Gruden Day Sunday

Extortion, hyperbolic critics called it. The payment, which the the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed the Oakland Raiders to release head coach Jon Gruden from his contract, bowled over the football world last February.

Eight million dollars, plus four top choices from the college draft to persuade the Raiders to give up coach Gruden? Surely the Buccaneers were mortgaging their future, conventional wisdom ran. On top of that, Tampa Bay's owners paid Gruden, the league's youngest coach, $17.5 million for a five-year contract. Total cost: $25.5 million, plus lost talent.

But the bold move just may have been worth it, as Super Bowl Sunday morphs into Gruden Day Sunday.

The Buccaneers' high-stakes investment bought them a coach who clearly motivates his players and sweats the details (sometimes called micromanaging). One of those details was cold-weather gloves he had his fair-weather quarterback test in the off season. They came in handy in last Sunday's victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in freezing Veterans Stadium.

The fans, in Tampa Bay and around the nation, should be in for an intriguing Super Bowl, as Gruden squares off against the very team he just finished building. And what a match it will be: the top-ranked offense (Raiders) against the top ranked defense (Tampa Bay). And it will be Raiders coach Bill Callahan - the humble guy - against conquer-the-world Gruden (one of his former players describes him as having "kind of a Napoleonic complex").

The National Football League, meanwhile, fulfills its goal of yet another Super Bowl based on team parity, not team dynasty - the best formula for an exciting game.

But the NFL obviously has its problems with the Gruden compensation package.

Last week, it issued a directive saying it did not want the college draft system used as compensation. Perhaps the NFL believes this undermines the leveling purpose of the draft, in which the worst team of the previous season gets the best pick of the college players.

After the outcome of the league's playoffs, however, a spokesman this week backpedaled somewhat, saying compensation would be considered on a case-by-case basis by the NFL commissioner. Perhaps that's recognition that a coach just might be worth his weight in gold. We'll know Sunday.

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