Hard edge vs. easy rider Shanahan: Broncos' intense coach has been beating the odds his whole life, so what's a measly 12-point spread?

Super Bowl Xxxii

January 20, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- When Mike Shanahan was a 5-foot-9, 143-pound high school senior, his goal was to become a college quarterback.

It's not surprising that the big schools took one look at his small frame and passed, so the Oak Park, Ill., native jumped at the chance to play at Eastern Illinois.

When driving him to the school, his father tried to talk Shanahan out of playing.

"He was solid as a rock, but he didn't have any meat on his bones," his father, Ed, remembers.

Shanahan was determined to play.

His father remembers him saying, "Dad, whether you support me or not, I'm going to play football."

That lasted until his junior year when he was speared in a scrimmage. He suffered a ruptured kidney and his blood pressure dropped to zero during an operation. His heart stopped for more than 30 seconds. A priest administered last rites. A doctor later told his father it was the closest

he'd ever come to losing a patient who survived.

His father said when he arrived at the hospital, "It was even worse than I had imagined. He looked like he was one step from death. We just thanked God he survived it."

That ended Shanahan's football career and started him on the road to coaching.

Not that he has ever stopped taking chances. Last spring, he bungee jumped with his teen-age daughter, and two years ago, he almost knocked himself out diving from a 60-foot perch into Bahamian waters.

"That's Mike," his wife, Peggy, has said. "He loves to live dangerously."

He also has taken chances in his coaching career. For example, in 1988, at the age of 35, he accepted Al Davis' offer to coach the Raiders.

He even did the risky thing of trying to do things his way. In Raiderland, things are only done Davis' way. He was fired after 20 games (7-9, 1-3).

"Everybody knew what happened there," Shanahan said. "There was no stigma with getting fired."

Even leaving the Raiders had its problems. Shanahan has been involved for years in a battle with Davis over money he contends he's still owed on his Raiders contract.

He then one-upped the owner earlier this year when he suggested Davis contribute the money to the Oakland school system. Davis didn't take him up on the offer.

Reeves' 'sham' in Denver

Meanwhile, Shanahan went back to Denver as an assistant coach, but was fired again after the 1991 season by then-coach Dan Reeves. Shanahan was accused by Reeves of teaming up with quarterback John Elway to undermine him.

"That was a sham. It wasn't true," Shanahan said.

Once again, Shanahan landed on his feet when, after considering a job offer from Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he accepted one to run the San Francisco 49ers' offense after Mike Holmgren left for Green Bay.

That led to a Super Bowl victory after the 1994 season and then a seven-year, $8.5 million contract from Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to return to Denver as head coach.

Now, he's in the Super Bowl. He can become the first coach since Don Shula in Super Bowl VII to win a Super Bowl in his second head coaching job, although it could be argued that the short Oakland stint shouldn't really count.

Shanahan, though, followed his usual pattern of hitting a few bumps in the road before getting to the Super Bowl.

Last year, the team lost its focus after starting 12-1 and was upset by Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs.

It wasn't easy to cope with that defeat.

"We just knew that last year we had the opportunity of a lifetime and didn't take advantage of it," Shanahan said. "The feeling stayed with us for a whole year."

The Broncos seemed destined to do it again when they started off 11-2 before losing back-to-back road games to Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

That left them to travel the wild-card route on their Revenge Tour. They beat Jacksonville at home and then beat the Kansas City Chiefs and Steelers on the road to make it to the Super Bowl.

Seifert successor?

His colleagues aren't surprised he's made it to the Super Bowl as a head coach. The 49ers tried to persuade him to stay after the 1994 season with the promise that he'd replace George Seifert in a year or two.

"George was urging me to do it," Shanahan said. "But it would have been horrible. I didn't want to be the guy who pushed him out."

Two years later, Seifert was pushed out and replaced by Steve Mariucci.

Carmen Policy, the 49ers president, who tried to keep Shanahan, said: "Mike has a special awareness of the detail that accompanies fine-touch coaching. He has a full grasp of the whole picture."

On the sidelines, Shanahan is so intense that he's noted for a glare that looks almost crazed.

Even his mother, Dorothy, said: "When the camera catches him, it looks as if he smiled, his face would crack. I see him on Sunday afternoon, I think, 'Who is that guy?' "

Shanahan conceded: "I'm probably too intense. I think I'm very demanding, but I'm fair. If guys handle themselves the right way, if they know how to work and they are responsible, then we get along."

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