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9:06PM

Gruden: ‘I’ve got something to prove’

By Art Spander

ALAMEDA, Calif. — It was part Las Vegas, of course. Have to plan ahead. Part Hollywood. Part pronounced humility. Jon Gruden had arrived with all the flash and fame expected of, and for, a prodigal son who, with a reputation and recognition gained elsewhere, is ready to show us he can go home again.

What a production on Tuesday, at a facility the Oakland Raiders will flee in a couple of years for the Vegas strip. There in the huge barnlike building called the performance center, which in season is full of athletes pumping iron, we were awed by a video that must have reminded Gruden of his most recent employer, ESPN. Do they have an Emmy category for Team Hype?

Then, after introductory remarks by owner Mark Davis, gloating as if he were the one getting the $100 million and not paying it, out stepped the Savior, his own self, Gruden, telling us, “I’ve got something to prove.” Which he does. Which he doesn’t.

He’s a football coach now, again, at age 54, because — and you’ve heard this before — that’s what he feels the need to be. For the previous nine years, including through last Saturday night, he was an analyst/commentator for ESPN, in the broadcast booth, not down on the field.

That looked like the best job in sports, picking apart the game plan of others, for $7 million annually, rather than have others pick apart his. And he did have the satisfaction and glory of coaching a Super Bowl champion, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who obtained Gruden from these very same Raiders in a trade.

It wasn’t that he did a poor job at Oakland in the four seasons, 1998 to 2001, he was, well, not in charge, because it was Mark’s daddy, Al, who was the power in those days, but at least the head coach.  

As the story goes, Al was somewhat pushed out of shape because Gruden, with his winning ways, charming personality and photogenic looks — hey, TV knows what sells — became the Face of the Franchise. Tsk, tsk. Off with his head, said the Red Queen, uh, or rather the silver-and-black knight. 

After the ’01 season, the one climaxing for Oakland with the NFL snow job, i.e. the Tuck Rule, conveniently called after the New England Patriots lost a fumble to the Raiders in the playoffs.

“For my career to end that night in New England, it still ticks me off,” Gruden said. “I’m so thrilled to be back here. I hope people understand the emotion inside.

“I feel there’s unfinished business. I feel a lot of loyalty and responsibility to get the Raiders going again. It’s been a while since the team has consistently performed at a high level. I’m going to do everything I can to help this team get right again.”

Gruden’s first season in Tampa ended with a 48-21 win over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII, but he never won another playoff game in the next five seasons. Not that it matters, or maybe it matters greatly, but no coach — Lombardi, Parcells, none of them — has won a Super Bowl with two different teams.

“I haven’t changed all that much since 2008,” said Gruden. The game has changed, but Gruden, announcing, conducting that ESPN QB Camp, maybe knows more about the players and changes than he would have as a coach. He has been to every one of the league’s 32 training complexes. He has worked Derek Carr, the man who will be his Raiders quarterback.

And if Carr wasn’t on site Tuesday, numerous former Raider players were, including Mike Haynes, Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Charles Woodson, and the QB Gruden beat in the Super Bowl, Rich Gannon. Remember how critics said Gruden knew what was coming because he knew the Raiders, his former team. 

Woodson worked for ESPN this season, on field at halftime. He also is involved in a Napa winery carrying his name. In 1998, he was the first draft pick of a rookie coach named Gruden. 

“All of us want to know,” said Woodson, whose playing career went from Oakland to Green Bay to Oakland, “is there a no-trade clause in your deal?”

Gruden laughed, “You’re going to make me want to go home, Charles.”

But this is home, isn’t it?  “I’m glad to be back,” Gruden conceded. The Raiders, at $100 mill, are glad to have him back.

1:56PM

The Athletic: So many Rose Bowl memories, and Georgia and Oklahoma did their part to add to them

By Art Spander
Special to The Athletic

PASADENA, California — Not a bad Rose Bowl. For football. A lot of scoring. Several long runs by Georgia and Oklahoma. First overtime ever.

But no earthquakes. Or rain. Or card stunts or scoreboard mischief by students from good old Cal Tech, a school a few blocks away — or if you consider the chances of it ever playing in the game, a million miles away.

They’ve held the Bowl 104 times, which probably is long enough to earn the label traditional. I’ve been to the most recent 65 games, which also may be long enough to make me considered traditional. Or insane.

I started in 1954 A.D, Michigan State-UCLA (Spartans won 28-20) and haven’t stopped since. The way the swallows return to Capistrano each March from their winter grounds in Argentina thousands of miles away (or about the distance of Rodrigo Blankenship’s game-record field goal for Georgia), each January I return to the Rose Bowl. And why not?

There’s nothing like watching the sun set over the San Gabriel mountains east of the stadium. (Although Monday there was little sunshine, and plenty of haze).

Weather, mostly good, is so much a part of the Rose Bowl the late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray would moan in print, “Oh no, not another beautiful day; another 20,000 Midwesterners will be moving here.”

