There is only one man who has won a Super Bowl coaching the team he once played for.
This kind of thing happens in college all the time; brilliant coach returns to his beloved alma mater and restores the program to glory. Roy Williams at UNC, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, several others … although I can only think of two at the moment. So maybe not “all the time”, but it does happen.
Not in the NFL. Not until last year. Not until Gary Kubiak. The only NFL player ever to return to his team as head coach and win it all.
Was he a great head coach? No, although he was by consensus considered to be pretty good, and was always well-respected by those around him. Players, press, everyone. But a lifetime record of 82 and 75 is not a great head coach record. Not in the Bill Belichek era.
So no, a good coach but not an all-time great.
But he was a great Denver Bronco. One of the greatest ever. Truly great in every way. If the phrase “Denver Bronco” applies as an adjective to anyone, it applies to Gary Kubiak.
He began mattering to Bronco fans in 1983 when he was drafted by the Broncos in the eighth round. To help put that into perspective, the NFL draft no longer even has eight rounds. Then a few weeks later, the Broncos traded for John Elway and Kubiak’s lot was cast: following a Hall of Famer, never getting to start, never standing in the sun but rather always in Elway’s shade.
He never complained, he never seemed to mind, he embraced his role and worked hard at learning his craft. He played in the NFL for nine years – a ridiculously long career – all of which were spent as Elway’s backup. Every one. He did get on the field – mop up duty when we were getting killed in Super Bowls, or rarely, when Elway was injured, and he won more games than he lost.
But mainly he carried the clipboard, and learned. And when his backup days were over he went immediately into coaching. By his third year he was winning the Super Bowl with the 49ers. By his fourth year he was back where he belonged, in Denver, where he stayed for 11 years and won two more Super Bowls.
For years he would come up on the short list of coordinators who were ready to be head coaches. He once famously turned down the University of Colorado. He was waiting for the right place and time, and it came. He left Denver and took up as the head coach in Houston.
We never blamed him, us Broncos people, he needed his chance. He did pretty well too, not great but good, and took the Texans from laughingstocks to consistent respectability. He could never punch them through to greatness though and after a bad year and a health scare, he was released.
He spent a year wandering the wilderness in Baltimore as their offensive coordinator and seemed happy to be off of the head coach hot seat.
Until Elway called. The Broncos needed him again. I wonder if there was another head coaching job he’d have taken? It seems not, the Ravens locked him up with a big raise and contract extension, and Kubiak voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for head coaching jobs in San Francisco and Chicago.
But this was different, this was the Broncos. And whatever else Kubiak has been in his career, he is a Denver Bronco.
Even now he remains in Elway’s shadow. Check out this Denver Post pictorial of his career – this is Kubiak’s tribute, yet notice how Elway appears in more than half of the photos. Kubiak the QB backs up Elway the Hall of Fame QB. Kubiak the Head Coach backs up Elway the (probable) Hall of Fame General Manager.
But he never minds. Look at all those pictures again and note how many of them show him seeming happy.
Which is why it is so … hard? sad? … to see him go. Having him as head coach just felt right. That doesn’t mean I agreed with all of his play calling, nor all of his other decisions. But he was so honest and forthright about what he was doing and why. He seemed to project decency, a nice guy who made well without losing his nice guy-ness.
Kubiak: “And then last .. (chokes up) . want to thank my buddy (points to Rhonda). Thanks to NFL, Thanks to Denver Broncos, Thanks to ya’all
— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) January 2, 2017
It has always been easy to root for Gary Kubiak. And I still am.
Good luck Gary, whatever you do next, I’ll be rooting for you.
Oh, and thank you for Super Bowl 50.
🙂 😀 🙂