Shanahan hands Bronco job to Phillips

January 26, 1993|By C.W. Nevius | C.W. Nevius,San Francisco Chronicle

Proving that there are no sure things, San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan announced yesterday that he was going to stay with the team rather than accept an offer to become head coach of the Denver Broncos.

Shanahan's decision, which would have been a complete surprise a week ago, opened the door in Denver for Wade Phillips, a drawling, wisecracking son of former Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints coach Bum Phillips, to become the Broncos' new head coach.

Keeping Shanahan means that the 49ers will not have to hire their third offensive coordinator in three years, but it will cost them. They have once again successfully executed the "Holmgren maneuver," a large financial package like the one used to keep offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren three years ago when he appeared to be headed for the New York Jets.

Estimates are that the team will be paying Shanahan about $300,000 a year for three years -- plus a bonus -- which 49ers general manager Carmen Policy says will make Shanahan "the highest-paid non-head coach in the league."

Shanahan was flying back from Denver and unavailable for comment last night, but most of the spin control was going on in Denver, where Broncos owner Pat Bowlen was attempting to convince everyone that he wanted to hire Phillips all along.

"I want to make sure you understand -- there is a lot of speculation that Wade somehow was the second man for the job, and that's not true," Bowlen said. "The guy who should have gotten the job got the job."

Unfortunately for Bowlen's version of the story, Phillips is as plain spoken as his father. He no sooner had taken the podium at his news conference than he invoked the name of famous runners-up, from Harry Truman, who upset Tom Dewey in the 1948 presidential election despite the Chicago Tribune's famous headline "Dewey Defeats Truman," to Vivien Leigh, who got the starring role in "Gone With the Wind" after Katharine Hepburn turned it down.

"I guess the only difference is," Phillips said, "I don't wear hoop skirts that well."

It may be a move that plays well in both cities. The 49ers would have hated to lose Shanahan, especially since the team led the league in yards gained and points scored in his first year.

But it also defuses an ugly situation in Denver, where Shanahan might have walked into a wall of resentment from the notoriously rabid Denver fans who were not happy to see head coach Dan Reeves leave.

Some of them apparently felt that Shanahan -- with the help of Denver quarterback John Elway, a close friend -- had helped to bring down Reeves.

The popular Phillips, meanwhile, was so much a part of the old Reeves regime that it was considered almost certain that he would be looking for another job if Shanahan had become head coach.

In fact, although he wasn't the only one, Phillips was apparently one of the reasons Shanahan didn't take the job. Phillips was one of three assistant coaches who had time left on their contracts. Bowlen was insisting that Shanahan keep that trio.

That brought up unpleasant memories for Shanahan, who had a bitter 20-game experience with the Raiders as a head coach. Working for Al Davis, Shanahan learned, was no picnic for an independent thinker, and he also was saddled with a staff he did not choose. He has said repeatedly since then that he would not put himself in that situation again.

Phillips, however, clearly had no such concerns. At 45, five years older than Shanahan, he made no secret that he was looking for a head coaching job.

The day after Reeves was fired, Phillips held a news conference to announce that he was going to lobby hard for the job. Yesterday, when he got it, he made a point to say that he had no worries about working with Bowlen, who reportedly is cutting salaries and hoping to get more involved in football operations.

Phillips said he and Bowlen "have had great chemistry" and he thinks they will have a good working relationship. "We can work together on anything, with him certainly having the final say. But I'll have my two cents in, and that's all I want," he said.

Critics of Bowlen say that is all he will get.

Phillips has been widely praised as a defensive coordinator, although the statistics have been a little selective. His team led the AFC in defense in 1989 and went to the Super Bowl against the 49ers.

However, once there, the Broncos were riddled for a Super Bowl-record 55 points, and some of the 49ers later ridiculed the lack of imagination in Denver's defensive game plan.

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