I didn’t have to move. I’m an L.A. native. When I was a kid, L.A. didn’t have tall buildings, espresso stands or the Dodgers. It had movie stars and the Rose Bowl. I had no chance with the actress Jane Russell, so I signed up to sell programs at the game.

And year after year, as a West Coast guy, suffered while the Big Ten pummeled the western teams, taking 12 of the first 13 … Yikes!

That came to a halt when Jim Owens showed up at Washington and John McKay at USC. “What do you mean we’re not good enough?” McKay had told a reporter. Blush.

That song, “It Never Rains in Southern California”? Well, it’s rained on the Rose Bowl, if infrequently. The last time there was more than a mist, however, was 64 years ago, 1955. And it poured. So much so that Woody Hayes, the scourge of Columbus, whined about the USC band marching at halftime, even though Ohio State was able to march to a 20-7 victory. Days later cars were being towed out of the mud of the golf course which surrounds the bowl and is used as a parking lot.

Some people, like Hayes, who another New Year’s Day slugged photog Art Rogers, find disenchantment at the Rose Bowl.

Until the 1947 contract that matched champions of the Big Ten and Pacific Coast Conference, the Rose Bowl would bring in any Midwest or eastern school — Georgia in 1943 for example — to face one from the Coast.

UCLA wanted to play Army in that ’47 game, but was obligated to meet Illinois. Oh, the grumbling. Oh, the embarrassment. Illinois, with a back named Buddy Young running everywhere, won 45-14.

I’ve been attending the Rose Bowl so long I saw Cal (or as Millenials call it, UC Berkeley). Play in the Rose Bowl. Really. That was 1959. Before the Free Speech Movement.

Joe Kapp was the Golden Bears quarterback. He didn’t play defense. No one played defense for Cal, which had a 178-pound tackle, Pat Newell. “We’re going to make a freeway over him,” Forrest Evashevski, the Iowa coach, supposedly said. The Hawkeyes did that, Bob Jeter running for TDs and Iowa winning, 38-12.

A couple of years later, 14 of those future physicists from Cal Tech infiltrated the rally committee planning the card stunts for Washington before the 1961 Rose Bowl against Minnesota. So the card stunts included SEIKSUH.(Huskies spelled backward) and CALTECH. In 1984, when UCLA met Illinois, some other Cal Tech kids took over. It was hysterical, if you weren’t UCLA, Illinois or a Rose Bowl official.

“Granddaddy of them all,” is the copyrighted slogan the Rose Bowl people use to remind us it was in first in the business. I’ll raise a glass to that and to epic Rose Bowl played the opening day of 2018.

Copyright 2018 The Athletic

9:23AM

Newsday (N.Y.): Georgia outlasts Oklahoma in Rose Bowl to reach title game

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

PASADENA, Calif. — You might say the national college football championship semifinal in that most historic of stadiums Rose to the occasion. In the end, so did the University of Georgia.

The third-ranked Bulldogs verified their nickname Monday night by coming back from repeated deficits to beat second-ranked Oklahoma, 54-48, in two overtimes and advance to the championship final.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2018 Newsday. All rights reserved.

9:41AM

The 49ers know who they are

By Art Spander

LOS ANGELES — The public address announcer kept promoting the home team — well, the team that came home — telling the less-than-capacity crowd at the Coliseum how wonderful it was that the Rams, the Los Angeles Rams, were NFC West Champions. All the while, the Rams were getting whipped by the 49ers.

Which meant nothing on this final day of 2017, perhaps to the Rams, who played their backups, saving them from harm before the playoffs. But it meant a great deal to the Niners, who as the season came to an end looked very much like the football team the fans hoped it would be when Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were hired.

San Francisco’s 34-13 win Sunday could be dismissed as an exhibition game, one played before the start of the regular NFL season and not on the last day of the regular NFL season. The Rams chose not to suit their stars, quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, numerous others. It would not be unfair to say that was L.A.’s junior varsity.

But it was a game on the schedule, a schedule the Niners began with nine straight losses and ended with five straight wins, finishing at 6-10, far better than could be imagined the beginning of November.

The Niners once more are relevant, and in 2015 (Jim Tomsula, 5-11) and 2016 (Chip Kelly, 2-14) that word was hardly spoken.

Open with nine straight defeats — yes, a couple probably should have been W’s, but we do not dwell on should haves — and then come home with five straight wins? Never been done before. Ever.

“Yes, said Shanahan after the game, “we talked about that (Saturday) night. I’m so proud of the guys. One of the key things I wanted to find out this year was who we were. Who the coaches were. Who the players were. I don’t think you find out until there’s a little adversity. We stayed together and got better from it. Showed the character we have.”

Look, the Niners, seemingly so pathetic back in September and October, had the same record as the team that’s across the bay — until it flees across the desert sand — the Raiders. Who’d a thunk that?

And no less significant, the Niners got the quarterback they had to have, the one we presumed they’d grab with that high draft pick they played their way out of, going from No. 2 overall to a good distance down the list. And Shanahan is delighted. 

