Jon Gruden didn't want to be the story this week.
The charismatic coach who spent seven years stalking the Tampa Bay sideline and led the 2002 Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory returned to the team facility Saturday as part of ESPN's "Monday Night Football'' crew.
Fired in January, 2009 after the Bucs posted a second consecutive 9-7 record, Gruden declined interview requests from the local media in the days leading up to Tampa Bay's matchup against Indianapolis at Raymond James Stadium.
Some of the men he left behind had no such qualms about discussing Gruden's impact.
"That's my man,'' said veteran running back Earnest Graham. "I kind of miss coach Gruden. He's a person that makes a mark on you, because there's nobody quite like him. His passion for the game is unrivaled, and he helped me understand what it takes to be a consummate professional.''
After the ESPN crew taped interviews with an array of Bucs players Saturday afternoon, Gruden stopped in the media room for a brief chat.
"I've got a lot of friends here and I was fired up,'' Gruden said of his first visit to Bucs headquarters since his dismissal. "You get a little emotional.''
For guard Davin Joseph, a first-round pick in the 2006 draft, Gruden's influence remains omnipresent.
"We don't have a lot of Gruden's guys left over here,'' Joseph said, "but I think he would approve of 90 percent of this team, the type of players and the type of people they are. We've kept a lot of Jon's principles, and that's a sign of respect. Nothing's changed in my feelings toward him. He drafted me and we had success here. Now he's coming here in a different capacity. He loves what he's doing with ESPN … and he's doggone good at it.''
Gruden was joined at Bucs headquarters Saturday by broadcast booth partners Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski as coach Raheem Morris put the team through a light practice.
Cornerback Ronde Barber and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, two veterans on the league's youngest club, shared a few laughs on the field with Gruden before he taped an interview with Morris, his former assistant coach.
"I can't call him little big man,'' Morris said of Gruden. "To me, he's boss. I'm not surprised he shut it down this week, because Jon has never wanted to be the story. He likes it to be about the team, the people around him. He's always been a guy who pushed people into the light. He nurtured all of us. He was the first guy who gave me an opportunity to speak in front of an NFL team as a quality control coach. Who does that?''
In his third year with ESPN, Gruden has developed a chemistry with his teammates in the booth.
"Jon's very impressed with this Bucs team, and he's fired up to be doing a game in Tampa,'' said Jay Rothman, who will produce Monday night's telecast. "My take is, he's three years removed from coaching the Bucs and Jon's made a choice about what he wants to do. If it was one year after, I think the emotions would be really raw, but he shows no signs of being bitter.''
The Bucs and Colts combined for a memorable Monday night game in 2003, when Indy rallied from a 21-point deficit late in the fourth quarter to beat the defending Super Bowl champions 38-35 in overtime.
"The last time I was on 'Monday Night Football' for the Colts-Bucs, it was one of the greatest nightmares in life,'' Gruden said in an ESPN conference call a month ago. "Unfortunately, the house was packed that night and they all went home mad at me, I think.''
When Gruden works Monday night's game from the vantage point of the press box, he is sure to experience swirling emotions.
"When Jon was here, he wasn't looking for clones on his staff,'' Morris said. "He was looking for ideas. He was looking for greatness. I always say he's the best guy I could ever work for in the world. You can disagree with how he did this or that, but he's got a ring on his finger. I think it'll be a little weird for him Monday night, but it's not like he didn't leave anything behind. I'd like to think he left me here to take over the reins with his blessings.''
Rothman anticipates a business-as-usual approach in the booth.
"Jon's proud of having spent a lot of his childhood in Tampa and he's proud of what he did with the Bucs,'' Rothman said. "He's taking the high road this week. You have no idea how much he's made us better. He's a rare talent and his work ethic is insane. He has raised everyone's game — from the cameramen to the technical crew. I know I've never worked with anyone like him. All in all, I'd have to say Jon Gruden has moved on.''