One of the most recognizable figures in the sporting world, who also ranks among the best football teachers of his generation, recently stopped by the Fargodome for two days to watch North Dakota State’s football team practice and witness firsthand how Bison Football, Inc., runs its operation. Jon Gruden, the Super Bowl-winning head coach and football aficionado, is a global ambassador for football—the modern day equivalent to John Madden.
Gruden serves as the color analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football, hosts the popular “Gruden’s QB Camp” television series in the lead-up to the NFL Draft and runs the FFCA (Fired Football Coaches Association), an organization dedicated to giving back to the game of football, with a specific emphasis on high school athletic programs. Gruden has followed the emergence of NDSU football as a national powerhouse from the beginning, going back to before the FCS championships when he hired then-Bison coaches Casey “Gus” Bradley and Todd Wash for his Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff. Gruden cemented his bond with the Bison through Carson Wentz during last spring’s Gruden’s QB Camp.
During Wentz’s appearance on the show, where Gruden memorably implored the former Bison signal caller to be a “two-handed monster” and chased Wentz around his Florida football academy with a pool noodle, the two had a visible chemistry and connection. It was genuine. It was borne from their mutual love, appreciation, and respect for the great game of football. Digging past the bright lights, the big money contracts, and their being a head-turning celebrity in almost every room they walk into, at the core, they speak the same language. They’re both football junkies who simply love the game.
The strategy, the execution, the leadership, the competition, having to perform at peak levels, and above all, the grind of the journey. Given the choice between spending time at an A-list Hollywood party, spending time at the most expensive restaurant in any city closed off in a private area or watching game tape in the seclusion of their basements, Gruden and Wentz would uniformly pick the latter. “I’m excited to watch them practice and learn about their operation,” said Gruden when asked why he chose to spend his weekend watching NDSU practice. “It’s hard to be successful, and it’s really hard to sustain success. That’s the one thing I observed quickly as a coach. It’s hard to get to the top, and it’s really hard to stay there.”
After listening to Gruden speak at the annual NDSU Football coaches clinic held in conjunction with spring practice, and watching him interact with Bison coaches and the high school coaches from around our region at the clinic, the reason for his fascination with the Bison, piqued by Wentz, was clear. Gruden is first and foremost a teacher of the game who wanted to see how NDSU teaches football, acknowledging it as one of the best football classrooms in the country. It’s a heady compliment. A guy that has his pick of any place in the world, not just the football field, to watch and learn from other coaches and leaders, sought out the Bison. The story goes that last spring after taping “Gruden’s QB Camp,” Gruden asked Wentz about how he could get to NDSU to watch the Bison practice, and Wentz put Gruden in touch with Bison quarterback coach Randy Hedberg.
“This is a great program. This is a five-star operation,” explained Gruden, who was, at the time, the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl when he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers. Gruden has been the lead analyst for Monday Night Football since 2009. “I showed my sons some of the tapes I made from North Dakota State. I showed them the last two or three minutes of the Iowa game this year and how they won that game. I think this program, if you’re willing to spend the time investigating it, studying it, you’ll want to send your kids here to play, that’s for sure.”
Coaches are teachers. The best coaches, especially Super Bowl-winning ones like Gruden to his national championship-winning counterparts at NDSU, are great teachers. Having talent helps, sure, but all the talent in the world won’t succeed unless they have competent, high-level coaching and leadership. Great coaching isn’t limited to the X’s and O’s. The best coaches develop and sustain a culture where players become coaches themselves, with upperclassmen leading younger players, or, at the professional level, the veterans leading the rookies. At the Bison Showcase event held a few days after Gruden’s trip to Fargo, Bison head coach Chris Klieman described NDSU’s culture. Klieman explained how his staff can count on veterans like Tre Dempsey and R.J. Urzendowski to coach up a younger player who makes a mistake before even the coaches can. Things like that are a prime example of what builds and sustains championship-level excellence.
The most important thing every coach and leader does is teach. The best coaches—from Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, to Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich—are excellent teachers. After “retiring” from coaching, Gruden started a football academy that teaches and promotes the game called the FFCA.
“We just don’t show up and start talking football. We watch every one of their films. We make cutups of every situation, try to learn the offense ourselves so we can have an intelligent, sophisticated football conversation,” said Gruden, referencing his preparation in getting to know Wentz for Gruden’s QB Camp. “I didn’t like the offense they ran here, I loved it. The way they huddle, the way they use their roster, the way they run the football, the way they play and the effort that they play with.” That’s why one of the sharpest football minds on the planet came to NDSU.
He wanted to sit front and center in the Bison classroom and learn. Gruden wasn’t here so much to teach, as he was to learn.
“Repetition is the mother of learning, I always felt,” concluded Gruden, describing his teaching principles and how that translates to NDSU’s success. “A lot of these players, these Bison, they come out of here polished. They’re versatile guys, guys like Joe Haeg, he can play guard or tackle. He’s smart. They do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. This is a real commitment to sophisticated football. They play underneath the center, they’re in the shotgun, they do a lot of things, and a lot of these guys, as you know, they graduate, they play five years, they’re mature men when they come out of here.”
Word is getting out that NDSU is one of the best football classrooms there is. In addition to Gruden’s visit, Klieman has been invited to speak at the Clemson University and University of Georgia football clinics, and the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Association clinic, in recent years. Folks want to know what it is about NDSU that makes us special. If you tune into Monday Night Football next fall, you’ll be sure to hear all about it from Gruden himself. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!
Joshua A. Swanson is a native of Maddock, North Dakota, a proud NDSU alum and a lifelong Bison fan.
Follow him on Twitter: @swany8