He doesn’t have to worry about picking up that quarterback. He has one. “We don’t have to go into free agency or the draft looking for an answer to that question,” said Shanahan. “Where we can improve our team we will.”

The Rams and 49ers have been battling since San Francisco joined the NFL from the All-America Conference in 1950. Before the Giants and Dodgers moved west, before the Lakers came from Minneapolis and the Warriors from Philadelphia, the Rams and 49ers were California’s only big time franchises.

They made history at the Coliseum (when it still seated 102,000) and Kezar Stadium, respectively. They had names like Waterfield and Van Brocklin, McElhenny and Albert. One of the most famous sports photographs showed Y.A. Tittle dropping back to pass one night in L.A. with Niners linemen blocking Rams rushers off their feet.

When the Niners finally became champions in the 1980s, the stands at Anaheim Stadium, where the Rams had shifted, were packed with red shirts and cheers for the Niners — which was the situation Sunday at the famed Coliseum.

So much has been said about the empty seats during Niners games at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The stands at the Coliseum on Sunday were maybe only two-thirds full, and the crowd was cheering for the Niners.

The rebuilding has been started. So has the dream.

“A game like this (when the Rams benched their stars) is always a concern for coaches," Shanahan said. "But our players are like sharks. It doesn’t matter what day it is, what game it is. We don’t have to turn it on. We know who we are.”

And so do the Rams.

8:30PM

Draymond Green on KD: ‘His defense is spectacular’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — For the opponent, it’s the old question against the young but experienced Warriors. Which poison do you pick: Triple Double (Draymond Green, of course) or Double Trouble (Kevin Durant)?

It’s a numbers game you’re destined to lose.

Green got his threesome on Christmas day at the Oracle (12 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists), Durant his double (25 points, five blocked shots). What the Warriors got on the holiday was less a gift than a well-earned victory over the only other team the fans seem to care about, the Cleveland Cavaliers, 99-92.

The NBA wants to put on a show every December 25, five games from morning to night, and the prime attraction, a noon start Pacific time, 3 p.m. on the East Coast, is the matchup between the franchises that faced each other in the last three NBA finals, the Cavs and Dubs. As Hollywood knows, sequels sell.

So does the Big D, defense, particularly by KD, Durant.

The chant? It’s not “offense, offense.” Hardly anyone needs encouragement to let fly a 15-footer or roar in for a dunk. Scoring points is fun. Keeping the other team from scoring them is work. And the Warriors have been working. Especially Durant.

Nobody doubts what he can do with the ball. He’s averaging 28.4 points a game. With Steph Curry missing, Durant was the guy who kept throwing in the winners, against the Lakers, against everyone, as the streak went to 11 in a row. Whoever dreamed that someone 6-foot-10 had the touch of someone 5-10? Swish.

Or who sensed Durant would use his wingspan (something around seven feet) to stymie and swat? Not Green, who a couple years back, when Durant was at Oklahoma City, went against him in the playoffs.

“He always made some defensive moves,” Green said of Durant, a teammate now for a second year, “but he never really seemed to care. When he was guarding me, I knew how good he was, his length, how hard it was to get a shot off. When he came here, we talked about him getting better. From that point last year, he’s become a great defender.”

Durant almost agrees. But hold off on the word "great."

“I’m getting close to where I want to be,” said Durant. “But I’m not quite there.”

Durant on Monday defended the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, because that’s what Kevin wanted to do. James had 20 points (Kevin Love led the Cavs with 31 and 18 rebounds) but also a game-high seven turnovers.

“He’s one of the leaders in blocked shots per game,” James said of Durant. “He’s been doing a heck of a job first of all taking (the) individual matchup and then protecting the rim, too. They have a good, maybe great They kicked our butts in transition.

“(Durant’s) right up there, if not the best, with Kawhi (Leonard), Russ (Westbrook), James (Harden). There’s a pretty long list. To play the same position, with me and KD being small forwards and with Kawhi, we do a great job of going at it.”

Durant’s only problem, if it can be considered as such, is that from afar, the fans, the press, he’s known as a shooter and scorer, no matter how many shots he blocks.

“If he just played defense,” said Draymond of Durant, “he’d be spectacular. But it will never overshadow his offense, which is spectacular.”

Durant was involved in yet another “call it the way you want it” play in the final seconds when the Warriors were ahead, blocking a LeBron shot and also it appeared getting a bit of LeBron’s hand. The officials studied replay after replay, then determined there was no foul.

“I just like guarding my position,” Durant said of taking on James. “A small forward is supposed to defend a small forward.”

Even if both small forwards, at 6-8, are taller than the big forward and occasional center, the 6-7 Green.

“You just can’t stop those guys like LeBron,” said Durant. ”They make good plays. They make shots at the rim. You can’t get discouraged.”

As one of the stars on a day of basketball stardom, Durant was anything but discouraged.

“It’s Christmas,” he reminded. ”There are so many people here happy. The spirit moves us.”

Fortunately, the spirit didn’t try to go inside against Durant or Draymond. He would have stopped moving.