Joey Gruden continues family tradition as coach with Stetson men’s basketball

His last name has been synonymous with high-level coaching for decades, but Joey Gruden is putting a twist on the family business.

When the Stetson men’s basketball team makes its NCAA Tournament debut on Friday against defending champion UConn, the Hatters will do so with Gruden — the son of former NFL coach Jay Gruden and nephew of Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden — on their bench as a 29-year-old assistant.

“I was fortunate to grow up around it,” Joey said of being immersed in sports from a young age. “I’d go to a ton of my dad’s practices and games, be in the locker room and hear his speeches. Coaching is coaching. At the end of the day, it’s different sports, different X’s and O’s, but my biggest takeaway from my dad and obviously my uncle is just the relationships they build, how they command a locker room, the leadership techniques, just how personable they are with their players and staff.”

Stetson is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in its 53 years of Division I basketball, but Gruden is doing so for the fifth time, having gone three times as a walk-on guard at Dayton and once as a graduate assistant coach at Louisville.

Gruden’s path to coaching started out much like those of his father and uncle: He enrolled at Dayton, where Jon Gruden once played quarterback, as a football walk-on. It took only one practice for Joey to decide that football wasn’t the path for him, and he shifted his focus to making the basketball team as a walk-on. He missed the cut his freshman year but then spent a year training and tried out again as a sophomore, conceding he would transfer to a smaller school if he couldn’t make the team.

He made the team, playing sparingly but relishing his role and learning from coach Archie Miller, who saw a smart kid who understood the intensity and demands of coaching from his life’s experiences.

“The first thing is the bloodlines,” said Miller, now coaching at Rhode Island. “He’s accustomed to what I would call the highest level of scrutiny and pressure. He was in a household growing up where winning and losing was part of the daily routine. A lot of kids want to get into coaching because they love basketball or football. They played the game. But I don’t know if they understand the other side of it, the constant stress, the pressure and negativity that can go along with it.”

Jay Gruden played high school basketball and stayed with the sport, such that some of Joey’s fondest memories are going to the local YMCA with his dad and brothers J.J. and Jack — “all on the same team against a bunch of random dudes, just getting after it.”

The Gruden tree started with Joey’s grandfather, Jim, a longtime college coach and NFL scout who now proudly follows his grandson’s games, calling him after each one.

“He’s like the Godfather of the family, gives us all advice and messes with us,” Joey said. “He’s laid the foundation for us all, so it’s great to talk to him every day.”

UConn’s Tristen Newton on Big East title, focus on NCAA Tournament

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Miller said Gruden has gotten to where he is not on his name, but because of his persistence. A walk-on practices every day knowing he’s unlikely to play in most games, and a grad assistant is at the end of the bench, his duties often including laundry and picking people up at the airport. Gruden embraced the gritty nature of the job — 28 minutes in 23 games in his college career, scoring five points — to set himself up for where he is now.

“A lot of guys see the name Gruden, you may think he’s got an easy network to navigate life,” Miller said. “He chooses the hard grind where nobody pays attention to him, every time. He’s grown up in a house where he understands the dark side of the business, the winning and losing. Maybe I get there, maybe I don’t, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do whatever I’ve got to do in the role I have.”

Miller remembers when injuries and suspensions limited his depth at Dayton, so a walk-on who rarely took his warmups off was needed just to field a 5-on-5 practice. Miller rewarded Gruden with a start in his final college home game.

“He was a part of the fabric of the program,” Miller said. “He didn’t get a whole lot of minutes, but he was going to be able to grind his way up. It doesn’t surprise me at all that every place he’s been to, he’s gotten to where everybody wants to get to in college basketball. He’s been to the tournament now as a player, as a coach. When they broke through and won at Stetson, I laughed: ‘My man’s there again.’ His ability to help a place win in whatever his role is, it speaks volumes about him and the trajectory he could potentially have.”

Joey Gruden (center) didn’t get much run with the Dayton Flyers, but the grind of making the team and being prepared for every game has helped him become a successful college basketball coach. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Stetson finished second in the Atlantic Sun conference in the regular season, but the Hatters earned their NCAA berth by winning the conference tournament. They beat Austin Peay 94-91 in the final, and guard Jalen Blackmon had 34 of his 43 points in the second half to lead the way.

As a 16 seed, their stay in the tournament could be short-lived, facing a top seed and the defending champs in UConn (30-3). The Hatters have gone 1-4 against top 100 opponents, so it’s a daunting challenge ahead. Jay Gruden is among the family members expected to be on hand at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and he won’t even be the most prominent celebrity dad in the stands. UConn assistant Luke Murray, who coached a year with Joey Gruden at Louisville, is the son of actor Bill Murray, a regular in the stands for his son’s NCAA Tournament runs.

Joey started at Stetson in 2022 as the director of basketball operations and moved up to assistant coach this season, allowing him to coach on the floor and be more closely involved with players in practice and in games.

“Being around players and student-athletes, it’s what I love to do — being around them, being in the gym, sweating with them,” he said. “I still feel young and feel like I can play with them, so getting out there, being on the court with them every day, it’s really an honor. 

“I’ve done it at different levels, different places, but everywhere you go, it all feels the same once the ball gets tipped in the air.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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