A few years back, I met Tampa Bay Buccaneer owner Malcolm Glazer. He wanted to write a book, he needed a ghost writer, and my agent thought it might be a good idea for me to make friends with a billionaire.
I met grandmaster Mally Mal and his son Bryan, a team VP, at his hotel room in the Hilton on sixth avenue—a room so tiny that you could barely fit three chairs in it.
While we exchanged greetings, Glazer handed me a Buccaneer lapel pin as if it were a diamond earring from Keyshawn Johnson’s ear. I took my cue and fawned over it disproportionately. Glazer, who looks like the party animal at an Amish dentists’ convention, began a long—make that very long—monologue about a job that he had selling watch parts as a teenager, steadfast in his assumption that America’s book-buying public would be as interested in hearing about his youthful entrepreneurship as he was in telling about it.
In the middle of his soliloquy, he pointed to son Bryan.
“You see those pants?”
I peered at the pants in question: black, pleated, probably wool.
“Those are Hugo Boss pants. They cost $200,” Glazer informed me.
I reminded myself that I was talking to a billionaire and a billionaire’s son.
“My pants?” Malcolm added. “They came from J.C. Penney, $19.95 on sale.” He beamed. “And you know something? I like my pants more than he likes his pants. You know why? Because I remember the day when I didn’t have $20 to spend on pants.”
Bryan, realizing that as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t crawl under the hotel bed, settled for slumping down in his chair and turning roughly the color of a Buccaneer road jersey.
Things went more or less downhill from there, and as you might have guessed, I didn’t get the gig, and I was glad of it.
Now you can draw many conclusions from this story, but I tell it after the Bucs’ improbable 48-21 Super Bowl victory to raise one point.
A guy like Malcolm Glazer, for all his immense wealth, doesn’t throw his money around lightly.
But the $8 million Glazer coughed up to Al Davis for the rights to coach Jon Gruden and the $17.5 million he gave to Gruden himself (after getting spurned, you will remember, by Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, and Steve Spurrier) was an even better deal than those J.C. Penney slacks.
If this Super Bowl proves anything, it’s that the NFL has become a coaches’ league. The guy in the bad windbreaker with the Motorola headset is more important than anyone wearing a helmet and shoulder pads. Coaches don’t count against your salary cap, don’t blow out their knees, and don’t go out on pre-game benders.
And it’s not about Vince Lombardi-style inspirational leadership anymore. Gruden, the technocrat’s technocrat, looks like Chucky and has about as much charm as Martina Hingis. Remember Bill Belichick? Great scheme guy, can’t relate to his players—that was the rap on him before the last Super Bowl. Or, Raven coach Brian Billick, who makes Bill O’Reilly seem humble? Even good old Dick Vermeil was best known for his work with the chalkboard.
And Super Bowl XXXVII was yet another victory for the dry-erase board. While it was serendipity that it worked out this way, Gruden had a huge advantage that most of the pundits overlooked: He was the one who designed Oakland’s league-leading offense, so he also knew how to stop it. (You will remember that it was Tony Dungy who designed the Tampa defense.)
Oh, and who was the field general of Tampa’s stirring Super Bowl win? Brad Johnson, a 34-year-old journeyman who was cast off by the Redskins in favor of Jeff George. Coming into the season, Johnson had started a grand total of four playoff games in 11 seasons, and had won one. (By comparison, Chad Pennington already has one playoff victory.) His major claim to fame before this season? In 1997 he became the only player in league history to complete a pass to himself.
But compared to his recent predecessors in the Super Bowl hot seat, he seems like Joe Montana. Last year’s flavor of the month, Pat quarterback Tom Brady, was a sixth-round draft choice who, entering the season, had played in three games and completed one pass for six yards. Then there’s the erstwhile Raven QB Trent Dilfer: one playoff win and an unceremonious exit from Tampa. Then an unremarkable exile to Seattle, where he’s resumed life as Matt Hasselbeck’s backup.
And before that, it was Kurt Warner, who a year earlier was playing in the Arena League. The list of recent Super Bowl runners-up—Steve McNair, Kerry Collins, Rich Gannon—isn’t exactly a Hall of Fame ballot either. Care to start a line on next year’s Super Bowl MVP? Cade McNown? Dave Brown? Former XFL star Jim Druckenmiller? Ray Lucas?
So the take-home lesson, sports fans, is that you don’t need a Joe Montana, a Brett Favre, or even a Troy Aikman anymore to lead your team into the Big Game. Given the fact that Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Jeff Hostetler, and Jim McMahon are on the list of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and bridesmaids include Tony Eason, David Woodley, and Neil O’Donnell, maybe you never did.
What it really takes is a guy with a clipboard, a bad attitude, a case of insomnia, and a flair for the safety blitz.
But of course, all of this will be forgotten by the time the last of the stale chips are eaten and the guacamole dregs turn gray. The NFL off-season will be filled with draft-time talk about the likely first overall pick: USC quarterback Carson Palmer. And all the while, the men who can turn a franchise around—ousted 49er coach Steve Mariucci, former Viking boss Dennis Green, or even Tom Coughlin, late of the Jaguars—remain under the football radar.
As for ol’ Malcolm, I can see the Visa ad now. A pair of pants from J.C. Penney: $19.95. A coach who can take football’s most laughable franchise to the Super Bowl: $8,000,000. Your picture holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy: priceless.