson emphasized it was Kornheiser’s choice to leave, and said MNF did not consider trying to replace him with a nonfootball type.
“We were talking to Jon, he was out there,” Williamson said. “When Tony made his decision, Jon was the guy.”
Nicknamed “Chucky” for his striking resemblance to the horror film doll, Gruden said he felt he’d be able to mix the right blend of criticism, razzing and praise.
Gruden has been a vocal critic of ESPN in the past, specifically objecting to anonymously sourced reports by the network.
“I don’t watch ESPN,” he said in 2007. “These reports make me sick, really.”
“There’s a lot of reports out there,” Gruden said. “I just wish some of these reports were verified.”
The son of a former NFL and college coach, Gruden was fired after his team lost four straight games to miss the playoffs. He worked as a guest analyst this year with the NFL Network during the draft and scouting combine.
Gruden was an NFL head coach the past 11 seasons, with the Buccaneers (2002-08) and Oakland Raiders (1998-01). He had a 100-85 record, leading his teams to five division titles.
His best season came in 2002, when the Buccaneers went 12-4 and then beat the Raiders 48-21 in the Super Bowl. Gruden was 38 at the time and the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. Tirico handed the Lombardi Trophy to Gruden in that postgame celebration.
Asked his favorite memory of MNF, Gruden immediately hummed the opening notes to the show’s theme song. He recalled being young, trying to persuade his mom and dad to let him stay awake to watch the games end.
“I’m excited to tell my three boys they can stay up all night to watch Monday Night Football,” Gruden said.