Perfect Homecoming
Yes, it's true. The Bucs actually are raising the Lombardi Trophy. If it still seems bizarre, if you're wondering how this happened, you must return to Feb. 18. To the most incredible tale of all. To the very millisecond when the Bucs positioned themselves as Super Bowl contenders. To their other victory against the Oakland Raiders.

Here's the irony: Jon Gruden never saw it coming. At the moment of truth, Gruden, a coach with the nocturnal habits of a hamster, actually was asleep.

When the telephone rang at the Gruden home in Pleasanton, Calif., it was just after 1 in the morning, West Coast time. Gruden's wife, Cindy, answered quickly, aware that most wee-hour calls are bad news. But it was Raiders owner Al Davis, with urgency in his voice, asking for Jon. ``Why is he calling Jon at 1 in the morning?'' Cindy thought as she passed the phone to her husband. ``Man, this better be good.''

It was beyond good. It was stunning. It was life-altering. It was unreal. Two hours later, here's what Gruden had to absorb. He was no longer coach of the Oakland Raiders. He had just been hired by the Bucs, agreeing to a five-year contract worth an annual salary of $3.5 million. He had been charged with re- energizing a championship- ready franchise that had failed in the NFC playoffs.

Most of all, he was returning to Tampa, the home of his parents. Jim and Kathy Gruden's grandchildren had been on the other coast, separated by a five-hour plane journey. Soon they would be within a five- minute drive. It all happened at warp speed. Gruden, at his introductory news conference in Tampa, probably put it best. ``I can't even tell you how I got here.''

But a few minutes later, he uttered another statement, one that probably encapsulates why his presence has had such a profound impact on Tampa Bay players. ``You either feel pressure or you apply it.''

From that moment forward, the Bucs have been in attack mode. After Sunday night's 48-21 victory against the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, most of the details on Gruden's acquisition have been rendered irrelevant. Gruden, who had one year remaining on his Oakland contract, had to be pried away with some hefty compensation: two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million.

That was the price of poker. When the stakes were raised, the Glazer family, portrayed as bumbling, meddling owners by the national media, had stared down Al Davis. The Bucs got their man. But only after the most tumultuous month in franchise history.

Tony Dungy was fired. Bill Parcells, who apparently had agreed to a Tampa Bay contract, backed out - again. Bucs general manager Rich McKay made a quick run at Gruden, who made it clear he was playing out the string and not returning to Oakland in 2003, but the compensation demands were deemed ``exorbitant.'' Marvin Lewis was set to be hired, but that transaction was vetoed by the Glazers. McKay, said to be professionally humiliated, scurried into the bunker and would interview for the GM job at Atlanta.

Meanwhile, the Glazers kept looking for a coach. ``I remember being at the Pro Bowl and having other players ask me: `Man, what in the world is going on at your place?' '' Bucs safety John Lynch said. ``I had no answers. It was starting to get embarrassing. We all just had to hope it was going to turn out all right in the end.''

On the final, fateful weekend, the Glazers were on the West Coast to interview San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci for the position of coach/GM. It is not known - and may never be known - whether the Glazers were prepared to close a deal with Mariucci or whether he was a San Francisco Bay-area pawn used to intimidate Davis.

This much is clear: Mariucci, hesitant to move his family, didn't jump at the Tampa Bay job and asked for a day to think about it. The Glazers, backed to the wall, made a final late- night run at Davis. It worked.

The Bucs had the coach they wanted all along: Jon Gruden. ``You want to talk about something that rocks your world? In 25 years, this was the craziest, fastest deal I ever did in my life,'' said Bob LaMonte, Gruden's agent. ``I'm asleep and Jon's calling, saying: `I'm back in it!' And I'm like: `Back in what?' I mean, this deal was dead. Dead! Nothing was happening. Then to have it happen like this? I think we all went to the TV in the morning to make sure it was reality and not a dream.''

Apparently, it was meant to happen. Four years earlier, Cindy Gruden had given her husband a fax machine for Christmas. But they couldn't get it to work. They never had time to study the instructions. There the machine sat, collecting dust. But a few weeks earlier, Cindy figured it out. She finally got it working. And on the night of the transaction, when Gruden needed contractual details faxed for his signature, he panicked. My fax machine doesn't work! Cindy told him to relax. Within minutes, Mrs. Fix-It pointed with pride to her gift, which began spitting out his contractual document.

Much was made of the Bucs/Raiders move. Who really won? The Bucs are champions. Is there any question now? ``You can't put a price tag on winning the Super Bowl,'' said former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth, now an announcer with Fox Sports. ``Now Jon is worth three No. 1 picks, three No. 2 picks and $20 million ... maybe more. The Glazers achieved their objective ... and then some.''

Gruden was sensitive to the compensation issue (``I don't know if any coach could live up to that'') and replacing Dungy, who was beloved by Tampa Bay players. But the Glazers knew who they were getting. Who can argue with the results? Other teams have taken notice. But for now, there's a NFL moratorium on trading draft picks for coaches, pending further review by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the league's competition committee.

``What Jon Gruden did this season was nothing short of incredible,'' Bucs executive vice president Joel Glazer said. ``A first-year coach, coming into an organization that had somewhat of a structure and staff in place, to fit right in and earn everyone's respect and lead them to a Super Bowl, that's nearly impossible. He's truly one in a million. I know this is a copycat league, but it's going to be practically impossible to copycat Jon Gruden.''