He had not an inch to move in the scorching heat wearing long sleeves, pestered with footballs and mini helmets and flags from his left, more footballs and hats and even a boxed Chucky doll from his right, all while his personal security detail tried to usher him away from the madness.
But the $100 million man wanted to stay right where he was, at the center of a mosh pit here at renowned Raiders fan hangout Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill.
Often when Gruden refers to the team he coaches, he says, “the Oakland Raiders,” not just, “the Raiders.” Gruden knows how much the Oakland part means to fans clinging to two more years before the team relocates to Las Vegas. And he, more than anyone, understands the DNA from which Raiders fans are made – scrappy, underdogs and not always glamorous.
“The Chucky spirit is back,” said Craig Smithers, 52, a Raiders fan since age 6, referring to Gruden’s doll-inspired “lookalike” nickname. “That mean grit, the grind. It’s what the Raiders are all about.”
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So before his first season back on the sideline for the silver and black, Gruden called for a fan appreciation day at Ricky’s. Well over 500 fans showed, according to Ricky’s owner Tina Ricardo, and each one received free entry, food, drink and a quasi pep rally from an old friend.
Gruden arrived shortly after 5 p.m. and snuck in the back door behind the protection of a chain-link fence. Minutes later, he emerged from a main door and into the heart of the crowd, arms raised, fists clenched, mouth agape, offering high-fives and hugs and “What’s happening, man?!” to anyone and everyone as he maneuvered to the stage.
“Can I hear you join me?” he beckoned to the mass in front of him. “Raiiiiii-derrrrrrrrrs. Raiiiiii-derrrrrrrrs.”
Gruden told the crowd they weren’t loud enough, so they echoed him again. Then again, when Gruden pulled out his phone, filming the sea of black to show his players at a team meeting next week.
Gruden first praised his lieutenants – defensive coordinator Paul Guenther (who was in attendance), offensive coordinator Greg Olson, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and offensive line coach and former Raiders head coach Tom Cable. He then lauded quarterback Derek Carr and Oakland’s interior offensive line of Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson.
He vowed to get star defensive end Khalil Mack back with the team amid his contract holdout and even poked fun at the Kansas City Chiefs with the Raiders now boasting longtime Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson.
Fans reached as far as their arms would take them, extending fists, memorabilia and phones for knuckle touches, signatures and pictures from their favorite son. Gruden was so amped up, he obliged for knuckle touches with boxing jabs, thrusting both arms in the air to chants of “Chucky! Chucky! Chucky!” in between fan interactions.
Only 10 or so steps separated the stage from the inside of Ricky’s yet it took Gruden 10 minutes to reach safety. There wasn’t a single autograph or picture request he turned down, leaning left, leaning right, arching back and arching forward to please these Oakland fans. After all, the hometown faithful may not have many more chances to see Gruden up close after the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Even if Mark Davis has his mind on Vegas, it certainly doesn’t seem the coach he hired does.
“Especially with all that’s going on, that they’re going to Las Vegas, to bring that Oakland pride out here, everybody’s happy,” said Erik Sotelo, 27, who attended with his 9-year-old son. “It means a lot to my son. He’s just gonna see them for the next two years and then they’re leaving.”
“I can guarantee that there is no other coach in the league that would do this for their fans,” said Melly Garcia, 61, who has owned Raiders season tickets for 51 years. “He is so appreciative of being back in Oakland and he knows what an amazing and awesome fan base he has, bottom line.”
“It’s just a big deal when the coach seems like he’s as much of a fan of the sport and the team that he’s coaching as you are,” said Amanda Garcia, Melly’s daughter. “It’s like a full-circle moment. I’m kind of in awe sitting here like, ‘Wow, coach is about to come and say thank you to us.’”
“We feel like he’s the only coach that’s for this team that exists on this planet,” said AJ Asahan, 41. “Who else is the right coach to fit this franchise and this fanbase?”
Gruden retreated to a VIP room as DJ Mike Gruden, Jon’s son, worked the turntables outside. Minutes later – sure enough – Gruden emerged to throw black Raiders T-shirts into the crowd. He made an appearance with the band Raiderhed, then snaked his way through the crowd to another photo shoot, then back to the VIP room and back out to the fans – still sweating under his vintage Raiders hat and double-layered black T-shirt and white long-sleeved shirt.
If there was a human being in the vicinity who didn’t shake hands with or hug Gruden, they weren’t trying hard enough. Only when he was physically moved to the slightest iota of space by a PR staffer or security did he not stop in his tracks.
At his introductory press conference in January, and again on Friday, it was clear Gruden had the support of many notable Raiders alumni. Inside the VIP room sat a bevy of them, including Cliff Branch, Lester Hayes, George Atkinson, Bill Romanowski, Raymond Chester, Art Thoms and Chris Cooper, among several others.
General manager Reggie McKenzie made an appearance, along with Davis, who entered to far more cheers and photo opps than you might expect given the Vegas move and recent departure of longtime Raiders radio voice Greg Papa (maybe Gruden’s presence alongside Davis during the owner’s walk through fans lessened the blows).
As the chaos gradually died down, Gruden returned to the VIP room to cut his cake, which read in icing, “Welcome Back Coach…Once a Raider Always a Raider” with a picture of Gruden in the middle. When the man with endless energy finally ran out of fireworks, or at least it seemed, he made his way toward the exit shortly before 8 p.m. Still sweating.
The Raiders could very well start 0-4 and all this hype dissipates. Maybe the Raiders come nowhere near the playoffs, and tensions surrounding the Vegas move only grow when Gruden fails to deliver results. But to these Raiders fans here, those hypotheticals aren’t even thoughts yet.
Let them enjoy their new rockstar coach for now, because they won’t be able to on their home turf for much longer.