During the 1979 offseason, the 49ers began looking at a quarterback named Joe Montana and decided he was worthy of more research. The team’s new coach, Bill Walsh, turned to his top personnel executive, John McVay.
“Who do we know at Notre Dame?” Walsh asked.
Said McVay: “Well, we know Jimmy Gruden.”
Gruden was an offensive assistant with the Fighting Irish, and he was close to McVay after spending the 1969-72 seasons under him at Dayton. He also worked for McVay as a 49ers scout from 1987 to 2002.
That connection helped Jim’s middle son, Jon, land his first NFL job as a special assistant with the 49ers in 1990 when Jon was 26. Eight years later, the Raiders hired Jon Gruden as their coach. A decade after that, he became the color analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” telecasts.
“He used to come to work riding a bicycle,” McVay said of the 1990 version of Jon Gruden. “Now he comes to work on a chartered airplane.”
The football crisscrossing of the McVays and Grudens goes even further. As McVay said, “Our families are intertwined.”
As Tampa Bay’s coach, Jon Gruden gave McVay’s grandson, Sean, his NFL start in 2008 as assistant wide receivers coach with the Buccaneers. The younger McVay was 22 at the time, and he skipped his college graduation ceremony so he could start his new job on Day One.
On Monday, the 49ers interviewed Sean McVay, the Washington Redskins’ offensive coordinator, for their head-coaching job. McVay, 30, is the NFL’s youngest coordinator and, if hired, he would be the league’s youngest head coach ever, edging former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin by nearly eight months.
McVay’s supporters, however, insist his football age far outstrips his calendar age. That’s largely because of the Gruden family.
McVay’s father, Tim, noted that Sean was Jon Gruden’s right-hand man in 2008 in Tampa Bay.
“Jon Gruden always liked Sean, and I think he probably saw himself in Sean,” Tim McVay said. “So he loved to take him under his wing and push him. Jon was a fantastic mentor and leader (for Sean’s) first job right out of college. And he spent a lot of time with Sean, giving him just an incredibly advanced education. It accelerated his coaching career tenfold.”
That mentorship has continued even though Gruden’s NFL coaching career ended after the 2008 season. He now runs the Fired Football Coaches Association (FFCA), which benefits high school football and serves as a workshop – often a frenzied one – for coaches to share ideas.
Sean McVay also has participated in those classroom sessions. A recent Sports Illustrated story noted McVay has started to resemble Gruden so closely that some refer to him as “Baby Jon.” He not only has the famously youthful visage, the shorter physique and blond hair, his mannerisms have an excitable, Gruden-like quality, too. Even their sleep habits are alike.
“Poor guy – he goes to work at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, comes home at 11 at night,” John McVay said of his grandson. “He can get away with that since he’s not married.”
After his stint with the Buccaneers, McVay spent 2009 with the United Football League’s Florida Tuskers, where he worked alongside their offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden (Jon’s brother). In 2010, McVay went to Washington as the assistant tight ends coach. When Jay Gruden replaced Mike Shanahan as the Redskins’ coach in 2014, Gruden retained McVay, who acted as a bridge between the previous staff and system and the incoming one.
Gruden promoted McVay to offensive coordinator. This season, Washington’s Kirk Cousins threw for 4,917 yards, third most in the league, to go with 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Washington’s offense ranked third in the NFL.
McVay’s age will be an issue for any team considering him for its coaching vacancy. But the man doing the hiring for the 49ers, CEO Jed York, began running the team before he was 30, while the coach McVay most resembles, Jon Gruden, got his first head-coaching job at 34.
Another plus in McVay’s ledger: He would be a link not only to the 49ers’ glory years but to when the team’s top personnel executive, McVay, worked beautifully with the coach, Walsh. York has said cohesion and chemistry between the positions are paramount in his search.
Of course, McVay and Walsh were pretty good at acquiring talent. Asked what Jim Gruden told them about Montana in 1979, McVay said the conversation was brief.
“Oh, he said, ‘Just draft him.’ ”