The great irony of Jon Gruden’s sullied coaching legacy is he helped his players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win a Lombardi Trophy, which goes to the Super Bowl champion.
The trophy’s namesake is Vince Lombardi, a coaching genius whose Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls in the late 1960s.
Lombardi invested his energy in much more than football. He was ahead of his time in race relations, still a searing topic in Santa Fe and across the country.
Wisconsin historian Michael O’Brien unearthed many enlightening stories about Lombardi’s work off the field. My favorite is from the coach’s first year with the Packers, a time when racial separation was common in much of America.
It was September 1959, and Lombardi’s Packers were in Greensboro, N.C., preparing for an exhibition game that would be played in nearby Winston-Salem. Greensboro authorities enforced their segregation law, meaning the four Black players on the Packers’ roster could not stay in the same quarters as their white teammates.
Lombardi ached for his players, but he struck back quickly. A Greensboro restaurateur said he would serve the team, provided the Black players entered and exited from the back door. Lombardi ordered everyone on the team to use the back door.
Blindsided in North Carolina, Lombardi took greater care to book hotels and restaurants that accommodated customers regardless of skin color. He used creativity if none would serve his entire team.
Cliff Christl, the Packers team historian, wrote of Lombardi sidestepping Jim Crow laws in 1961 at an exhibition game in Columbus, Ga. Every player, Black and white, stayed in the bachelor officers’ quarters at Fort Benning, Ga., 10 miles outside Columbus.
Gruden, born in 1963, wasn’t alive when Lombardi took those stands for desegregation. Gruden’s path in life was easier than Lombardi’s. A son of a coach who worked at major colleges and in the NFL, Gruden had connections and skills that enabled him to rise quickly.
He became a head coach in the NFL at age 34. Lombardi didn’t get his first head coaching job in the pros until he was 45.
In Gruden’s most recent job with the Las Vegas Raiders, he coached the NFL’s first active openly gay player. The majority of his players were Black. His relationships with all of them were in doubt after old, private emails from Gruden surfaced in the last week.
Gruden denigrated a Black union executive and used gay slurs. He also disparaged women. He wrote the emails between four and 10 years ago, when he was an analyst on ESPN’s Monday night games.
The circumstances didn’t matter. Gruden, as glib and ingratiating as a coach could be, no longer would be trusted by his charges. He submitted a forced resignation, severing his 10-year, $100 million contract with the Raiders.
His fall was stunning in its speed. A handful of New Mexico legislators for 18 months buried information about a favored education administrator who insulted Native Americans. After the details finally became public in my column, it took another 10 weeks for lawmakers to negotiate the administrator’s resignation, though she was an at-will employee.
NFL executives typically are slower on important off-field matters. The league stalled for years before admitting concussions can endanger players’ long-term health and implementing better medical treatment.
Players who batter women are punished more severely by the NFL than they were in earlier eras. Even so, the league will abide a batterer but blackball a peaceful protester.
No team signed former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he demonstrated against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. The Kansas City Chiefs cut running back Kareem Hunt after he shoved and kicked a woman. He wasn’t out of work long. The Cleveland Browns hired Hunt, who remains a key part of their team.
Gruden’s punishment might amount to a lifetime ban from broadcasting and coaching in the pros. It should.
Craig James, a former pro running back, wrecked his career in sports broadcasting by making anti-gay comments while running for the U.S. Senate in Texas. James finished a poor fourth in a nine-way Republican primary.
Gruden is a much bigger name in football and broadcasting than James. Gruden was ingratiating on television. Many viewers liked him because they thought they knew him.
His reputation in tatters, Gruden still has his fingerprints on a Lombardi Trophy.
No one can take that away, but no one will ever confuse Gruden with Lombardi.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.